NPD Tales

Ideas Thoughts and Comments on Product Development

Selectively Getting Real

I’ve spent some time recently working much more closely with the 37 Signals product BaseCamp (more about that another day).

Whilst looking over the company website I stumbled upon their ‘book’ Getting Real.  It’s an easy read that really gives you a comprehensive picture of the culture at 37 Signals.  It’s also full of some fantastic ideas many of which present a fresh viewpoint on the process of product development.  I would recommend people to read it.

The authors admit that the book’s emphasis is on building a web application but do suggest that ‘a lot of these ideas are applicable to non-software activities too.’

I’d add that I feel the book’s emphasis is on building mass market web applications, some of their ideas in the chapter on Feature Selection (’Start With No’, ‘Forget Feature Requests’) might not be perfect advice in a more specialist or niche field.

Is that the point of this type of book – to provoke debate and ask questions on how you do things whilst presenting a smorgasbord of ideas from which you can create your own way of working?  If that’s the case then there is always the risk that the reader will cherry pick the ideas that reflect their current state and achieve no improvement in the way they develop products…

Customer Empowerment

In an earlier post (Collaborative Tools – Customer Involvement) I explored how the latest collaborative tools like SharePoint and SamePage are beginning to emphasise the value of customer involvement in new product development.  A recently published paper in the Journal of Product Innovation Management (Customer Empowerment in New Product Development) details some research on the same concept.

Illustrated with examples from Threadless and Muji (but they could also have included Yamaha with their EZ-AG Guitar) the authors describe the difference between ‘creation’ and ’selection’ empowerment and present the results of some research that shows a positive quantified impact from such close customer involvement.

Not every company can invite its customers to submit designs and let them vote which one will be used (like Threadless do with their T-Shirts) but it does seem to be worth spending a bit of time thinking about how you can tap into the creativity and decision making of your customer base…

Motivation – Recognition and Reward

I first saw this fantastic animated version of Dan Pink’s talk on Motivation last summer.

The assertion that Autonomy (Atlassian FedEx Days), Mastery (Linux, Apache) and Purpose (Skype, Apple) are three important factors in motivation is undeniable.  The evidence that Reward is not an important factor for all but the most mundane tasks seems sound.  However I feel strongly that Recognition is a powerful factor that is all too often ignored or even worse lumped in with Reward and discredited…

Downtime

What does someone with a passion for innovation and new product development do in their downtime?

Generally the same as everyone else.

But it’s also about finding enjoyable sources of inspiration – here’s a selection of my usual places to look.

Make – a US ‘hobbyist’ magazine about making things

Wired – well into it’s second year of the UK edition

Radiolab – Public Radio programme available as a podcast

and most recently The Foods That Make Billions – A fantastic BBC programme about the development and marketing of very profitable food products (on the iPlayer but not for long)

I’m new to Twitter (@gpcooke) but it seems to be a good source of ideas, thoughts, activities and events to do with innovation and new products.  Less formal than LinkedIn – more intelligent than Facebook…

If anyone wants to point me elsewhere please do…

A Confusing Alphabet of UIs

I’ve been helping someone look into a drastic redesign of the user interface of their product.  The hardware engineers had done their job in successfully defining a very cost effective flexible touch screen display but it became apparent that everyone was fixed in their perspective of the appearance and basic underlying function of the user interface.  The attention seemed to focus very quickly on usability and whilst I agree that the subject is very important I felt that there was a unique opportunity for a completely fresh approach.

To encourage more creative thinking I looked into the different schools of thought on user interfaces and that’s when I discovered a growing alphabet of UIs.

From AUI (Attentive) to ZUI (Zooming) there are more and more ways of thinking about how your user interface will work that have been given their own acronym – though I’m not sure how to pronounce IUI (Intelligent) so maybe that one at least is an abbreviation.  Of course there’s TUI (Touch) and KUI (Kinetic), but the one that seems to be rising in popularity (at least when it comes to use of the term) is NUI (Natural).  Unfortunately the term is being appropriated to categorise a wide variety of ideas – from simply doing away with the ‘chrome’ from traditional GUIs to gesture driven interaction (and whether those gestures are captured on a touch screen or by a camera with suitable image processing behind it) – and of course the usability aspect I wanted to temporarily ignore is a key part of what many consider to be a NUI.

