Quality design is the cornerstone of every enduring product, but it’s far from easy.

Whether it is engineering usability, using reliable components, or predicting how consumers will interact with your product – care and attention will result in long-term benefits for you and your business.

Despite that, mastering a design cycle in a commercial environment brings additional pressures that can be hard to account for.

So here is our overview of the importance of considerate, careful design, and how to avoid pitfalls that can be easy to encounter.

Why is design so important?

While good design may be timeless, it is also exacting and meticulous.

If you are set on producing a solid, sellable, high-utility item, it is essential to step through the design process in full.

Even though that changes from project to project or between items, eight commonly deployed steps for professional design are as follows:

Understanding: This involves acquiring a full and complete understanding of the issue, inefficiency, or ascribed need that your product is going to solve. It is a twofold process in that it is important to understand the objective problem (for example, modern microwaves are too slow and inefficient) and taking an empathetic approach to how a human being interacts with it. This involves taking an ordered, yet subjective, attitude and it can be difficult to gather findings without bias.

Comprehensive information gathering: What are the elements at play and what do we know (or not know) about them?

Developing an understanding: How are people interacting with this problem and product? What is it that we can see they are struggling with and what other information do we need?

Familiarisation: In carrying out this research you and your team move closer to the problem and develop empirical knowledge as well as casual understanding.

Refinement: Once you have gathered all the information about the issue, it is important to scrutinise it carefully and understand the set of core problems that your product is going to address. This can be as simple as highlighting a gap in the market or an inefficiency in a sector-leading product. Once that process is complete, it should be tethered to human problems throughout. For example, improving the battery life of an electrical product by 20 per cent may be useful but what specific, established problem does it solve?

Knowledge gathering: You can confirm what you know, and what you don’t. If necessary, you may need to return research further to find out more.

Definitions: You develop a shared language for the product built on a concrete understanding of your customers and userbase.

Core elements: At this point, it’s possible to start considering the key elements of the product in abstract such as key features, piece of functionality or other elements that are necessary depending on the market you intend to approach.

What is ideation?

A relatively modern approach to design involves ideation, or the period where your designers start coming up with formal ideas that are based on research and evidence. It gives you the ability to start addressing novel approaches to design or manufacturing that can then be validated against your findings. If these are deemed to be inaccurate, they can be shelved. If not, they can move to the next stage in the process. There are multiple ideation techniques that exist, and agreeing on a few approaches can help further streamline your process and add value to your final product.

Here are some key steps of the ideation process:

Challenging your understanding: Working together in a team can help challenge your understandings without excessive resource expenditure. This lets the project remain human-centred and fit for purpose.

Defining your boundaries: This process can let you explore possibilities for your product and slowly consolidate what is outside of the scope you set.

Starting to iterate: The core goal of this process is to come up with concepts or workable design elements you can begin to rapidly prototype and road test.

Prototyping your concept

Once you have produced a fully fleshed out ideation concept, your design team should come up quickly with a prototype. That can be reviewed and tested within your team to gather more comprehensive feedback, placing it through a barrage of tests to determine if it’s ready for a scaled-up, comprehensive review. It is worth remembering that this step in the process is still experimental and any prototype should be as inexpensive as possible in order to realise the idea. That way it allows for continuous refinement, providing flexibility to return to the ideation stage if required to come up with an improved alternative.

Here are some of the key steps of the prototyping process:

Refine, refine, refine: Each prototype should help the team get a better sense of the issue but also a more complete awareness of a potential solution.

Increased awareness: Another commonly overlooked value add is that the team can build greater empathy with the end user of your product. While this can lead them to be blind to major issues that fresh eyes may spot, capturing this learning is essential for the prototyping process loop.

Testing: Once the most helpful solutions during the prototyping phase have been identified, specialised teams of designers can enact a testing program against realised versions of the rapidly prototyped solutions. This allows your teams to set parameters for success and understand the tolerances of the design, letting you build a product that lasts, is suitably robust, or is as future-proofed as possible.

Further iteration: At this point, it is important to remember that you can always redefine your problem or help develop a better understanding of the issues facing your users.

How to break it: Testing teams should set out to discover unique user scenarios that may make the product inoperable or unfit for purpose. Once this knowledge is acquired, it can be fed back into your design to create a stronger final product.

