NPD Tales

Ideas Thoughts and Comments on Product Development


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?…

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.





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

Open Source Hardware

An ever increasing number of people are using open source software products – but how can the principles of open source apply to hardware?

Check out Arduino and BeagleBoard and the increasing number of peripheral boards being developed for these platforms.

Then take a look at the TouchBook product based on BeagleBoard.

I’m certainly interested to see how the concept develops – is it of purely academic interest and destined to languish in geek backwaters or is there a more interesting development and wider success on the horizon?

Powerline Communications – A New Dawn?

Powerline communication devices just never realised their potential.  Wi-Fi very quickly became so ubiquitous the technology never stood a chance.  However there are a few developments that have hinted at a new dawn.

IEEE are working on a standard for powerline communications up to 100Mbit/s

There is a greater demand for higher communication speeds and/or multiple dedicated networks around the home as streaming audio and video applications become more widespread

Marvell Semiconductor, the highly innovative provider of integrated silicon solutions have acquired DS2 a Spanish developer of chips for powerline communications

‘Now is the time to drive innovation in this space’ said the VP of product development.

Researching the Market – Fear of Exposure

My work finds me currently meeting an increasing number of lone inventors.  Whilst most of their needs are very different from established companies with a product development function there are issues that they have in common.

I am frequently presented with a product idea that the inventor is convinced will be successful.  Often they have launched into securing costly patent protection but have no data to back up their projections for the value of their product or idea.  Invariably they will tell me that it is too risky to research the market because it will expose their idea and risk it being copied – this situation is also not uncommon amongst SMEs.

It is important to cultivate relationships with people who can provide you with valuable feedback who you either trust or are not likely to be interested in developing products (preferably both).  Sometimes it’s easier to hide behind the fear of exposure than to put the effort into finding and working with such people.

FabLab Manchester

I had the great pleasure of visiting FabLab Manchester today.  FabLab grew from an idea at MIT and is basically a small scale workshop with an array of computer controlled tools (laser cutters, milling machines, 3D printers).  It’s a creative workspace where people can make just about anything they can think of.

FabLab Manchester is the first of its kind in the UK and offers equipment and expertise for inventors and small companies to do product development and prototyping.

It’s a fantastic place and the people there have great ideas on how they can help people turn their ideas into products and hopefully stimulate more manufacturing industry in the UK.  Check it out, it will be worth the effort.

FabLab Manchester

New-Featuritis (’I think I’ll keep the beard’)

I can’t recommend Tom Fishburne enough.

Merseyside Innovation Awards

I was very lucky to be invited to the Merseyside Innovation Awards ceremony last week.  Three very worthy finalists were given the chance to make a presentation about their companies and their innovative offering.

Kleen and Green Motoring Solutions have an exciting oil injection system that can provide increases in fuel efficiency of more than 25% for diesel engines and 50% for petrol engines.  The results they have demonstrated so far are fantastic and although it’s a long haul to developing a mass market product, both the judges and the audience voted them as the winners.

Sign Lights have a range of highly efficient LED alternatives to fluorescent tubes used in illuminated signs.  Running costs are significantly reduced with lower power consumption, longer life and reduced maintenance.  There is no doubt that LEDs are the future of lighting in almost every application and it is encouraging to see a UK based pioneer in this market

BuilderScrap demonstrated a different kind of innovation.  Effectively the proposition is a web based portal for the building trade onto which unwanted building materials can be advertised for other builders to buy (or indeed since the cost of skipping the materials is often so high the ’seller’ may even give the materials away!).  With more than 400 items on offer at this moment and a growing number of users it does seem to be of interest in the industry.

It was a fantastic opportunity to see innovation celebrated in the Merseyside region.  And in addition the audience were treated to a highly entertaining and thought provoking talk from Trevor Baylis exploring how we should prepare the next generation of inventors and innovators (maybe one for another post).