A good idea for a product can come from anywhere – but naturally academic projects often result in insights, ideas and hypotheses that still need to be tested with physical product concepts and prototypes to unlock their true commercial value.
You might be an SME who has partnered with a researcher to solve a problem and find a new commercial opportunity. You might be an R&D focussed company with intellectual property that has real-world applications. Or you might be working on a research project that requires a physical product to test a hypothesis. Taking a novel idea or technology through to a product design that is desirable, technically feasible and commercially viable has inherent risks, but a staged and structured process will keep these as small as possible. At Tone, we have worked with research institutions, start-ups and SME’s to help them translate research into physical and digital solutions.
Whether you’re intending to produce a small batch of units to test in a study or move towards high-volume manufacture, there are some key things to consider before jumping in and beginning development:
Look beyond the technology to the context
It is likely that any one idea or technology that has been developed through research could be realised in myriad different ways – some of which could be a big success and others of which might fail to get any traction. It is important to remember that although you might be at the end of a thorough (and probably expensive!) research process, the designed object is the first thing that users will see. If they don’t understand its value, then they will never have the chance to benefit from the innovation.
Therefore it is critical to know not just what the technical solution is, but what other benefits that the product provides to the user. These will need to address other contextual user needs, beyond the pure function of the device.
This is exactly what we did when Livetec Systems approached Tone with the output of many years of scientific study for a handheld agricultural device. A prototype had been created that had been scientifically proven to be very effective – but it was not easy to use, easy to manufacture or aesthetically refined.
Through ethnographic research we discovered that the product design would need to be very durable and comfortable for use multiple times a day, be easy to disinfect and be available in a range of strong colours to aid with biosecurity management. These requirements were critical to address if the product was to be successful, and had a very big impact on the final design.
Understanding the end user and the context of use is critical to ensuring that the value of the product is fully communicated.
Tone translated the outputs of an agricultural research project into this commercial product for Livetec Systems.
Getting the balance right
When it comes to product prototyping, there is a careful balance to be struck between development speed, and prototype fidelity. Too ‘rough’ and it can be difficult for participants to really engage with the idea. Too ‘glossy’ and participants can focus on the wrong things, like colours and aesthetics.
If concepts are going to be tested during the research, it’s worth bringing on a product design partner early so they can help advise and guide on the most effective way to realise an idea to get the ‘purest’ results from any studies in the most efficient way.
We worked very closely with Imperial College London on a number of research projects that looked to create behaviour change through new product interventions. By engaging with the project early in the concept stage, we were able to advise on ways in which ideas could be developed quickly, whilst still putting enough design into each prototype so that participants could easily imagine them as final products.
This collaborative approach also reduces the gap between the prototype and a commercial product, because manufacturing feasibility can be explored relatively early on.
Analysing the product requirements
It can be tempting to try and fully define what the product will end up becoming in a brief to a new product development partner. This is especially true if prototypes and concepts have been tested throughout a research project.
However each and every product requirement needs to be rigorously analysed to understand if it needs to be included to result in a successful product. Overly lengthy, strict, or poorly understood specifications can stop a product from evolving into the right solution for the market – and potentially result in an overly complex solution with an inflated price point.
Keeping it simple
Remember – there is a very big gap between a rough prototype and a finished product. More features do not always equal a better solution. In fact it can often be the opposite. By striving to keep solutions as simple as possible, you can focus your design and engineering efforts on the most valuable selling points. Keeping the brief simple from the start will pay dividends later down the line, when the complexities of manufacturing and development are more clearly understood.
Back to our project with Livetec – simplification was the single most important factor in ensuring the product could be made at a reasonable price and generate a high profit. Through design, we were able to reduce the part count from 3 to 1, and eliminate assembly line processes. Through careful selection of materials and processes, the product also became much more functionally effective, and appropriate for the context of use.
If you have a research project that needs to be translated into physical prototypes or a commercial product, reach out and chat with one of our team. We’d be happy to discuss your goals and suggest ways in which you can get there.
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