Modern technology such as 3D printing can make it easier than in the past to prototype new products. This chocolate beer bottle was printed at Miam Factory in Gembloux, Belgium, on April 10, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Francois Lenoir
Modern technology such as 3D printing can make it easier than in the past to prototype new products. This chocolate beer bottle was printed at Miam Factory in Gembloux, Belgium, on April 10, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

The paper napkin is our generational synonym for the “draft design”. Relaxing in a cafe, we may suddenly hit upon the “aha” moment when a product concept converges with a serious need out there, and we pull out a pen and scribble sketches, diagrams or words on the napkin. Some of these napkins have been the conduits of great ideas and even businesses.

Much has changed, and I doubt many would design on a napkin these days, especially since many of us do not even carry pens. These days, we may use a smartphone or a collaborative screen.

I first started designing products in elementary school (11 years old). The rages then were magic and a commercial variant of brine shrimp known as Sea Monkeys. I performed with commercially bought magic tricks, and then improvised and designed my own, and stole time on my dad’s typewriter and shrink-wrap machine to create my own line of magic tricks and brine shrimp. It was a viable business that stopped when the Grade 6 final exams consumed my time.

That product design became dormant until the 1980s. I then developed creative materials and campaigns, computer-based network learning systems and mobile apps, and even managed to co-develop an email security appliance running on BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) Unix. Eventually, my mainstay for product design and development centered on learning programs.

So, what did I learn from these decades of designing products, campaigns and programs?

1. Prototype promptly.

Moving from the proverbial napkin or sketch on the computer or smartphone to a working prototype is the surest way to get the design process going. Do not simply sketch ad nauseam to fulfill some kind of perfection fetish, for there is no such thing as perfection. In the modern world of affordable 3D printing, it has become increasingly possible to create your own product prototype. If you are working within a corporate context, then collaborating as a team using the agile iterative paradigm is one of the more expedient way to get a prototype ready. Every product on the market today is not perfect, make no mistake. So do not procrastinate on getting prototypes ready whatever the functionality may be. If you are designing a physical product, there are now easy-to-use platforms on which anyone can attempt a three-dimensional product design without the hassle of learning high-end CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/manufacturing) programs.

2. Keep testing.

Once we acknowledge that every product will never be perfect, and that continuous improvement (kaizen, 改善) is the key to success, then we need to keep testing our prototype or product. The repeatability of usability is part of the product design and development lifecycle. For hardware and software products, establish proper testing protocols early once your vision of the product takes shape. Testing protocols should test for function, human factors, durability, duress, and recoverability after duress or breakage.

3. Collaborate with like-minded experts.

When I was developing apps and email security server software, I determined early that I needed to tap the collective prowess of experts out there. I have worked with some of the smartest brains in the world, from Novosibirsk in Russia to Melbourne in Australia, and found the collaborative process humbling, exhilarating, and absolutely productive. The most important thing to remember is that we are almost certainly never always right, and that there are always people smarter than us out there. By accepting the expertise of allies, we can get working prototypes and products out to market much sooner. Some of those I have had the privilege to work with remain close friends today. Keep your options open, explore new partnerships, and only consider that you can do everything in-house.

4. Seed people.

Just as there are external experts we can work with, we can also tap many people to help us stress-test our products when they are nearly ready or even in some iterative state. Whether it is alpha-testing or beta-testing, we extend the outreach of internal testing to people outside our organizations to make them as “bulletproof” as possible. Remember that the larger the community of testers, the more likely bugs and flaws can be identified and ultimately corrected.

5. Keep your eye on budget and suppliers.

Product design and development can be expensive, and there are many examples of failures despite early recognition, seed funding, and market testing. If we do not keep a constant eye on the running budget and the partners we work with, we may spend beyond our means and shut down. If our genes are steeped in design and development but are inadequate for keeping track of finances and people, hire someone who can. And do remember to listen to those who are helping to rein us in when we deviate from the budget or miss deadlines.

6. Launch in phases.

From a working prototype that can be worthy of alpha-testing, and stress-testing and debugging in beta-testing, to seeding people for limited early runs, and eventually to launching the final product to the marketplace with great fanfare, remember to keep pace with internal capabilities and limitations with steady steps. Never leap when you can barely walk or even crawl. There is a right time and place for everything.

7. Focus on sales.

If you intend your product to reach the market and to sell to consumers and corporations, remember to think of sales and profits as your priorities. Some innovators and inventors dwell too much on design and development and forget that the product is meant to be sold, especially in great numbers. If you intend to build a sustainable business that sells products, keep your finger on the pulse of sales, and what your competition is doing.

The adrenalin you feel when you are in an extremely fast car pales in comparison of how the imagination and creativity fuel and fire us up to create something new, something radical, something revolutionary, something even life-changing. May your best ideas win!

Seamus Phan

Seamus Phan is a professional speaker, published author, and artist. He straddles between the creative and technology spheres, and has great interest in studying Asian cultures, philosophies, leadership, and branding. On the side, he is an artist specializing in Chinese brush painting.