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A Hardware Product Story: Marry Design and Function

This article was originally a guest Post for the Wall Street Journal

The most important lessons I’ve learned about hardware design come from my experiences at Walt Disney Imagineering R&D and iRobot.

Tell a story.

Marry design and function.

All of the Disney experiences center around a simple story. Everything in the product (e.g. a movie) is focused on telling this story to the guest.  The same storytelling approach is now becoming true for consumer hardware products. To be successful, products must tell a simple story to the consumer. Their “voice” is expressed through design.

Hardware startups need to take the same approach. In telling the product story, they need to carve away the bulleted list of 20 features to find the core three features that tell a clean, simple and compelling story through the industrial design and user experience. When done well, the result is a product that speaks visually to consumers and makes them crave interaction with it.

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The lesson from iRobot is that great industrial design is closely coupled with the product’s function. You can’t silo any parts of the development process. The Roomba is a great example of that. The key to our success was that the design of Roomba was so tightly coupled with its function. For the Roomba to complete its cleaning mission, it was critical that it never became trapped. This requirement dictated a design based around a round robot with the wheels on the diameter. The clearance under a typical couch dictated the robot’s height. Using these functional requirements, the engineering and design teams were constantly iterating to create a functional product that looks good.

But design also needs to be manufacturable in volume or designed for manufacturing. It can be a very painful journey from a cost, time and emotional perspective when a company falls in love with a design that can’t be built whether due to expense or mere impossibility in constructs.

The key to being innovative, yet on schedule is leaving enough room in the schedule to accommodate the required debugging and quality testing. The best results come from close communication between the designer and the manufacturer so both can push each other productively.

Additionally, an often overlooked but important piece of the design puzzle is packaging. The out-of-the-box experience sets the tone for the overall customer experience.  At the same time that it delights the customer, the packaging must also protect the product during shipping.  Consideration towards the environment and cost must be factored into the equation.

Finally, hardware products on crowdfunding sites have to think about design a bit differently. Since the consumer can’t actually hold the product being crowdfunded, the product team needs to create a compelling design that makes consumers lust after the product by utilizing the channels crowdfunding entrepreneurs have available to them; namely product images and video. Yet, great care still must be taken to ensure the team has done their homework and not enticed backers with a stunning design that is not practical to manufacture.

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