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Leveraging Healthy Tension in the Concept Phase to Design a Better Product

Don’t shy away from disagreement during the design phase of product development. Learn how healthy tension leads to greater innovation and market success.

Erland Meling
Erlend Meling

November 10 th 2023 | 7 min read

When healthy tension and lively debate are missing from the concept phase of product development, it could be a sign that your team isn’t pushing hard enough to come up with new, creative, out-of-the-box ideas.

After all, during concept generation your team should consider every angle of the problem, come up with as many potential solutions as possible, and argue the merits of each idea. And if you reach a consensus too soon, you risk settling for a lackluster, uninspired design that fails to deliver the market impact you’re looking for.

That’s not to say unbridled tension is good for the product development process. In fact, too much of the wrong kind of conflict can derail your project timeline, contribute to poor team dynamics and low morale, and also keep you from achieving your objectives.

Here’s how to distinguish between that productive and unproductive tension— and cultivate a team dynamic that leads to better solutions.

The Unique Role of Tension in the Product Development Firm/Client Relationship

There are healthy and unhealthy types of tension. So, the first thing to do is identify where unhelpful conflict is likely to come from. Conflicts can arise between:

  • Senior leaders and your product development team
  • Marketers, designers, and engineers
  • Cost/timeline limitations and the desire for innovation

But it’s also important to understand one more kind of conflict you might experience — tension between you and your third-party product development firm.

When you engage the expertise of a third-party product development firm to design and develop your next product, you might think the process will be smooth sailing. You come to the table with a product idea you love; they design and execute it. Easy, right?

Not exactly.

Your product development team is intrinsically motivated to swing for the fences with your product’s design. They want to help you launch a highly successful product and earn your ongoing trust and partnership. As a result, they’ll naturally push the boundaries of any concept you bring for consideration.

You might experience pushback from your product development partner if you or members of your team are:

  • Prematurely committed to one particular concept
  • Approaching the product development process from an overly conservative or aggressive point of view
  • Basing decisions on internal preferences or assumptions rather than user research and testing
  • Afraid to disagree with an influential and/or opinionated leader who wants to see the product proceed in a specific direction

These tensions can happen even if you have a high-trust relationship with your product development firm.

How Tension Can Lead to a Better Product

When we worked with a longtime client to create a “2.0” version of a successful product, we presented two concepts for them to consider. One looked and felt a lot like their existing device, with minimal changes to the form and function. The other concept was a bit outside of their comfort zone. It looked markedly different and used an entirely new form factor.

The client initially preferred the design that was a subtle iteration of the original. In fact, many of the clients’ internal stakeholders were really uncomfortable with moving in an unfamiliar direction. We saw, however, how much potential this new form factor possessed and continued to advocate for it.

We went back and forth with this client for a long time trying to come to some sort of conclsion and ultimately, the results of our user testing and research demonstrated that users overwhelmingly preferred the brand-new design. And by choosing that path, this client launched an even more lucrative product than the original.

So what’s the lesson for you?

In this case, we ultimately achieved a superior result not despite, but because of the tension between our client’s viewpoint and our own. We weren’t afraid to push them in a new direction and they weren’t afraid to push back. If we had accepted their position, we would’ve launched an inferior product. And if they just accepted our idea right off the bat, their team would have always been left wondering if the path they chose was truly the best.

When you engage an expert partner to design and develop your product, you’re doing so for a reason. Don’t shy away from the tension that comes when they try to push beyond your product’s current boundaries. Welcome it as a crucial part of arriving at a truly memorable solution.

3 Ways To Keep Tension Healthy and Productive During Product Development

So whether you’re developing a product in-house or leaning on the expertise of a product development firm, how can you use tension to your product’s ultimate advantage?

There are three strategies to turn unhelpful conflict into give-and-take negotiations that lead to success.

1. Remove Ego From The Equation and Listen to Each Person’s POV

Product development isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about arriving at the best possible answer to the business problems you’re trying to solve.

To that end, the concept phase must be a safe space for all members of the product development team to share ideas and listen to one another. It shouldn’t matter how crazy, off-the-wall, or downright impossible concepts are. This is the time to throw every possibility at the problem to see what sticks.

But what happens when egos play an outsized role in the process? And how should you proceed when debates feel personal and hit the wrong nerve?

Think back to the common causes for conflict in product development. If your CEO or other executives use their position to exert influence over your product’s direction, there are three ways to handle it.

  • Ask executive leaders to offer a clear strategic vision for your project at the outset of the project.
  • Request that they make space for the team to experiment, innovate, and apply the results of user research before weighing in.
  • And invite them to offer specific feedback through the right channels and at appropriate times.

Furthermore, various internal stakeholders will understandably approach your product’s development through the lens of their own goals and experience. Their personal feelings might get the best of them, too. Designers might want to push the envelope and create a bold new look for your product that incorporates the latest design trends. However, engineers might push back due to concerns about cost or manufacturability.

As much as possible, remove emotion from the equation and keep your team focused on reaching your shared goals. Often, the best way to do this is to look at two sets of objective criteria: your success drivers and the results of voice of the customer (VOC) research.

2. Align Your Team Around Objective Decision-Making Criteria

If emotions run high and tension starts reaching a fever pitch, there’s a tried-and-true way to reach alignment. Take subjectivity out of the equation and point the team to previously established, objective criteria for making decisions.

Specifically refer everyone to:

  • Your project’s success drivers. These are the high-level concepts and guiding principles that ensure your product meets your business needs. Success drivers enable you to blend your product requirements together in a way that meets your business goals and what your end users want and need.
  • Voice of the customer research. No matter how passionate each of your internal stakeholders are about their concept ideas, your product is not for your internal team. It’s about your users. So when it comes to settling disputes about your product’s direction, it only makes sense to make decisions based on user feedback.

Success drivers can be combined with decision matrices and ranking/scoring methodologies to create a visual, data-driven approach to resolving stakeholder conflict.

3. Develop and Test Multiple Concepts

Sometimes even after arbitrating interpersonal disagreements and reviewing objective criteria, there are still multiple legitimate paths forward for your product. When this is the case, it can be helpful to develop and test two or more options to see which concept emerges as the superior one.

True, it will likely be cost-prohibitive to develop working prototypes for more than one concept. But you can often get the answers you need by pursuing ideas enough to make more fully informed decisions about them.

This might look like:

  • Fleshing out pencil sketches in CAD to get a better view of how multiple concepts compare to one another
  • Pursuing parallel development paths for your top two concept options
  • Creating crude mock-ups or non-functioning aesthetic models of multiple concepts to gather feedback from users and stakeholders

Product development is a high stakes game, and every concept is merely a hypothesis until it’s tested and proven. Sometimes you and your internal stakeholders simply need more time before you’re ready to make a decision that will affect your product’s future direction. Considering more than one concept for as long as is feasible gives you the leeway and latitude you need to arrive at the best possible decision.

Embrace Tension To Keep Product Innovation Alive

Most people don’t like tension in the workplace — and many seek to avoid conflict at all cost. But if you’re on a mission to develop an innovative and successful new product, healthy tension is a vital part of reaching your goals.

So don’t shy away from the conflicts and debates that lead to better concepts. Welcome the pushback and insights your product development team and internal stakeholders offer. Align around your overarching success drivers and user needs. And don’t rule any ideas out until you’re absolutely certain you’ve landed on the best possible solution.

And if you’re ready to experience the creative thinking and relentless innovation a product development firm like M3 brings to the table? Let’s chat.

Erland Meling
About the Author

Erlend Meling – Design