Friday, December 30, 2011

Developing a Product Brief

They key to new product development is to have a good product ideas and turn that into an accurate product plan. The product plan defines the way in which the product is designed and developed. The product plan outlines the high level product concept, product requirements, product scope, and constrains - mainly cost and time.

While developing a totally new product , it is best to have a broad & vague product plan. This is done deliberately so that the product can evolve as people start working on developing the product. Starting with specifications that are wide and vaguely defined will lead to creative solutions which can be truly path breaking.

While developing a next version of an existing product, the product plan must the very narrow in terms of requirements, the requirements are very descriptive and specific, and the constrains are sharply defined. This helps to get a better focus on product development - which is aimed at improving the current product and help gain competitive advantage.

Defining Needs

The vague product ideas must be converted into a product plan - to develop a tangible product. The first step in this process is to define the user needs.

Documenting the user needs, the customer use cases, i.e., what the product is supposed to do for the customer or how the customer will use the product is the most important stage in product design.

Defining Needs is an art. There are no predefined ways to do it right. Every product type has it's own set of complications and challenges, so to define needs, one has to blend a certain amount of imagination with that of people's necessity and then come up with the product needs.

Identifying the customer needs is a lot tougher than it sounds. Customers are rarely aware of their needs. So customers often disguise their needs with wants. So identifying the real needs will involve deeper study of customer's problems and/or observing customers very closely - an anthropology study. (see Customer Anthropology)

If one gets this stage wrong, then it results in poorly designed products - that look poorly or work badly. But often times, the mistakes are not obvious and that results in multiple iterations to get the right product. If defining the product needs are wrong - it costs lots of money, time, resources and most importantly lost opportunities.

Examples of successful product designs

Great product designs are born from a deep understanding of product needs. Take a look around for some of the successful products and you can learn how the needs have been met in the product design.

Leatherman Tools

Tim Leatherman came up with a novel idea for a multipurpose tool while traveling across Europe in 1975. Back in 1975, Swiss Army Knife was the gold standard and the only player in multipurpose tools. But Tim Leatherman had a need for pliers, which the Swiss Knife did not have. Tim took that basic need for a multipurpose tool centered around a pair of pliers and developed a range of products by 1983. Today, Leatherman tools are just as popular as Swiss Army Knife.

See:Outdoing the Swiss Army knife (

Bose Speakers

In 1956, Amar C Bose, a student at MIT was disappointed with all the high end audio systems. Bose spend lots of money on high end audio system and in those systems he had to constantly adjust the equalizers to make the sound better every time he changed the room or changed the type of music. Bose spend next eight years understanding the user needs, his search led to the field of psychoacoustics - and that led to break through speaker designs: Bose 901 speakers released in 1968.


The stories of Tim Leatherman and Amar Bose lead us to ponder why it takes so much time to design new products. Tim Leatherman took nearly 8 years to develop his breakthrough product and Bose took 20 years!

The basic problem in developing product needs is that people do not know where to start or where to stop.

In today's corporate world, No product development project will be allowed to run for so long. Today the need is for fast product development. This is solved by defining the product criteria.

A product criteria is a set of descriptions that define product requirements. Product criteria essentially defines the end state of the product by defining what the product should do in clear and non-ambiguous terms. For example, when defining the size of the speakers - the product requirement should be very specific and avoid terms such as "Small" or "Big". Instead the size for the speakers will be defined as "The size of the speakers must not exceed 24 inches in height, 18 inches in width, 10 inches in depth."

Many of the requirements in product criteria may be contradictory or opposite of each other - thus creating contradictions and a sharper constrain in design. For example, while defining the requirement for a car, the design criteria will call for a fuel efficiency of 30Kms/Litre, while the design criteria will also call for a higher engine power of 150HP. This apparent contradictions in product criteria calls for new thinking and may lead to innovation.

It is therefore very important to establish the product requirement criteria at the beginning of the project and then constantly review the project for meeting the criteria requirements.

In any product development, there will be opposing product criteria and it is important to let the designers know the priority of these criteria. The criteria list must be prioritized from top to bottom, thus allowing engineers to make the appropriate tradeoffs. In our example of car design, there were two criteria which is prioritized as:

1. Fuel Economy of 30 Kms/Litre
2. Engine power of 150HP
3. Total Weight of the car should not exceed 500Kgs

Prioritization helps in making design decisions. If the prioritization was done in a way mentioned above, engineers are likely to compromise on other things to meet the fuel economy requirement resulting in car known for its fuel economy. If engine power was the main criteria, then engineers will design a car known for its power and may not have fuel economy.

By prioritizing, designers can put the right emphasis on the most important criteria area and have some clarity for making difficult decisions.

In short:

1. Product Criteria must be descriptive.
2. Sharply define a product's requirements.
3. Must be written down for communicating the requirements to team.
4. Avoid vague or loose descriptions: big, small, strong, etc. Product criteria must be described in standard metrics.

Closing Thoughts

Successful product design starts with a deep understanding of the product needs. The product needs should then be converted into a written product brief which documents the product requirement criteria in a prioritized manner.

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