A Process and a Plan

raja-gopuram
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What does it mean to have a process and sticking to it? A repeatable business process or a process that works for what you are working on is like finding gold. I have been talking with startups that want to automate the hardware product development process. The scenarios run the gambit from automating the idea submission process, to just automating the PCB/PCBa, and then there is the ones that try to automate the process from idea to production.

The sentiment is very clear, people want to get rid of the human element or at least lessen the human effects. Such as; some people are hard to deal with or they don’t understand me or the best one yet – you don’t understand my business. All of these shouts in the crowd makes us seem antisocial. I believe that it is a collaboration between willing parties that produce the best work. The machines do not have the capabilities to act totally autonomously (for now) and with creativity. So when it comes to hardware product development you need both. There are just too many variables to automate.

The process approach works. It works like a well oiled machine and best yet it can be adjusted with feedback. Take this example I ran into all the time. The misunderstanding game. You schedule a meeting, but at the last minute the meeting changes from an in-person meeting to a conference call. Not a video call. Once the call starts you can hear on the other end the person click with the mouse and the keyboard. What are they doing over there? They are distracted. The call covers the topics discussed, but the key elements of the call. I will call this the understandings fall to the waist side. What has happened? Unknowingly without you paying attention the parties on the call don’t get it and the call was a waste of time. How often does this happen? Well in my time more times than none. So what I do is make sure you can see the person, at least at first. And this can be done easily now with the Google Hangouts or Skype. The face-time is essential for building trust and the relationship. After the sense of trust is there then the non-face-time tools will work much better and the understandings will not fall to the waist side. A personable approach just works.

Why is this part of the process and not assumed to be operational? That is because too many people are rush rush rush and too busy to know how to make a relationship. The relationship building is essential to the process. Once a sense of trust is there, even a little bit the rest will be simpler. Mistakes will not be the blame game, but a game of how do we fix it and come up with a creative way to solve the problem. Interwoven in the process is trust.

How could you then automate this in a computer? People have thought of various was to build trust or cred online. There is klout, linkedin, etc. However, we know that social media can be faked and the posts can be BS. Nothing new there. Before all of this people would BS on their resume and the only way to find out was to be a good interviewer or try the candidate out. Been there done that. Could you automate this? What would be a software solution for trust building? There is the recomendation engine solutions, but what happens if you are new to the site and you have none listed and you have many years with experience. What would be the online solution for trust?

Let’s experiment with a particular scenario – I am a hardware startup, I have a great idea, and I want to get my product idea to market. I have a limited number of skills. So let’s say that you are not very technical (You don’t know manufacturing) and you have made a software startup before. What is the process to use? Every step of the way you can get people to help. The things to watch out for is money, time and quality. Do you have the money to pay people, can you get people to help you for free or can you learn what you need to know yourself? How fast do you need to get this product out? If you say I need to sell this within a few weeks, you are crazy – That will never happen. The best thing to do is to research other products that are similar as yours. Research the business portions of your product idea for viability. That is right – Is it a viable product? There are methodologies out there to help you such as Lean Startup. Viability also means that you need to dive in and see who out there is doing what you want to do, what markets they and you want to be in and get a sense of the cost. The cost is not in the details yet but is important to know what the market would pay for your product.

Feasibility is the next step. Can this product idea be built? I have heard some crazy comments about this. Oh yes, everything can be done. However most people read that up to that point and then don’t read about the cost and time elements. Sure you can develop a new method of communication (for example), but what about the technology and what about the market acceptance? Is it too soon? Does the technology need more time to cook? By cook, I mean does it need more research and development. Did you pick a technology that no one is using or the only ones using it are the big players? For you to enter you need to be a big player. Startups that have reached this step tend to look at the future technologies and don’t put into account this. An example of this is that you want to use a screen technology that would make your product look gorgeous. You find a technology that is great, but very few people are using it and the players are big companies. What do you do here? You start out and create a version 1 of your product. The product does not use the new technology, but you can get a product out there that can be used and feedback gained. Or you can wait till the technology matures. If you are a large company with limited access to the technology then you can wait. You have the time and the money. For a startup, you need to get something out there so you can tell if the product is the right one for that market. It is best to know now before you spend a lot of time and money on the product. Look at it another way. You need to gauge the market and get data so you can understand the acceptance. Through the lifecycle of the product, you will have other versions of the product. This should not be your first and only one – how will you have a business with repeatable rents? So come up with version one. Call it the MVP or call it the beta product. Get the data and repeat.

