Commercialization Toolkit

2.2 Product development process

The most desirable products and services are born from good product development processes. Microsoft, Apple, Boeing, and other successful companies each have adapted a development process suited to their specific business and product needs that optimizes product quality with business profit. Even though these companies are very sophisticated and operate in developed industries, all product development—even for simple products in emerging markets—should follow a similar approach.

Good product development practices typically comply with the process detailed in the image below. For simplicity, it is shown as a linear flow; however, it is an iterative process with continued improvement and refinement leading toward production, market-ready product designs and services, and eventual scale-up. Organizations will not typically have expertise in each of these steps or perform each of these steps in entirety. Typically, organizations subcontract or hire experts in certain areas or align with partners that complement each other to fill gaps in the development process. We show this example here to give budding social entrepreneurs and enterprises a sense of the appropriate process and to understand when and where in the process to ask for help from product development experts, such as organizations like PATH.


The product development process.

Image credit: PATH

[Step 1] Conceptualization

Goal: think of something—a problem, a solution, a question, a gadget, anything that a product or service could address.

The design step starts with conceiving new products or services you want to make reality. For example: what do you think the customer wants or would want, given the choice? What would you like to improve about your current product(s), service(s), or processes? Do you see a new market that you would like to enter? Is there an unmet need your product or service idea can fill? The conception and vetting process that leads to new or improved products and services is informed in a number of ways, most typically through feedback from customers and sales channels, market research activities, product failures and warranties, direct observation of needs or product gaps, user-centered studies, and inspiration, among other things.

[Step 2] Product/service definition

Goal: define project goals and general characteristics of a product(s) or service(s) based on market, customer, and user needs.

What will be the product’s function? How big will it be? Who will use it? Are there competing product(s) or service(s)? How do they compare to your idea? Why is yours different or better? Where will it be made and by whom? What will it be made of? What will it cost and what can your customers afford? How soon do you want to sell it or launch the new product or service? Does this coincide with important seasonal or cultural buying habits? Will you roll it out in phases or all at once (i.e., the schedule)? Who will you partner with to do this? These are just a few of the things that help you define characteristics that inform what the product or service will look like, how it will function, and how much it will cost.

[Step 3] Product concept feasibility

Goal: begin to develop a concrete picture of what the new product or service will look like.

Does the idea make sense? Can it be manufactured? Can it be made for the proposed cost target? Is it technically feasible? Conduct active research, assessments, and initial development and prototyping of the concept design to test feasibility against any criteria identified as important. This is where the practice of user-centered design (UCD) can be very effective. UCD is an approach in which the needs, wants, and limitations of end users of a product are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process. This approach is valuable because it requires designers to consider the product from the user’s perspective, including building prototypes and putting different variations in the hands of potential users to see how they respond to inform  decision-marking around what works and what does not work in the proposed product.

One example of collecting and translating user wants and needs to develop appropriate and desirable products has been documented in PATH’s design guidelines for household water treatment and storage. While this site is specific to water treatment products, the approach is a useful template that can be applied to the development of a broad range of social products for the developing world.

[Step 4] Design and development, design verification

Goal: complete the design activity and verify the final product prototype against your established criteria (i.e., technical specifications). Proof-of-concept field testing and feasibility simulations may also be done at this stage.

In the design and development phase, you take your idea and create a detailed design from the concept phase. This detailed design outlines specifics such as materials used, specific parts that aggregate to make the product, design drawings and visual renderings that specify geometry and how the product is assembled and appears, cost information, and manufacturing process details. This is an iterative design and review process leading to a detailed design.

This is where it is important to align the product design to the manufacturing process, referred to as design for manufacturing. When designing the product you have to also consider, in addition to cost factors, how you are going to make it so that you are careful not to design a product that cannot be manufactured with the tools and resources that you have available. In the developing world, this can often be the case, as you may find that the ideal product design cannot be made locally due to a shortage of raw materials, manufacturing capability, or staff expertise.

In addition, this is where you would seek to optimize your product design to minimize raw material inputs to reduce costs and maximize performance. If possible at this step, seek advice from manufacturing experts or potential manufacturers you are considering to help you make your idea, as this can be a complex process, involving engineering and manufacturing knowledge and experience your organization may not have. Searching out knowledgeable advisors early in the process can save time and money. As a result, many small firms will often contract with external product development experts to assist and guide them through the design, review, and development process.

The design verification step is a check to make sure that your product or service design is what you intended it to be and that it will perform as intended in a real-world situation. In other words, does the design on paper meet the design goals and specifications you set out to meet? The process is basically an internal “paper” check, where you compare the design on paper and the prototype to the design criteria you developed in steps 1 through 3 by performing measurements, calculations, and simulations. The criteria typically include details such as the product specifications, drawings, cost information, and any other requirements that are critical to the function and performance of your product or service.

[Step 5] Scale-up: design validation, transfer to pilot production, process validation

Goal: validate the product or service design and manufacturing process.

Before you are ready to sell your new product, you will need to properly validate the design and the manufacturing process to make sure your embodied product(s) and/or service(s) perform as intended and the proper production process is in place to make your goods at the required quality. This “real-world” confirmation activity, referred to as design and process validation, is typically a more involved stage where you are actually engaged in making your product in a small-scale production run. This process then allows you to take actual product(s) or service(s) to the lab and field to test them under real-world situations with the goal to make sure it really is performing as intended and designed.

Often, learnings from this validation exercise result in improvements to the design or manufacturing process, or both. These improvements allow you to optimize the design and fix things that can be easily missed on paper but would hurt sales or perceived value by the customer if caught after the goods are sold into the market. Also, catching problems earlier, rather than later, can save time and money.

The practice of using pilot productions to prove and optimize the manufacturing process is referred to as process validation. It encompasses all steps needed to transfer the design to a manufacturer, simulate actual production and assembly steps, and identify and improve areas where problems are encountered.

The design validation step involves laboratory- and field-evaluation components. Laboratory testing is used to validate the design against specifications and functional requirements that call for a greater degree of control and accuracy. Field evaluations are used to gather data on how the product actually performs in real-world settings by putting the products in actual field-use situations and the hands of users. This helps demonstrate if it works and if the embodied product(s) and/or service(s) are acceptable to the target customers, market, or use scenario. If any regulatory approval is required by government entities or standards, this is where you go through all final regulatory testing and qualifications as well.

These are typically areas where PATH can assist partners through this complicated and documentation-heavy process. The case study on the field evaluation of the Smart Electrochlorinator 200 is an example of how we’ve worked with a partner to assist them in evaluating a water treatment product designed for small communities.