The Electronics Product Development Process: Ideation to Prototype
Brainstorming and Early Ideation
The beginning stage of the learn hardware startup process should comprise of unbridled brainstorming. Ideation requires you to go as wide as possible with your thinking. Don’t expect to have the “A-HA” moment at the early stage. When you have a general area that you plan to approach, you are ready to begin problem research.
For engineers or techies who are setting out on the road of building an electronics device, it’s often difficult to come to terms with the idea that the technology itself is not interesting or profitable. Instead, what’s important is how consumers will actually use your product.
Although, it’s difficult the best path of action at the early stages is to move the conversation away from your product and the features (again difficult for engineers) and try to clearly understand the problem you are trying to solve. The problem research stage should give you real understanding into the problems faced by users and emotional insights into behavior that differ substantially from your initial assumptions. More importantly your project will have real purpose in aiming to solve those problems.
This case of the blood pressure monitoring medical wearable, Blumio, is a good example of startups basing their plan of action on a foundation of solid problem research. The team found that users have deep behavioral biases and operational anxiety around blood pressure monitoring. The existing blood pressure machines were clunk, unintuitive and in many cases even painful. They found that there would be a welcome reception from users if they were able to migrate the blood pressure monitoring technology into a both simple and fashionable wearable.
Remember, you are not looking for solutions in the beginning. Rather you want to know who your customers are, what their problems are and why they are having them.
Segmentation is the process of identifying the groups that are likely to be most responsive to your electronics device. For most cash-strapped startups, it is a good idea to focus your resources on a particular niche audience. Marketing to a niche audience will save your money as you are only promoting to a limited range of people in a target audience.
Markets are usually segmented using a mixture of user characteristics and user behavior factors. Typical user characteristics include demographic factors such as gender, age, ethnicity, marital status, socioeconomic status and education levels. Also included under the umbrella of user characteristics is what is known as psychographics, which is where consumers are classified in terms of hobbies, interests or lifestyle choices. User behavior covers factors such as buying personas and buyer motivation.
User Research User
After you have segmented your market, the next step is undertaking user research. The goal of this is to get an objective understandings of your buyers and what the needs, wants and general expectations surrounding your project. The emphasis is on trying to be as open-minded as possible.
Startups commonly opt for qualitative research methods, especially user interviews as they allow you to uncover and dig the real issues that user’s face. It’s important to actually get out there and speak to your potential customers, but this can be daunting for techies.
MakingSociety have produced an excellent guide for hardware startups wanting to conduct user interviews. A good flow guide to the process should include the following steps:
- List your assumptions towards customers-this allows you to account for any biases that may affect your research.
- Plan how to reach customers – brainstorm places that you could arrange to meet.
- Break the ice and build rapport – ask a few curiosity questions to warm up respondents.
- Find and understand the problem – frame the problem to respondents and foster emotional responses.
- Review – assess how the interview went and look to see how you can improve for the next time.
Ideally, you want to be aiming for around 8-10 interviews. By the end of the process, you should have a good idea of what user’s problem and how you can create a solution through your device.
The Proof-of-Concept Prototype
The proof-of-concept (commonly abbreviated to POC) is method of testing and validating the results of your problem research. It also allows teams to test the efficacy of the technology behind their concepts. These prototypes are usually unrefined and put together inexpensively using open source tools and everyday materials. Commonly used tools used at this stage is the Arduino (and its clones), development kits, inexpensive 3D printing and off-the-shelf electrical components. In this excellent article, from BoltVC, the case study project “Dipjar” explain that they built their proof of concept in three days from “off-the-shelf parts (an Arduino, a simple infrared detector/emitter pair, some aluminum tube, and a bit of spray painted plastic)”.
Further Research and Usability Testing
As mentioned, the goal of building the POC is to have something to allow startups to test and expand on the findings of their initial research and assumptions. The makers of Dipjar (a tip jar that uses credit cards) took their POC to potential customers and left them in their stores for a day to better understand customer behavior.
In the case of the smartplug, Zuli, the makers used the POC and more refined versions of the prototype to garner opinions and perform usability testing. Outside of the group of participants that helped in their initial user research, they placed ads on Craigslist looking for people ready to help with testing. They sat down members of this combined group and got as much feasibility as possible regarding the usability of their prototype.
The true Lean hardware startup, needs to be constantly research, testing and refining at the early stages.
The Engineering Prototype
After constant testing and early prototype building, you should be able to nail down a clear set of product requirements. At this stage, you are ready to build the engineering prototype, a real looks-like, works-like iteration of your device. This prototype utilizes a coordinated effort for industrial design, plus embedded, mechanical and software engineering. It is common for startups to harness Rapid Prototyping (RP) to swiftly create custom parts for this iteration of their prototype.
This more refined version of your prototype is what you want to take to Maker Faires or for when you are trying to attract funding. Investors love a good prototype!
With so much time, effort and money invested into hardware startups, TechDesign is constantly amazed at the number of cases we come across who try to skip over or scrimp on the initial stages of electronics product development. The lean startup method is built on a foundation of a constant cycle of researching, testing, learning and building. Rushing towards manufacturing and getting a product on Kickstarter without the proper amount of research and testing is a recipe for disaster.
Daunting? It doesn’t need to be and we at TechDesign want to hold your hand and be your partner through the process. If you are working on an electronics device and are at any stage of development, TechDesign would love to hear from you. We have a large network of carefully screened manufacturers and design houses, and are able to match you with the right one for your project. TechDesign offers NDA and Escrow payment protection, meaning you don’t have to worry about having your money or ideas stolen.