Quality Examples

Designing products that truly stand the test of time is no easy feat, but it can be done. Here are some examples of exceptional product designs and professional approach that stand up to scrutiny:

Zippo: First founded in 1932, Zippo worked to produce the simplest possible lighter. Similar to brands like Rotary, they were designed to be used in the most demanding of environments such as in combat situations. WW2 saw their popularity soar and the company’s trademark lifetime repair guarantee led to them being passed on as heirlooms to loved ones and family members. And with their free engraving service, you can further personalise the item to the recipient, adding to its sentimental value and status as a keepsake.

Nintendo: Originally launched as a playing card company, Nintendo has adopted a design principle that has helped it thrive and stay relevant. Known as Kareta Gijutsu no Suihei Shikō, or ‘lateral thinking with withered technology’, Nintendo emphasised the playability of its games – consistently choosing to use outdated technology that was cheaper to acquire and that it had comprehensive knowledge of, allowing developers to do more with less and retain a focus on customer satisfaction.

JanSport: Headlining its brand with free shipping and repairs, JanSport cornered the market with a product that combines utility with a ubiquitous market share, from children to first-year university students and seasoned travellers looking for a quality backpack. While the company has made its mark by using high quality materials in its designs, it was ground-breaking from the start for introducing a social aspect to its offer – with purchases contributing to conservation work, outdoor partnerships, and much more.

Ramifications of poor design

If a product is not developed with a design-conscious approach, there will be nothing but downsides.

While these can be part-legitimised as cost-saving measures, some prices can be too steep to pay.

Key issues of poor design include:

Environmental damage: If an item cannot be easily repaired or adjusted, it will be quickly discarded by the modern consumer or returned within warranty. If it is not economically or practically feasible to recycle these products, they are added to the mounting non-biodegradable waste that is increasingly causing damage to the ecosystem. While that may not be a personal concern to your company, a growing emphasis on green initiatives can be a helpful platform to provide a reputational boost – allowing you to benefit from positive publicity while giving back to the environment.

Loss of reputation: If a product is of poor quality, it will be talked about. The ‘always on’ culture makes it easier than ever for consumers to share their reviews and opinions about products through official channels and social media. A well-placed influencer can originate or pick up a story about your product that can do phenomenal damage to your brand identity that can be close to impossible to recover from without significant resource expenditure. A fraction of that amount could have been deployed earlier in the design process to guarantee the quality of your final product.

Lawsuits: Failing to take appropriate precautions during the design phase can potentially leave you open to legal action and significant negative publicity. That can be as simple as failing to consider the appropriate regulations in countries you intend to sell to, missing out on key tolerance-testing steps, and more. At best, it can result in fines or having your product pulled from shelves or online marketplaces. At worst, it can result in serious injury or death and comprehensive lawsuits that could force your business to fold and bring with it a risk of significant jailtime.

Increase the lifespan of an object

While it is arguably harder than ever before to produce a product that can truly stand the test of time, there are several considerations that can be tapped by any project to help ensure long-lasting customer loyalty.

Some of these include-

Modularity: While it may be tempting to sell annual iterations of a brand, factoring in a capacity for modularity for your design can be a quick and simple way to ensure that your product enjoys a longer shelf life. That can be as simple as adding new features and functionality for digital software or physical elements for smart devices – ensuring these are priced correctly allow you to remain reactive and relevant in what is a rapidly changing market.

Lifetime guarantee: Often coupled with a simple, robust design, providing a lifetime guarantee for your product can help give your buyer peace of mind about the item. Providing a high-quality product can allow consumers to make it a part of their daily routine, opening avenues that allow them to acquire bolt-on or supplementary products and possibly incentivise them to recommend it to friends and family.

Premium materials: It can be difficult to legitimise the use of more expensive materials. However, it is important to understand who your core audience is and to ensure that you choose to price appropriately – premium consumers can be much more difficult to attract and require significantly more advertising expenditure than pursuing the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid.

Compliance: If you are aware of forthcoming legislation or changes to physical or digital operating systems, building full compliance into your product is a quick and simple way to ensure that your item is fit for purpose.

Get in touch

If you want to learn more about the benefits of following a detailed and innovative approach to design, our team at 4D are happy to help. You can check out our comprehensive list of services and learn more about our capacity for innovation consultancy. Alternatively, you can get in touch with our team directly and let us know how we can add value to your design and development steps.