Hardware product development takes time. You can tell from the latest crowdfunding campaigns that people have underestimated the duration and skills needed to deliver. Get someone that has done this before and ask their advice. Find out how similar products were made. What were their hiccups – Then put together your plan. Having a process and a plan will make you successful.

In future blog post, I will get more specific about how all this works. I have thought about creating a multipart post, but I have not thought that far yet. I need to get my writing process together and then create a plan.

Photo credit: Prabhu B Doss / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

AnthroTech, Anthropology in Technology March 2014 Event About User Experience Research & Design

Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver
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I went to the AnthroTech: Anthropology in Technology last night at the NYU Washington Square Campus. It was my first time going to this meetup. I thought it would be interesting so I went. As a user and builder of technology products (and a human) I thought it would be interesting to see how people at this meetup use anthropological methodologies to study the use of products. It is clear that studying humans is necessary for product development. How else are we find out how people use software or hardware products? Anthropology looks like it would mesh well with the other techniques we use today to do this. At this meeting the topic was “User Experience Research & Design”. The organizers took a great approach by including two aspects of UI/UX in two presentations. The talk was first about UI/UX in the context of software and then hardware. The hardware presentation was the one that I wanted to see. That is what I am doing now. Hardware product development.

Adam Nyhan one of the organizers of the AnthroTech Meetup

Adam Nyhan one of the organizers of the AnthroTech Meetup

The introductions of the presenters was done by Adam Nyhan one of the organizers of the event. He mentioned there would be wine after…I love wine. On with the show…

Jenifer Vandagriff Director of User Experience at F#

Jenifer Vandagriff Director of User Experience at F#

The first up was Jenifer Vandagriff Director of User Experience at F#. F# is a company that specializes in online advertising for music. They merge music, technology and advertising to help brands reach consumers. It is a great idea to combine the love of music and products. I have some friends that tell me they have their own theme songs. Jenifer walked us through their method. It is difficult for them to iterate on product when the ads (their product) have a short life span. I like the way they use measurement. The data feeds into their product development process. It provides them a way to react fast to the reactions people have to their adds. From what I see they use tools like Google Analytics, Facebook Stats and their own home-made tools. The process they use is pretty much standard for any software development shop today. I did not see much new here that I have not seen before.

Jessica Bates is Consumer Insights Analyst at Sony Electronics

Jessica Bates is Consumer Insights Analyst at Sony Electronics

The second and last presenter was Jessica Bates Consumer Insights Analyst at Sony Electronics. Before working at Sony she was a former Lecturer in Anthropology at San Diego State University. I was hoping to hear some insights into Anthropology and the product development process. Does it help or does it hurt the process? From her presentation it was clear that she was looking from the outside into the organization. I have been there before, as a consultant, many many times before. It has more pluses than minuses. The plus is that since you are looking from the outside in you see what people don’t see. Very valuable. The downside is that people may not know why you are there and you have to constantly remind people who you and what you do. Her presentation went through the product development life cycle in Sony. Most of which you can check out in the pictures below. Much to say that there were many avenues the processes could go through depending on management approval, budget and whatnot.  Sony is definitely not as agile as a startup and they do move slowly. I wonder is that an excuse anymore with all the information out there on how not to be slow and how to use innovation techniques to create new products and services. I remember Sony very lovingly from when I was a teenager use my water proof yellow Walkman (remember those?).  It is sad to me that it seems that they have fallen behind and are playing it safe. I am glad she walked us through the different ways they go through the process. It showed very clearly what gets in their way.

After the presentation I talked with her about the methodologies we teach in the NYU School of Engineering Management of Technology and Innovation. One of the techniques we teach is Outcome-Driven Innovation. (I should  do a word count on how many times I have used the word innovation. Ugh I bet it is way too many.) Outcome-Driven Innovation developed by Tony Ulwick and it studies the jobs-to-be-done. The method works and gives quantitative data that management can understand and use to make decisions about the value of developing a product (or adding/updating features to a product).

Check it out. I have more pictures of the event below. Enjoy.

Feature Image Photo credit: EarthOwned / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA The rest of the photos I took.

