Products and Projects

New products can fall into one of two categories: the new must-have products and, to put it simply, everything else. While we all want to develop the next must-have device, it is not as simple as just having a great idea. Good ideas are easy to come by, but it is the execution of an idea that can turn a good idea into the next must-have product. While I can’t provide the secret formula for perfect execution, and I probably wouldn’t even if I could, I will provide you with one part of the formula.


What do all great products have in common?

One essential piece of any must-have product is seamless integration into the consumer’s life. Thinking of some recent consumer hits, like the iPhone, Keurig, and Fitbit, it is easy to see how these devices not only improve and simplify your life, but also do it in an enjoyable and seamless way.

Let’s do a quick exercise — pick one of these devices, preferably one you do not own, and imagine you had to start using it. How hard would it be to adapt your daily routine to accommodate this product? Would you have to change anything for the worse? Would learning how to use the device be simple and intuitive? I presume it is relatively easy to imagine one of these fitting into your routine, and that you might even enjoy using it. One of the reasons for this is because they were all designed to fit the user’s needs and lifestyle, instead of forcing the user to adapt to the product.


The unmet need in consumer product development

One of the ways to ensure seamless integration is through human factors engineering. Human factors engineering is the practice of considering the user, the product, the use environment, and the interaction of these three elements during the product development process. By embracing these factors, we design the product to meet the needs of the user and their lifestyle, improving the integration into the consumer’s life.

Human factors engineering is a dynamic process addressing key elements during each stage of product development. As each product is unique, there is no standardized human factors plan. However, broadly speaking, there are two human factors processes that should exist for any new product.


The users are an essential part of the design process

User needs identification should be the first step in any development process. Once you have an idea, and preferably a great idea, you have to identify what type of functionality users would want out of the device. This step usually involves interviews and ideation sessions with key user groups to identify what functionality the product needs to have to not only be competitive, but become a must-have item. Though most of the work is done in the beginning of the design phase, this process continues throughout development. As the device takes shape, user wants and needs may evolve, so it is important to continue to assess and compare against the proposed functionality.

Identifying the key features and functionality is the backbone for any product. Often this step is done internally, coming up with a product that the company thinks will be successful. However, it is imperative to get the user feedback, since ultimately they are the ones buying the product.  Without functionality that the users need and features that they desire, then no matter how pretty you make the device or how well you market it, there will be no consumer demand.


Test, test, and test again

The second process for any product development project is user testing. To many, user testing consists of evaluating a semi-finished product, making subtle changes based on the findings and calling it a day, claiming they used a human centered design approach. While this is better than nothing, using the first, and only, user study as a verification method — to confirm the current and, for all intents and purposes, finalized product design — is far from ideal. Many times, this type of testing can bring up serious issues which are given no consideration because the device is too far into development to seriously address.

In order to create the seamless experience we are after, a much more thorough and integrated human factors approach is necessary. At each stage of development, user testing should take place. As soon as a physical prototype is available, a user study can present valuable feedback drawing attention to issues such as size, weight, ergonomics, or button placement. Any comments or recommendations get evaluated, with the findings feeding into the next iteration of the design. This is a fluid process that continues until there is a design that is both functional and elegant, making both the designers and the users happy.

Concurrently, the same process is happening for every aspect of the user interface (UI), including the menus, instructions, labels and buttons. Each UI has potential sources of confusion, and it is impossible to know how users will interact with the device until you put it in front of them. The iterative design process improves and refines the UI in a successive manner, with each iteration improving upon the previous design.


Where does this leave us?

With an approach like this, you rarely, if ever, complete a summative study and leave with feedback you have never heard before.  With the integrated and iterative design process, you are able to listen to users throughout the development, designing out any flaws or potential sources of confusion, leaving you with an intuitive product that fits into the user’s life seamlessly.

Remember, an idea is only as good as the execution. At its core, human factors engineering is ultimately improving the seamless integration of the product into the consumer’s life, thereby improving the execution of the idea. So next time you have an idea and want to make the next must-have product, make sure you include human factors engineering in the development process.

To learn more about CC’s consumer product development work, click here. As you’d expect we’re recruiting in Boston and in the UK. If you think you’d be a good fit, and feel you have something to offer a growing innovative product development company then check us out.

Ben Zwillinger

Ben is a Human Factors Engineer. He has a background in psychology and neuroscience.