5 Product Development Mistakes

and how to avoid them
by Walter Carver
March 2011



The odds of a major league baseball game ending with a "walk-off" are about 1 in 11. So why is it that most development schedules expect a game ending home run to succeed?

These “success oriented” schedules put the project at great risk, eventually take longer to complete, cost more and compromise product quality. The good news is with proper planning, common product development mistakes can be avoided and the risks to cost, schedule and product quality can be minimized.

Mistake #1: Starting the development phase too soon

Most product development processes can be reduced down to three basic phases: Strategy, Concept and Development. The Strategy phase discovers the product needs and defines the strategy for creating and delivering the product to market. The Concept phase takes the results of the Strategy phase and determines the optimal form the products should take. The Development phase takes the product defined in the Concept Phase, further develops and validates the design, and takes it into the supply chain for manufacturing.

When under schedule or budget pressures, it is temping to jump straight to the Development phase before the Strategy and Concept phases are started or completed. Why skip or rush through the Strategy and Concept phases when they provide the foundation for the Development phase? During these two critical phases, needs of the target market are identified, system-level architecture and product specifications are defined, and the product concept is selected.

Product development costs increase substantially as the product moves from the Strategy to Concept to Development phases. Starting the Development phase before Strategy and Concept phases adds great risk, resulting in schedule delays and unnecessary increases in development cost.

Mistake #2: Underestimating the back-end

Most of us are familiar with the “fuzzy front end” of the development process, but little is said about the “murky back end”. The development phase is not complete once engineering has completed the design and all of the specifications are approved. At this point, you are only 30% to 50% through the development phase and just entering the “murky back end”.

During the back end of the development phase, the design must be validated and transitioned to the production supply chain. In addition, prototypes are built and tested to determine if they meet performance specifications and pass qualification and regulatory testing.        After design validation, production ramp-up is performed to work out any remaining problems with supplier components, fabrication, and assembly procedures. Other issues dealing with product inspection, field support, shipping, inventory, returns, and product end-of-life need to be worked out during the back end.

Underestimating the back end is a common and costly mistake. The back end of the development phase can be a lengthy process taking 6 months or longer depending on the complexity of the product. Many of the back end items have lead times that affect the overall schedule and are not completely in your control. It is important that back end activities be carefully planned to prevent major schedule delays.

Mistake #3: Not engaging suppliers early enough

Your product must not only meet performance specifications, but also cost goals. About 70% of manufacturing costs of a product are determined by design decisions early in the development phase. Waiting until the design is complete to engage production supply chain can be a costly mistake. Getting design feedback from your production supply chain will reduce manufacturing cost while improving product quality, reducing development time and shrinking development cost.

Mistake #4: Trying to do too much with prototypes

Engineers and designers need to create prototypes or other working samples of the product they plan to produce. Engineers test these prototypes to verify that the design meets its specifications and design goals. In doing so, product design problems and their solutions can be identified early in the development phase to keep the overall project on schedule. However, schedule pressure will drive some organizations to try to get too much out of a single prototype. 

During the development phase, a number of prototypes should be built and tested. Even though they may not be made from production components, prototypes emulate the production design as closely as possible and help gain product confidence one-step at a time. These prototypes are necessary to determine whether the performance of the product matches the specifications, uncover design shortfalls, and gain in-the-field experience with the product in use.

Combining these prototypes with product qualification, customer acceptance trials or other back end activities often seems like a good idea, but is often a mistake. Trying to get too much out of a prototype, such as using the prototype for product qualification, will defeat the purpose of the prototype. Prototypes should serve a specific need.  If the prototype is meant to address more than one need, (i.e. aesthetic and functional), it is best served splitting these functions into separate prototypes to reduce complexity, development time, and ensure the prototype serves its original intent – to solve or identify a problem.  

Mistake #5: Misunderstanding regulatory requirements

Every industry has a myriad of regulations that govern product performance and safety. Discovering that your product does not meet one of these regulations during product acceptance testing in "the murky back end" can be costly. These costs will include time and labor to redesign due to construction or testing deficiencies, as well as product retest and re-evaluation at the laboratory.

At the beginning of the development phase, due diligence with a certified testing laboratory and applicable regulatory agency should be performed to plan the compliance effort. The best way to gain confidence that the product will comply is to know the regulatory standards against which the product will be tested before you design the product. This will also avoid problems caused by insufficient design, uncertified components, incorrect or non-applicable test methods and so on.  You need to review, understand, and plan for the standards as early as possible in the design stage. It is impossible to learn all of the requirements just a few weeks before final production or distribution.  In addition, these standards may change on you mid-project, so keeping abreast of potential changes to standards is critical.

As the product certification process can be complex, it requires a great deal of preparation to ensure the product passes through a laboratory test regimen on the first try. Proper and early planning for the regulatory testing will go a long way towards ensuring smooth results.  


There will always be schedule pressures during the Development phase of a project. Therefore, it is critical that all factors that can affect the schedule are well understood and planned for in order to minimize development cost and maximize product quality.  The five common mistakes described above should be kept in mind before and during the product development process to ensure schedule, budget, and quality are met and the product is a success in the marketplace.


About M3 Design
Founded in 1996, M3 Design is a product development company located in Austin, Texas. M3 is a team of world-class designers and engineers that challenge convention to help their clients maximize business opportunities by creating exceptional products and experiences with them.

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