The Product Group March 2014

The Product Group March 2014
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Last night I attended the March 2014 The Product Group Meetup run by Jeremy Horn. It was a packed house. They need another space to host this event. The theme of this month’s meetup was “Do you like your product person?”. There was the presentation of The Best Product Person of 2013 and then a lively discussion of the Featured Product, VenueBook.

The format of the event is organized well. Jeremy compares it to being home for Thanksgiving dinner. I can attest to that fact. Everyone just jumps in and the conversation goes around the room. Sometimes Jeremy pushes the discussion along so more people can participate. The discussions are always very active, informative and fun.

The format of the event is as follows:

First is the question of the evening. Everyone gets to introduce ourselves and say a simple answer to the question. This time it was “Do you like your product person?”, yes or no. My answer was a resounding yes!

The next part of the evening was announcing The Best Product Person of 2013. The winner was Adrian Jank. Congrats Adrian for winning this year.

The final part of the night was the discussion of the VenueBook product. VenueBook is an online SaaS System that venues and party planners use to effectively plan events and make reservations for the spaces. There is definitely more to it because VenueBook replaces the accounting systems and payment systems for the venues and planners. It is a great idea that time has come. From the looks of it, it makes planning an event very easy. Their database of venues is huge and of great quality. I have attended events at a lot of the venues listed. The discussion ranged from how they got into this business, what makes them unique in the market  to issues they would like the group to help them with. I will not get into details as I don’t want to reveal anything that could be released at a later time. Much to say is that they have some great people working with them on their team. I wish them the best of luck with their business.

Thanksgivukkah and Lean Hardware Startup

THANKSGIVUKKAH
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During the holiday break I found this post on TechCrunch that then lead me to this post.  Before I go on about these two posts from TechCrunch, happy Thanksgivukkah to those that celebrate Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. This year both holidays happened at the same time. This will not happen again for several thousand years.I hope you enjoyed the convergence. Now back to the posts. I struggle with how to communicate the hardware development process better to startups I talk to. The way I do it is through a sort of lean approach. There is Lean Startup and now there is Lean Hardware. We use these terms too when we describe the process. Our process is very similar to what is stated in the post, but we emphasize DFM throughout the entire process. Right from the start we think of DFM, we do not wait. We integrate it in as the processes are happening at the same time, in real time. Very much like the Thanksgivukkah Holiday convergence. We also iterate on the problem, communicating with the client throughout the process. Each step may need feedback and may need to explain why a feature may cost differently than another. Usually our clients have a price point in mine or price is not the overriding factor.  Quality is. Their target market has requirements.  Integrating in DFM is essential for saving time and money. Also while encouraging quality of materials and design.

My favorite quotes from the post are: “No hardware plan survives contact with a factory” and “Your factory is your most important partner”

The factory is truly a partner in the product development process. Do not treat them as a vendor. I can not say this enough. Yes, I think vendor is a dirty word. It describes a relationship that is distant and adversarial. The other day I was talking with a new prospective client. He was telling me how he hired someone to visit China, to visit factories and get quotes for his product. The product was not even ready to be quoted. It was not in the third stage of prototyping, it was in the second stage so the product was not in a finalized form. The BOM (Bill of Materials) was still changing. Not ready.

Three stages of prototyping
Stage 1-Ugly prototype: Just get it to work (MVP)
Stage 2-Design and Materials prototype
Stage 3-Finalized product design that is used to Design the Supply Chain (DSC) and the finalized BOM

So what happens when you go out and try to price a continuing changing target, you keep coming back asking for more information. This wastes both your time and the factories time. At the end, the factory will not want to deal with you. Or if they take you on you will not be on the top of the list of priority customers. We have seen this happen many times. The factory will get frustrated with the continued 20 questions game. Think of it this way, your product is not the only one the factory is being approached to build. Why should they take you on? Will you give them continued business in the future?

The right way to approach this is to meet with the partner and see if you get along well. Why do it this way?  Well, because you are not getting into a short term business arrangement. This is not like going into a store, buying something of the shelf and then you are done. Everything is custom. When you get along with your partner things happen a lot easier. You might say you are building tacit knowledge in this arrangement. As one of my clients put it, we are married and we are in it for the long haul. There are capital risks that the factories take on, such as construction of the assembly line. The factories want to have partnerships that last a long time so they can justify the added costs. Most of my business partners past clients have been with them for 10 years plus. So, avoid being the lookie loo. You will piss them off. Be a partner instead. You will not regret it.