Product Development, A Soft Serve.
In 2017, shortly after we started the studio, Kaine Whiteway penned this piece to share his thoughts on the industry at the time. Although we’ve learnt a lot in the short time since it all started here. Whether you read it the first time or not, we thought it was worth a revisit.
Developing soft goods is a dynamic and fluid process. As a product developer I’m involved in all stages of the process, from concept through to production. Understanding how to best impact each stage of this process is an art unto itself. At the start of any project market research, competitor reviews and producing the brief drive the direction. Throughout the project, developing strong relationships with design, finance, senior management, operations and manufacturing allows you to gather an amazing amount of information that can be used to deliver a great quality product. Below are a few things I learnt during my journey.
A major part of the product development function is bringing “new” to the table. New could be new information, materials, processes or supply options. As my role reaches across so many different disciplines I have found that I get exposed to a lot of new thinking. This can be incredibly daunting and to be honest sometimes I feel out of my depth. This is where understanding the overall business goals comes into play.
By better understanding where the business wants to head will help you filter the information that comes to you.
For example the business might be in a holding situation where they are after iterative releases, instead of major new products. In this case you might provide designers with the latest fabric and colour options, or you might work with manufacturing partners to streamline the making process to save on costs. By keeping an eye on the end goal of the business you can better recognize the hidden gems.
Keeping up to date on what competitors are doing is both important and dangerous. It’s important to keep track of the market and the overall direction its heading in; It is dangerous because it can effect your plans. I have often witnessed situations where the latest move by a competitor has caused the business to react and follow suit. All this did was put them 12 months behind without a long-term strategy. If you feel that the whole market is moving in a different direction take time to consider why. There’s always a chance that you’re looking at the wrong market.
Commercial vs creative
“It has to be commercial”. I have heard this statement too many times. Why do we have to sacrifice the creative to be commercial? Can’t we have both? Too many good ideas that come out of creative are killed before they even get a chance to be proven non-commercial. When I have worked with super creative people in business, I have always succeeded when I to listen to them.
Creatives are empathic to the consumers concerns as they are designing to them, they have an amazing understanding of the consumer’s wants and needs.
Sometimes consumers will purchase a product at a higher price or take risks if they can see the value. A perfect example is the Nike Fly Knit. When Nike developed the style there was not another shoe on the market that looked anything like it. The management at Nike could have easily dismissed the concept. Instead what they did was make it commercial using price, styling and marketing to communicate the idea to the customer. Business doesn’t need to be design lead, but having trust in your design team is a good place to start.
Briefs & Debriefs
The product brief is a road map. It’s a map that can change and evolve but it’s the one guide to get your business the products they want. A product brief should be clear and concise. The format should best communicate the information that is required to get to that end goal. When building a briefing format get opinions from the people who are going to rely on this. This usually means, marketing, sales, design and management. By getting opinions on the format you will ensure the right people understand the brief and buy into the plan you are putting in place. Also keep in mind that the brief is a “live” document. It’s a document that should evolve and improve as you gather more information.
At Soft Serve we have found that it’s really good practice to review the brief when the product has hit market. By doing a truthful debrief you can identify areas to improve your process or and score the success of the design. This debrief will involve all stakeholders in the project, and by having discipline during the process you can progressively make huge improvements for future projects.
Sampling, sourcing and quality
As a product developer I have been the central point for sampling, sourcing and initial quality. As you can imagine this task is a complicated one to coordinate. The best solution we have found at Soft Serve is to be as close to the sampling process as possible. It might be a little more expensive to do it this way but it’s much faster and you can make alterations on the fly. You can also be having discussions with the design team and pattern makers about what types of materials you need to source or develop for the upcoming production. Quality can be controlled at the sampling process as well. Don’t be afraid to torture your samples. Your customers are going to. Use the time to prove your concepts, find the breakage points early and fix them quickly.
Costing and pricing
Negotiating costs is never easy. If you are negotiating over email or skype it is even more difficult. Thousands of books have been written about negotiation (Two of my favorites are “You can negotiate anything” by Herb Cohan 1980 and “Getting past no” by William L. Ury 1991) so I’m not going to tell you anything that is new from a technique point of view. What I have learnt during my years, over many different types of products and within many different cultures is that there are a few standard rules I like to stick to.
Knowledge is incredibly important. By deeply understanding the product or service you are trying to negotiate puts you in a decent position to begin with. I usually try to understand the manufacturing process and upstream supply chain as best as possible. By knowing where your opposite has room to move by saving time in production or the ability for them to negotiate with their suppliers enables your negotiation partner to not give away too much on their margins.
Respect everyone in the negotiation.
I have always felt it's incredibly important that all sides win as best they can in a negotiation. If either side feels like they have been pushed too far then they are not going to do their best to honor the deal and corners can be cut in other areas. At Soft Serve we develop long-term relationships with all of our clients and suppliers. Trying to understand everyone’s pain points, and understanding that everyone has to make money in business shows people respect.
Managing timelines and expectations
Depending on the business set-up, the product developer will set the timelines and manage the timelines for the product development process. This part of the process is the toughest as its difficult to manage processes that are beyond your control. I have gotten the best outcomes during this phase of the product development cycle by being overly transparent. There is no point in hiding the process from anyone in the business. The timeline should be in the front of mind for all people involved in product development.
By regularly publishing the timeline you can avoid nagging people to hit their deadlines. It enables people to be responsible and ensures they hit their part of the schedule. As a product developer I can have an impact on the process by helping people remove roadblocks from their day. Helping creative by controlling workflow. Helping money by getting invoices and purchasing pre-approved or giving plenty of time to approve, and helping manufacturing and operations by giving clear and solid dates on when items are going to be completed. By doing this I smooth the path to help people hit their personal timeline and ensure the overall process.
Developing any new product takes a village. A village of creative people, money people, manufacturing people and operations people. It’s a crazy little village this one. As a person who develops, I sit right in the middle of all these functions and I have found it helpful to develop strong relationships with the key decision makers in each area.
By understanding each person’s role in the process you enable the process to flow much smoother.
There is going to be friction. There are some age-old frictions in most businesses, these are usually between “creative & money” and “manufacturing & operations”. Clearly defining the project and the desired outcomes brings people onboard with the overall goal of the business. I have found this helps stop frictions between the functions as each function will self compromise due to sharing a common goal.
Product development helps link major important functions in the development process. By building strong and respectful relationships the product developer can positively influence the direction of the product and save time & money. An in-depth knowledge of your product removes many of the obstacles and gives you the best chance of an on-time, on-price product release.
Images: Michael Danischewski, Melbourne based photographer and creative.