Product Development for Dummies

Okay, so I decided to take some time and respond to a LinkedIn question and whadaya know but there’s a 4000 word limit. I blew through that like hurricane Andrew. But rather than chop it apart or delete it (which I sometimes do when I go over such limits), I decided to post my full answer here. So here’s the question:

I have an idea about a new consumer product… basic design (size, color, material, etc).

What should I do first?
– Hire an attorney, patent the design and then locate a product designer?
– Or work with a product designer and build prototype, then patent?
– Or work with a company that will offer, for a price, services to help me design, patent and market the product

My goal is to have a marketable product without having to pay allot of upfront money or have to sign over a large percentage of sales to a new product development company.

Any insight and/or recommendations would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you,
(Rebecca Hoffman)

And here’s my book:

Rebecca, with your goal in mind and the assumption that this is a typical “idea” and not something that will change the world as we know it (which seems reasonable given that you don’t want to invest too much money in it up front), let’s start with what you can do before you enlist the help of *anyone*.

For starters, if your idea is already on the market or patented, then that’s a huge issue. Thus, before you go spending money and hiring people to research marketability or whatever else, you should make an effort to determine to the best of your ability if it’s *already* out there. You’d be surprised at how often people come to me with some “new” idea and I wind up pointing them to something someone else has already done. So do some research first and save yourself some time, trouble and money.

To that end, the first thing you can do is simply Google the heck out of your idea. Come up with any and every description which someone – including foreigners – might use. You’ll sometimes come across products sold in overseas markets which you’ve never seen. Expect it.

Once past that hurdle, the next stop I’d suggest is the website for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO – Link). Google has a patent search page, but I don’t believe it currently indexes as much as what you’ll find on the USPTO site. So as painful as their interface can be, it’s worth the trouble to learn how to use it. And again, as with your web search, plug in variations in key terms. You never know.

And while you’re slogging through a patent’s legalese, be sure to scan the titles of other patents being referenced by it. You’ll sometimes find what you’re looking for… or in this case, *not* looking for… by that means.

Let’s now assume that you’ve cleared those hurdles. So far so good and nothing invested except time. The next step I’d suggest – and this might sound self-serving even though I have no interest in soliciting your business – is that you seek out an industrial design firm with a reputation for taking ideas like yours to market. Because that contradicts what some others here will tell you, allow me to explain why I wouldn’t go elsewhere:

Patent Attorney

I wouldn’t recommend a patent attorney at this stage because for one thing, there’s the issue of marketability. Just because something is patentable doesn’t mean it’s worth patenting. There are plenty of worthless patents out there which cost the patent holders a lot of money.

Additionally, from firsthand accounts and news coverage, the USPTO is currently on what has been described to me as a “rejection spree”. Having come under fire from awarding too many “obvious” patents, they’re now reportedly being *very* critical. The pendulum appears to have swung the other way, thus making your application potentially more difficult and costly. And as I’m sure you’re aware, even if you have an idea that a lawyer considers patentable, there’s no guarantee you’ll receive a patent… even after the years it’ll probably take for the process to run its course.

Another reason I’d hold off on approaching a patent attorney is that you probably aren’t ready to patent anything at this early stage. Though often knowledgeable, patent attorneys are not product developers and shouldn’t be considered part of that process. So don’t go to the lawyers until you’re absolutely ready. For the corporations with whom I’ve worked, that time was when the “final industrial design concept” was completed. And it helps to now be able to use ID materials (e.g. computer renderings) as part of a patent submission.

Marketing Firm

I wouldn’t go to a marketing firm at this early stage either, because you very likely don’t have the design sufficiently complete for them to provide you with the feedback you require to determine next steps. If it’s truly a new and potentially patentable idea, there’s a good chance the average consumer – whom a typical marketing group might solicit for involvement – either won’t understand your idea or won’t consider it worth purchasing.

Don’t expect a marketing firm to articulate your *imagined* concept to their sample group so well it’ll get you anything other than a wild hunch as to whether the market will actually want the product as delivered. Consumers don’t operate that way. They can love an idea someone pitches them and hate the realized product; and vice versa. Proceeding down a product development path based on specious conclusions strikes me as extraordinarily risky in this case.

