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By Charles (Ed) Becze, Ph.D., co-founder Pegmatis, Inc.

It’s a new year, which means that innovators will bring new concepts and products into the market. If you have been following this series of articles, you have read about choosing a design firm and taking your innovation to the manufacturing level. This month, I’d like to share some insights into the process of developing a product concept.

Last month I had a terrific conversation with a client who is a talented design professional. He was demonstrating a product concept that he wanted me to review. His approach and thought process impressed me on several levels, and that’s what I’d like to share today. First, a bit of background.

Focus: Features and Functionality

Over the years, I’ve had several clients consult with me to review their product concept and assess the feasibility. Generally-speaking, one issue stands out above all others. Their product did not fit into an existing product category but had features scattered across many. And this made their idea incongruent with the very product class for which they were aiming.

Now, you may say that the features and functionality included in your concept enable expanded use and serve a new or definite purpose, which can be an entirely valid argument. But, I’ve learned to counsel that we must carefully consider and think about the addition of features.

Limit: “Feature Creep”

Clients who are new to product development sometimes over-do the product definition with an extensive wish list of features that appear to be necessary or logical. Yet, upon closer examination, this wishlist detracts from the product’s usefulness.

Defining a product has to be approached with significant thought and rigor. Some products can benefit from expanded functionality, and others may not: for example, a Swiss Army Knife. Most will include two blades. It is then feasible and possibly even logical or necessary to add features like scissors, saws, can openers, and more. But, at the end of the day, it is a knife.

Adding features improves use-case scenarios, but that comes at a cost in the form of bulk and price. More importantly, the base function is still a knife. Adding a heart rate monitor or VO2 sensor may be “cool” and even “unique” but doesn’t necessarily make sense for the intended purpose.

The Swiss Army Knife is an excellent example of a platform capable of accepting expanded features, as long as it maintains the base functionality. Generally, I advise clients not to “boil the ocean” with their product. Every element costs money and time to develop. I am always concerned that our clients may add too much functionality without a proper understanding of the development consequences or its impact on the final use.

But: Not Always

During my discussion with my design professional friend, I saw an exciting holistic platform emerge that seemed to blossom into a very well-thought-out, thorough, and feature-rich solution. I challenged every feature or critical requirement and, every time, he could justify the feature’s inclusion in the product. I was thoroughly impressed, and this spawned a subsequent discussion, where I was less interested in the product – this was complete and satisfied my immediate concerns. But now, I was more interested in the particular approach used to converge on such an expansive product.

I questioned how someone could contemplate a product design so rich in features, entirely congruent with its final use-case? Every aspect served a purpose or answered an exact need – the requirements were complete and thoughtful. My question was, how?

Don’t: Lose Sight of the Vision

His answer was as impressive as the product presentation. Talented designers are visual people, and he proceeded to explain how one can maintain congruity in requirements without losing sight of the initial purpose.

There is a known fact: you cannot fold a piece of paper more than seven times: attempting to fold it more than that will fail. The point being, all tasks have a limit.

Applying this analogy to product definition shows us that there is a limitation on the number of features one can include. This may not necessarily be seven, or, more precisely, in the folded paper 128, but there is a definite limit. And that limit is defined by constraints and bounds that must be understood completely.

To understand the bounds of product definition, we can visualize the paper analogy. Every fold is part of the original paper. Every subsequent fold is connected, in some way, to the original fold. Thus, beginning with a concept and cascading requirements thoughtfully from that original concept can be a perfectly acceptable approach, but each requirement must meet the original purpose. Absolutely brilliant!

And so here we are. As product design and development professionals, we use these thought processes instinctively. But it is understandable how innovators, eager to include many features in their ground-breaking product, end up going beyond their product’s category. It’s an exciting time for them. The best advice I can give is to consider the base functionality. When contemplating each and every feature, function, or requirement, ask yourself: does this add meaningful purpose to the base or your product’s foundation?

Generally, defining a product and its use requires significant thought and contemplation. The final product and its application must be seamless. Following some fundamental concepts on defining the final use and rationalizing each feature will deliver a product that will delight your end-user and be exceptionally simple and intuitive to use.

Charles (Ed) Becze, Ph.D., is a co-founder of Pegmatis, Inc. Over his career, he has worked with Pratt & Whitney, Ford, and an electronics Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM). Pegmatis Inc is home to a team with hundreds of years of combined software, hardware, and manufacturing professionals and is proud to have produced some award-winning products, many of which you may have in your own homes.