Which Came First—Product Utility Or Design?

All design should be about utility. What makes a product have great design is how your customer feels when they use it. Some of that feel comes from how the product looks, but so much more comes from how usable and frictionless the product experience is.

When looking at industrial design, there’s been a lot of debate about which philosophy is better: Do you design first, and then make engineering fit that design, or do you get the engineering down first, and then make the industrial design fit the guts of the product?

Design-First Thinking

The classic example of the design-first mentality is Apple. Apple is well known for their emphasis on design, and there are boundless stories of the industrial-design department driving engineering requirements, allowing little pushback from engineering. This practice has resulted in some gorgeous products, and Apple (almost singlehandedly) has created a huge consumer appreciation for good design.

The opposite point of view is the engineering-first mentality that a product should be engineered to work first, and then incorporate industrial design after. The engineering team will create a “black box” (the size, shape, dimensions and other constraints) that the industrial design team has to work around.

For any company that doesn’t have hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, the “eng-first” mentality is more likely to lead to success. The reason for that is utility. The number one focus of any design should be utility—creating a usable, functional and frictionless product. You can have the most beautiful design in the world, but if it doesn’t function well, no one will buy it.

An example of this was the first Jambox. It was the most beautiful and sleek Bluetooth speaker of its time. However, having metal housing meant that it only worked if your phone was directly in front or behind it because the Bluetooth signal couldn’t pass through the metal sides. Beautiful design, but not very functional.

Hardware startups will pitch a beautiful design, sell a ton of product on Kickstarter, and then a year (or two or three) later ship a product that looks nothing like the original design. In many cases, this is because the hardware and engineering “guts” weren’t locked in before the industrial design was created. In other cases, the product design changes because the original design wasn’t manufacturable because the cost was too high, or a combination of these factors. Unfortunately, startups can’t manufacture like Apple does.

However, startups can avoid problems like these by focusing first on making the product work and then on adding in beautiful industrial design. Keeping a healthy tension between design and engineering is key. There should be some push and pull. A good industrial design firm should take your engineering “black box” and give some pushback, see where they can tweak and find out how they can modify what you have into something better. 

A good engineering team should allow the ID firm to create a vision of what the ideal product could be, and then feed constraints, realities of manufacturing and cost concerns to the ID firm until a balance is achieved to create an amazing final product.

Set The Groundwork

Before starting to work with an industrial-design firm, it’s important to internally align on what the product vision is. A company can ask itself questions like “What are three adjectives that describe the product?” (Elegant, magical, and sleek would lead to a very different industrial design than energetic, rugged, and utilitarian.) Or: “If a car personified the product, what would it be?” (Tesla Model S vs. Audi A4 vs. Subaru Impreza will all give the design team very different direction.)

It’s also very important to align on how the team will make decisions and who the final product owner is. Design by committee does not work. One person has to be responsible for design decisions, and that person has to be trusted by the team to take into account everyone’s feedback, the user’s perspective and engineering constraints.

IDing The Right ID Firm

Finding the right industrial-design firm can be a challenge. Again, this will come down to what is right for each specific product and each specific team. Some ID firms are very research-focused. They’ll spend weeks interviewing users, building a customer/marketing requirements document and really understanding what the user wants. Other firms will be more aspirational. They’ll do some research to understand the user, but their perspective may be the user doesn’t really know what they want, and it’s up for the designers to tell them (as Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”) And some firms will sit in between those two extremes. In the end, it’s up to the management and product team to decide what is right for your organization.

Once a company has found a list of industrial-design firms they want to consider, they must pitch that design firm. Signing on a top-tier industrial-design firm is like pitching an investor. You have to sell them on your vision. You have to sell them on your market. You have to make them believe that you and your team can make this a reality. They have limited personnel and limited time, so they want to make sure they’re working on products that are winners and will help build their brand as well.

Budgeting By—And For—Design

In order to raise a seed round of financing, investors often want to see the vision for the final product. There’s no better way to show that vision than to have a beautiful “looks like” (non-functional, but cosmetically accurate) prototype. This prototype might cost $25,000 to $100,000 for the design work and $2,000 to $10,000 for the model itself.

Great industrial design doesn’t come cheap. Startups have to be prepared to spend money where it matters and design is a place that matters. A full engagement with an industrial-design firm (from concept through cosmetic checks in manufacturing) can cost $200,000 to $500,000.

To conserve cash, startups have another lever to pull—equity. Many industrial design firms or contractors will accept some percentage of their fee in equity. Some won’t, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Equity also has the nice benefit of aligning incentives further. When your ID firm is an investor in your company, their leadership is even more incentivized to go above and beyond to help your product and company succeed.

Ultimately, the decision is yours whether to start with utility or design, but with these guidelines, you can create a product that is not only slick, but functional and user-friendly to boot.

Image courtesy of Neptune

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