There are a number of ways to design a new product. You can ask your designers. You can hire a design agency. Or, you can sponsor a GrabCAD Challenge and ask 1.8 million members for help. Last year, AirPatrol challenged our members and got over 170 new ideas for their wireless controller. That product recently launched and I asked Daniel Dordett, CEO and Andre Altjoe, Business Development at Airpatrol about this new way to design consumer electronics.
Why did AirPatrol try a new way to design consumer electronics?
We decided to organize a GrabCAD Challenge because we were developing a new wireless controller for air conditioners. We had an idea of what the device would be and how it would work. But, in addition to good functionality, it’s very important to us to have a really great design, too. As a relatively small and emerging business we could not afford to hire a team of designers. Instead, we wanted many different design ideas from many different people to get the best possible results.
Were you concerned by the open innovation process?
We were not worried about the fact that others could see the entries or that we needed to give a certain amount of information about our product. Our main goal was to get an overview of many different design concepts and different designers' visions. This is what would lead us to good design in the end. GrabCAD Challenges' terms and conditions are clear about intellectual property and what was and wasn't allowed, so we weren't worried about that. Instead, we saw the advantage of exploring ideas in public. Our unique product and unique design gathered more attention from the general public and entrants were more creative in their ideas. GrabCAD helped raise people's awareness of AirPatrol and our product.
What do you think of the results?
We got submissions from so many designers. As expected and hoped for, the entries were very different from one another, too. We selected finalists, which was quite difficult. Those finalist designs had great individual features, which we knew we could combine into a great product. As a result of that inspiring process, we put in a lot of work and created our GrabCAD-inspired, final design.
What did you do with the winning designs?
For a start, we ordered 3D prints of all of them so we could touch them and view them from different angles. It's nice to rotate a design on your screen, but it's very important to experience the physical touch of the design in your hands. Then, our in-house product developer iterated on the winning design to include any and all technical nuances and feedback from prototyping.
What problems did you experience?
We ran into several problems. To create a beautiful design and 3D print is one thing, but it's quite another to actually develop a working product. How do you make LED lights visible without attracting too much attention? How do you have them work in the dark and keep a clean, smooth design? How do you integrate infrared diodes into the final product so that they do not distract the eye and remain compatible with the product's design and function? These kinds of questions took months to answer. The final product keeps all of these nuances in mind.
How long did it take to get from concept to finalized product?
We had the idea for quite a long time, probably a few years. However, the technology available wasn't sufficient to make a very good end product. Realistically, we started planning it in spring 2013. By fall, we described detailed requirements for the final product. Then, we started speaking with GrabCAD and by the end of 2013 we had over 170 different design concepts from our AirPatrol Case Design Challenge. 3D printed prototypes were ready by spring 2014, which was followed by further development of the finished product. A box with the end product arrived in late summer of 2014. It is important to note that the controller is meant to be held in one hand. It's beautiful but doesn't attract too much attention. People who buy our product will install it on their walls and then forget it is there. The rest of the time, they experience the product through our AirPatrol app.
What did your team learn?
We are very happy that we got to create a real, tangible, and functional product from an idea that used to live in our heads. We learned that product development, bringing together the best available technology, design, and functionality all in one tiny box, is not an easy task. However, nothing is impossible! Some things just take a little more time before they can be realized. Don't ever stop developing your product. Physically, the AirPatrol WiFi controller is ready, but for us it is important to make the best possible user experience, so we are continuing to develop and improve it.
What advice do you have for other product teams?
We strongly suggest carefully thinking through how the final product is being used. What is the main problem that the product solves? Under what conditions will it be used? Product design must conform to the nature of the product itself, to form a single and whole entity.
We definitely recommend that you look at as many different designs as possible to find the right one. Looking at many alternative options gives you much better ideas and helps in your development a lot.
What advice do you have for entrants?
We are very grateful to all designs which were very helpful. With the help of the winning designs we got our initial product design almost in place. Naturally the technical solution is slightly different because all the design ideas were not technically feasible but as an input for product development they were really great. In future we would recommend entrants to think a little more about the real life usage of the product. How is the product intended to work in real life. Many designs were nice but there was a good amount of designs where the idea was not fully thought through.
Thank you Andre and Daniel for sitting down with me to talk product development! How does your team generate ideas for your products? Let me know in the comments.