Beyond that, consumers also don’t do well at telling you *what* they want, so any feedback you get is questionable at best. Last I heard, a significant component of Proctor & Gamble’s much-praised product development machine continues to be their use of what’s called “consumer encounters” research. I happened to have been trained under the direction of the ex-P&G marketing person who co-wrote what I believe is the first marketing paper on this particular method (Link to PDF). In short, the method instructs product developers to observe consumers directly and learn from their actions, not from their words. That means you’re better off making your own observations at this point rather than having a paid intermediary talk with a sample group.

None of this is to suggest that traditional marketing methods are worthless activities. I certainly don’t believe that. It’s just that what you get out is relative to what you put in. In this case, if you only put some words into the process, you’re not going to get very much out, in my opinion (again, this assumes you don’t have a brilliant, easily articulated, worldchanging solution to some problem like global warming). Thus, the methods used should be appropriate to the development stage. And right now I’d venture you’re somewhere in-between a consumer encounter discovery (perhaps) and a later-stage focus group.

Engineering Firm

As this is a consumer product and not an industrial product, I wouldn’t recommend an engineering firm simply because in my experience they won’t offer as many potential solutions as a good industrial design firm to the various problems you’re sure to encounter. Consumer products aren’t just about solving a technical problem; they’re also about perceptions and non-technical issues. Average consumers do not think like engineers or professionals trained to use industrial equipment.

As a group, consumers are not especially logical. For example: if they see two objects – one large but lightweight and another small but heavier – there’s a fair chance they’ll swear up and down the larger object *is* heavier because it *looks* heavier… even after they’re shown otherwise. I’ve seen it happen. Perception can be reality.

Ask most engineers about that kind of perceptual disconnect and they’ll either say it’s nonsensical or they won’t say anything and shake their head as there is no logical answer. But you’ll *need* an answer, because if you don’t have one you’ll potentially lose sales as a result.

Not every problem is best solved with an engineering approach. Some engineering firms understand this, but from my experience (and I’m also an engineer) plenty don’t.

That said, there’s certainly much more to a product design than size, color, material, etc. Industrial designers often deal in those things, but they also deal in everything from basic ergonomics to tooling parts. IDers are often tasked with non-stylistic problems such as resolving overly-complex assembly issues or studying government standards and regulations so as to help ensure overall compliance. Sometimes they’re involved in sourcing and placement and will travel globally for that purpose. As an industrial designer I’ve done all those things and more. I’ve worked directly with major retailers to brainstorm concepts for exclusives, and have consulted on marketing strategies for entering new product categories. I’ve sat down with lawyers and import firms to figure out ways to reduce costs associated with tariff-targeted materials. I’ve generated the 3D CAD files from which molds are cut, inspected first shots from the tool and met with presidents of foreign retail chains to discuss their needs. And I am not unique.

The point being: industrial designers tend to be the nexus for a broad range of early product development activities. If you’ve ever watched the television show “American Inventor“, you’ve seen industrial designers at work. If you’ve ever watched “The Apprentice” shows where teams are developing toys or other consumer products, you’ve probably seen an industrial designer assisting them.

For that reason I’d recommend seeking out a good industrial design firm which can not only help direct the product’s development but put you in contact with those other professional services mentioned above.

Be aware, however, that at this stage you’re starting to invest some money and it probably won’t be cheap. But once you’ve gotten through the initial industrial design phases, you should be ready to more confidently accomplish those other things people are mentioning:

– looking into getting a patent and contacting an attorney
– using the design materials and a marketing development firm to help determine *if* there’s a market
– potentially using those same materials and a patent application to sell your product idea to corporations

And with that, I have one last recommendation: stay clear of invention development outfits.

3 thoughts on “Product Development for Dummies

  1. Nice write up and great points. I would only add is not only Google the heck out of the product, but to also go ahead to make a prototype.

    Most people get so fired up with their idea, they tend to forget that it has to be something at the end of the day. The moment it has to be real, suddenly they go oh-oh I did not think of that.

    Also a prototype is also a great tool for getting investment funds.

  2. That’s an excellent point, dt. Nothing stopping the average person from assembling a foamcore mock-up. Wish I’d included that. It *did* feel as if I was missing something after the search and I think this is it.


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