product development

Product development is thought by many companies to be an engineering function. Not so. A product is not merely the physical object produced. A product is the complete package of the goods, the distribution systems, the support services, and the branding. As such, each component of a company owns a unique perspective, experience, and contribution related to its products and services. To counteract the isolation of departmental specialization, it is important to bring those estranged experiences together. Engineering is one of the tools required to bring a product into existence, but just as a master craftsman relies on his experiences and sense of style just as much as his tools, so too should a company use all the experience and knowledge it can bring to bear in developing a new product.

It is critical to a product’s success that everyone involved in the creation of the product understand the product’s purpose. The product was (or should have been) conceived with the intent of filling a specific set of needs, and it must be designed with that purpose in tact. We have all seen the infamous tire-swing project showing the various product interpretations from sales, engineering, manufacturing, and other departments. By the time everyone got their hands on it, it was nowhere near what the customer wanted. This is a failure of the marketing function as an oversight process to product development within the company.

It is critical that marketing permeate every department, and that product development be a cross functional task with all disciplines contributing in parallel, not in series. The leader of this endeavor, in my opinion, should be someone with experience in both marketing and engineering, but marketing is more important. Why? Ultimately the product is being created for the customer, and marketing is the customer’s primary advocate within the company. The product must be designed first and foremost to please the customer. Too often product design is governed by what is easiest for engineering to document, or manufacturing to find parts for. These are important aspects to running the business, but not when it results in contempt for the customer’s needs.

Marketing is responsible for providing as clear a definition of the product to every departmental discipline as possible. The definition should contain every detail the customer has expressed preference for. This definition may consist of elements from industry associations that govern all products in the marketplace, details collected in customer surveys, and attributes that are corporate standards. The definition should not include unnecessary details that impede engineering’s creativity in providing solutions to needs. If the need is to produce a part with X strength, and Y cost, and that in fact are the key parameters, then the definition should not include details about shape or materials--that’s engineering’s job. However, if there is a consensus among prospective customers that unless it’s made from material Z, they just wouldn’t trust it, then that fact should be in the specification. Engineering may not like it, but it is a market reality.

Product development must be done with parallel input from all corporate departments and disciplines. Design by committee failures can be avoided by a clearly and completely defined project scope and specification set. Marketing must oversee the product’s development during its course to ensure it is staying true to the intent.