Slow Down to Go Fast!by Steve Brown
Sometime in every product designer’s career he or she will regret the design direction they chose on a certain project. You may have recognized the symptoms in the past: increased design complexity, a mandatory redesign, slipping the schedule, growing product cost, or needing more resources. Do these issues sound familiar? Ironically, these problems often result from converging too quickly on a single design in order to “meet the schedule.”
Prolonging the early conceptual phases of the design process can avoid these types of complications, thus saving enormous amounts of time in later development. I call this early phase extension “productive procrastination” because you are deliberately delaying the concept selection for the purpose of a quick, problem-free development process. You must slow down to go fast.
Rushing into the Problem
The early phases of the design process are the most critical since the assumptions and decisions made there will impact the product’s design, manufacturing and life. The selection of the design concept is arguably the most crucial of these decisions. Every detail and action for the rest of the project hinges on this one choice.
Selecting the concept is a process that requires evaluating how well each design meets the established product requirements. Additionally, each concept should be analyzed based on a series of parameters including customer needs, BOM costs, manufacturability, environmental impact, and ergonomics (if these criteria are not already on the list of specified requirements). Development time and risk are also important factors that must be considered.
Unfortunately, the concept selection is often only an “activity” rather than a true process. Although it is often enabled with a host of possible solutions to explore, the design team quickly sifts through the ideas and gravitates toward a single, promising concept. The temptation for engineers to create something tangible can be overwhelming. This is, after all, the first time in the design cycle where “progress” can be shown. Assumptions are made without validation. Details are superficially considered in order to identify any major issues regarding the chosen approach. If nothing problematic is found, the concept is selected and the design proceeds down that set path much earlier than it should.
The danger with this “activity” method is that significant risks and problems—which cannot be uncovered during a short conceptual phase—almost always arise later in the development process. The team’s invalidated assumptions led to uninformed decisions. Issues will arise and projects will run off the rails because the requirements were implemented too soon. Fingers get pointed, blame is applied, and everyone wonders how this could have possibly happened. Product designers must break free from this type of cycle.
There are all sorts of pressures on designers to pick the first concept that fits the bill without fully exploring the alternatives. Marketing demos for a tradeshow, consumer retail cycles, company R&D budgets and perceived competition are a few of the heaviest burdens. Regardless of industry or company, all these pressures are derived from an overwhelming urge to go fast (or at least give the appearance of it). The result is that the designers, now committed to this concept, are forced to work around the complications as they rear their ugly heads throughout the rest of the development process. Some problems will be minor but others may necessitate significant changes to the concept, changes that negate the advantages that lead to the original design’s selection in the first place. Even if the designer crafts clever solutions to those issues and the final result is innovative, the product is probably non-optimal due to increased cost, complexity or development time. We need some productive procrastination to break this cycle!
Productive Procrastination to the Rescue!
To increase the probability that the chosen design concept is the best one, the selection process must be extended as long as possible. Don’t complete concept development by fleshing out a single idea. Instead, pick as many of the most promising concepts as possible and detail them to a level appropriate to the project. “Detailed” may or may not mean putting the concept into CAD. It might mean setting up mathematical models, usability testing, creating detailed sketches, component prototyping, and/or running preliminary analyses. Designs should be taken to the point where important interfaces are understood and critical functions are satisfied. It is beneficial to have multiple designers—rather than just one—working through the separate concepts concurrently. Not only does having more designers reduce overall design time but it also fosters creativity and innovation by attacking the challenge from varying perspectives.
Once several concepts have been detailed, the design team should have a higher degree of confidence in which designs will work and which ones have formidable difficulties. Some designers may feel discouraged to spend hours of work on a specific design only to have it shelved due to a more promising concept. But there is nothing wrong with that! The point of overlapping concept development with detail design is to gain the knowledge and confidence that the best design gets selected, not to force every concept to work. If a design is going to fall short of the product requirements, this is the time to find out.
The next steps are to prototype and test those designs that show the most promise. Prototyping can vary from elaborate test beds to simple foam core mockups and paper-doll mechanisms. This accomplishes more than just functionality testing; it also identifies latent requirements that may make the difference between a good product and a great one. No matter if the prototypes are expensive polished aesthetic models or merely wooden mock-ups, having concepts in your hand to evaluate their function and feel is invaluable.
After working through several designs and evaluating the most promising, the designer can more confidently apply the selection criteria. He or she knows that the design will not only work but that the final product will be the best overall solution from the initial myriad of concepts. Critical areas have now been evaluated and the risk of slipping schedule during the integration and testing phases has gone way down. Productive procrastination has improved the schedule!
Productive Procrastination Is an Investment, Not a Cost
Of course, there is a cost for productive procrastination. Or is there? Initially, it may seem like investments in time and development cost must be added to the budget to accommodate the additional prototyping and evaluation efforts. However if you look below the surface, you will usually find that this is a relatively small investment compared to the costs of redesign and rework if a problem arises later in the development cycle. As a rule of thumb, it is generally an order of magnitude more expensive in both time and money to correct a problem in each consecutive phase of development. For example, if it costs an additional $1,000 in prototyping costs to highlight a problem during an early design phase, it will cost $10,000 to correct it after you get to CAD, maybe $100,000 if you’re in the tooling phase and $1,000,000 if it shows up in production. An additional week of early conceptual work added to the schedule doesn’t look so bad if it limits the chances of a product recall.
Where Productive Procrastination Works Best
While most projects can benefit from some amount of productive procrastination, there is one type that benefits the most: revolutionary products. These projects usually have high-risk components or technologies and push the boundaries of existing products. Schedule slips and budget overruns often arise from unanticipated design complications. An example is developing a novel technology for the medical industry that will eventually be productized. Because the technology is new and unlike anything currently in the market, selecting the most promising design approach is nearly impossible at an early conceptual stage. Multiple concepts must be bench tested and several designs prototyped before a design path can be chosen.
Of course, other project types also offer a great return from extended concept evaluation. Examples are products with the primary goal to be “Best in Class” or where protecting the brand name’s reputation is critical to success. Such projects require every part of the design to be perfect and concessions in implementation cannot be made.
Furthermore, products destined for high-volume production can also benefit from productive procrastination. If your goal is to take every penny out of the design and process while maintaining high quality, the procrastination technique can pay back huge dividends over millions of parts.
Choosing the optimum design concept is a critical step in the product development process. The cost of choosing the wrong concept can bankrupt businesses, so getting it right is vital. Why take on the added risk of making a decision too early when a little productive procrastination can ensure success?