When setting out to build a new product, the last thing we usually consider is failure. But it is actually our failures that teach us the most and illuminate the path towards true innovation. So rather than avoiding failure, we should focus on sandboxing our thoughts in a way that captures failure early and cheaply. We need to create a culture where there is freedom to fail.
Differentiation is a key driver of company profits. Without it, there is little to distinguish products other than price. While price can offer a short-lived window of opportunity, the 'me too' business model is ultimately unsustainable and quickly descends into a race to the bottom.
Technology based companies may seek to find differentiation through the use of the latest and greatest hardware. But while this business model may not descend as rapidly as cost-based models, it involves running on a treadmill that is unrelenting. Today's high-tech is tomorrow's commodity and the half-life of new technologies decreases with the launch of each new product generation. Ultimately, sustainable differentiation cannot be coupled too rigidly to the technology alone.
Probably the best form of differentiation comes through innovation. It is the lifeblood of most technological companies. But as we have just mentioned, innovation must go beyond the technology if it is to be sustainable. Innovation is created around the technology and the real value of a product will be more heavily influenced by the customer experience that it creates rather than the technology it uses. Take mobile phones as an example. Do you care what sort of chipset or processor was used in its design? Most likely not. But do you care if you can't control the ring volume and your phone disturbs you at a wedding or funeral?
The ring volume is a really low tech aspect of the overall mobile phone design, but it has a huge impact on the user's experience of the product. If this basic functionality doesn't work according to expectation then it can have a significant effect on the product's success. As designers and engineers wade their way through the technical design, it is understandable that they devote considerable attention to the highest priority technical challenges. But they must also be mindful of the priorities and expectations that consumers bring with their purchase. Each new feature added or removed from a product needs to be considered in how it contributes to the user's overall experience.
So how do you create great user experiences? You create a prototype. In fact, you create many prototypes that allow you to explore alternate scenarios and experiences. Try your prototypes on as many people as possible and measure the response. Chances are you'll fail a couple of times at first, but that's why the process is so important. Your failures will illuminate the path to a better solution.
Thomas Edison failed over 10,000 times in his pursuit to find an electric light bulb. When asked about his failure, he simply replied, "I have not failed, I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward."
When people fear failure, they mostly fear the sort of failure that brings devastating outcomes, usually the collapse of their career. But when failure is appropriately controlled and contained, it can prove a tremendous asset. Prototyping makes it possible for designers to learn the lessons of failure without the dire consequences. Most designers will already use prototyping to some extent to help mitigate design risk but there is more that can be gleaned from this valuable process and its profile needs to extend to evaluating the user experience.
So how do you fail productively? By raising the abstraction level of the design process, opening up choice for the programmable devices and the peripherals under test, and not allowing constraints to be introduced early on in the concept development phase. Designers can then rapidly explore and evaluate new ideas and user experiences without being bogged down by low level detail. This process of rapid prototyping creates a controlled environment where experimentation, discovery, and 'failure' can be freely explored and built on. And the lessons learned can be harnessed to create more innovative products that offer superior user experiences.
The process of electronics product development involves the co-ordination of a number of disciplines and technologies. Having the freedom to meander up design cul-de-sacs and other blind alleys becomes a joy in this scenario, instead of a worry. Who knows where that breakthrough innovation might be lurking. The rewards can be the difference between a category killer and an also-ran.
Marty Hauff has a B. Eng in Computer and Digital Systems Engineering and has recently concluded a PhD in Hardware / Software Codesign for FPGA-based Embedded Systems. Prior to joining Altium in 2006 he has worked both as a professional engineer designing embedded systems for the high-volume automotive market as well as lecturing at the post graduate level. He is presently engaged in the creation of Altium Designer training and promotional videos as part of the Digital Learning & Education team.
To read more from Marty, visit his blog.
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