With so many new ideas flying around it was a tough job to keep everyone’s feet on the ground but looking at even the most outlandish ideas helped in creating a shift in the scope of the suggestions for the new product.

But more than that, it certainly opened my eyes to what some people suggest will be as revolutionary as the arrival of GUIs in the 1980’s…

Vanity Prototypes

Every year it gets easier to build ever more complex and sophisticated prototypes of your new product.

Software design tools facilitate the creation of a working model of an application with far less effort than it took to sketch screen layouts and build quick paper prototypes.

Development boards can be used to build working electronic products to demonstrate functional behaviour that would have previously required spinning a PCB.

3D Printing techniques and lower cost CNC machines make it possible to fabricate your mechanical product without the expense and time associated with injection moulded tooling and machine set up.

The real excitement comes not from the ability to do this but what you do with your rapid turnaround prototype.  Will it help you convince investors or senior management to greenlight your project?  Will it allow you to get some real feedback from the market?  Will it instigate fruitful discussions with the manufacturing or supply chain professionals?

Or will it be an expensive paperweight to show everyone how clever you are?…

The Wisdom of Crowds Revisited

My earlier post on the collaborative approach to portfolio management from Inkling prompted me to pick up my copy of The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.

It’s a fascinating read whereby Surowiecki proposes and illustrates that a co-ordinated ‘wise’ crowd will make better decisions or solve problems quicker than a leader or expert.

Of course the devil is in the detail of what constitutes a ‘wise’ crowd – the author states diversity (of opinion), independence (from influence) and decentralisation (of control) as the key factors.

The other important issue is the efficiency and accuracy of the mechanism of co-ordination.  Technology obviously provides better and better ways of achieving this.

It’s not a theory I would wholeheartedly endorse but it’s certainly worth bearing in mind when the considered ‘wisdom’ doesn’t appear to be working…

Media Centre Controller

I recently bought a small PC to hook up to the TV in my living room.  All my music collection and family photos have been transferred and being able to access all of these plus online content like Spotify, iPlayer and LoveFilm from the comfort of my armchair on a large ‘monitor’ is very enjoyable.

However, the user experience is let down somewhat by the options for the physical controller.  Inevitably something more than a pointer and some transport controls is required.  As far as I can see, text entry is an unavoidable requirement and balancing a wireless keyboard and mouse on your lap does nothing to enrich the user experience.  There are a few products emerging that are trying to address the need, but I’m wondering if something more revolutionary is required before the Media Centre (or indeed any internet enabled TV) becomes a more widely accepted product.

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A genuine opportunity for some innovative thinking to drive a product development that satisfies a real need?..

The Innovation Strategy Landscape

In my previous post on Innovation Strategy I alluded to the importance of understanding the organisations attitude to risk and the types of innovation.  This diagram paints a picture of that innovation landscape.

Innovation Strategy Landscape

When setting out your innovation strategy it is important to consider the points on this landscape you want to include in the future business direction and the amount of resource you will dedicate to each of your chosen areas.  The green areas are relatively risk free and can be realised with your existing resources.  The orange areas require some development of capabilities.  The red areas are the most risky and venture into true diversification territory.

Innovation Strategy

Since ‘Innovation’ is seen as the engine for business growth, there is a multitude of concepts, thoughts and initiatives that companies are encouraged to explore in their quest to be more innovative.

The term ‘innovation strategy’ crops up frequently – I even find myself using it from time to time.  But what is meant by the term?

I see a strategy as something long term that lasts for a number of years.  Since the timescales involved with innovation driven activites (like new product development or radical process re-engineering) are often quite long, a stable unchanging target is required, one that is not overly dependent on the success of specific projects.   All too often I’m presented with an innovation strategy that is really a list of new products that the company wants to launch over the next 12 months.

So what kinds of stable goals should be included in your innovation strategy?  Companies like Hewlett Packard and GE have used a measure of the percentage of their sales that were from ‘new’ products.  Some focus on measures of new market penetration or improved processes.  Others review the performance of the idea generation and funnelling activities (though care must be taken to ensure some measure of quality of the ideas is included).

Obviously the innovation strategy needs to be closely aligned to overall business goals and must also consider the organisations attitude to risk to determine the ‘types’ of innovation that will be involved…