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Prototyping That’s Less Prone to Failure

By:  Adam Richardson for Harvard Business Review

When I was a young industrial designer at the erstwhile Sun Microsystems (now owned by Oracle), I was working on the design of a large server. The product had modules that could be removed and replaced quickly by system administrators if something went wrong. We wanted to find the most intuitive design for the rotating latches on either side of each module. Since engineering was on a tight schedule and physical prototypes were months away from being ready, we elected to do “paper prototyping,” where we showed drawings to users of the modules with different latch designs.

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How To Differentiate Your Service Organization

Hint, it’s the simple things.

By Chris Gregory - HLB Director Marketing and Business Development

Product differentiation is a frequent topic in our office. As a product development consultancy we are always searching for ways to elevate our clients’ products above the clutter. Focus on this issue often revolves around design, materials, technologies, and methods to help drive increased user satisfaction while decreasing costs. However, things take on a different hue when transitioning our vision inwardly in attempting to practice what we preach.

Our firm has wonderfully talented designers and engineers that have ushered hundreds of pioneering, successful products from concept to the marketplace. Of course, I believe our people are the best. However, many other firms claim similar offerings. So, how does one get the message across that their firm is in fact the best choice? The most important and basic aspect of being a firm that provides a service is to actually provide superior service. While important, the most crafty messaging does not always appropriately depict a truly service focused organization. Rather, superior service is most often proven by paying attention to the simple things.

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Use Your Customers as Ethnographers

By Julie Wittes Schlack for Harvard Business Review

Several of the great success stories of corporate ethnography have 3M engineer Richard Drew as their protagonist. In the 1920s, Drew spent several days at an auto assembly plant, observing how the workers were using his company’s sandpaper. Two-tone cars were all the rage at the time, and Drew serendipitously noticed that the plant workers were laboriously and often unsuccessfully using newspapers to shield the painted portion of the car while the second color was applied. That alerted him to a need and ignited the idea for what became 3M’s keystone product: masking tape.

When it comes to discovering unmet customer needs and innovation opportunities, there’s no substitute for in-the-moment, in-context observation for making meaning out of the complex weave of emotion and rationality that drives consumer behavior. That’s why ethnographers often follow subjects around or even temporarily move in with them to note the compensations, workarounds, and rituals associated with some specific product, task, or routine.

But unless ethnographers are willing to spend weeks on end with their subjects, their presence inevitably introduces some behavioral change in the people they’re observing. After all, if you’re a teenaged girl, are you likely to buy condoms for your boyfriend with an ethnographer tailing you around? If you’re her mother, might you hold back from purchasing those Cheetos or Oreos, or hesitate to strip off your bra the moment you get home from work? If you’re her father, will you be tempted to tune into NOVA instead of the latest episode of Hoarders?

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Can You Design Innovation?

Innovation districts are popping up all over the country. But will they work?

By Diana Budds for Fast Company

Picture a gleaming building wrapped around an expansive tree-filled courtyard. All the walls are glass so you can see what's happening in the ground-level retail and open-plan offices on the upper floors. In lieu of cramped hallways there are wide-open walkways and a snaking ramp that ascends to a rooftop lawn. Apartments are close by and there's a constant hum of activity and interaction throughout. This is the image of a forthcoming innovation district in Miami, Florida.

In business, everyone is racing to develop the next big thing. Similarly, cities and developers are capitalizing on this by building entire neighborhoods to foster innovation. But one question lies at the heart of the trend: Can innovation really be designed?

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How to Talk to Your Very First Customers

By Belle Beth Cooper for Entrepreneur

Creating valuable products requires getting valuable feedback. Who you talk to early on counts for a whole lot.

A few weeks ago my co-founder and I started privately beta testing our company’s second product.

Our first product, Exist, has been in public beta for almost a year. We made lots of mistakes which, thankfully, we’ve learned from.

This time around, we know what to do differently—so we can make fresh mistakes this time, no doubt. Here are a few lessons I’d love to share.

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Making Innovation

This is a great piece describing the power that a symbiotic relationship between engineering and manufacturing can have on product innovation and development. HLB's engineers learned long ago to involve manufacturing resources at the earliest stages of development. Early collaboration has greatly enhanced our ability to push the creative envelope while delivering on time and within budget.

Making Innovation

The hubs of advanced manufacturing will be the economic drivers of the future because innovation increasingly depends on production expertise. 

By Nanette Byrnes for MIT Technology Review 

Visitors to the Crosspointe Rolls-Royce facility in Prince George County, Virginia, have to don safety glasses and steel-tipped shoes, just as they would at any traditional factory. But then things start to look different. Past the cubicles filled with programmers and support staff sits a 140,000-square-foot factory with spotless white concrete floors, bright lighting, surprisingly quiet equipment, and very few human beings.

Opened in 2011, Crosspointe is the kind of factory that makes a good backdrop to a political speech about advanced manufacturing, as President Barack Obama knew when he arrived less than a year later. It’s global: the U.S. operations center of a U.K. company, it uses titanium forgings from Scotland, Germany, or the United States; shapes them into fan disks; and, after milling, polishing, and testing, ships them off to England, Germany, or Singapore. Once there, each disk will become one of 10,000 parts in a typical engine.

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4 Ways Experience Can Obstruct Innovation

By: Chris Gregory - HLB Director of Marketing and Business Development

Highly experienced, intently focused seems to be the call of the day regardless of industry and market focus. Being highly focused and experienced typically means that an exceptional amount of expertise has been acquired within the field in which one works. Confidence evolves due to a proven ability to solve problems with products and services users want and need. This has all been substantiated by increased revenues, market-share, receipt of a promotion, and a praising e-mail from the boss. However, there comes a time when, if allowed, experience can actually work against the product development process. Here are four ways success can work against you.


Often experience or being especially close to a product can cause a product manager to don virtual blinders. It is quite common for a product manager or development team to ride the glory of a highly successful product cycle into the dawn of a new version or release. Armed with a great deal of knowledge gained from market and user research conducted during a previous release, product managers assume they know most of what there is to know. It’s quite easy to greatly reduce or completely cutout market research thinking that what users wanted then is what they want now. However, as many of us have learned the hard way, markets change quickly and the assumption approach results in less than desirable consequences.

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Want To Make Better Products? Start By Trusting Your Client


Numerous years of product development consultation experience have taught us here at HLB that client input is critical to a productive development process. Additionally, a collaborative process generating an environment of shared ownership results in mutually beneficial, long-term success. Jennifer Sukis and Carey Jenkins shed additional light on the importance of trusting your client.

WRITTEN BY Jennifer Sukis and Carey Jenkins

Twenty or so years ago, when designers of all kinds were trying to own a seat at the table of business strategy, one of our favorite ways to demonstrate our relevance was by insisting that clients were asking the wrong questions.

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5 Questions to Ask Before You Reinvent Any Product

All too often entrepreneurial innovators come to us with what they perceive to be the next great idea only to learn that 20 others have beat them to the punch. However, that does not mean the opportunity is over. Kumar Srivastava provides great insight for reinventing great ideas.

By: Kumar Srivastava - Entrepreneur Contributor

A huge opportunity exists for entrepreneurs to tap the replacement cycle for products and services for various industries and customer segments. For this reason, existing providers need to gear up for what might be called "reinvention entrepreneurship."

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Get Buy-In for Your Crazy Idea

The topic of our June Newsletter 4 Ways Experience Can Obstruct Innovation focuses on not allowing experience to work against the product development process. In similar vein, David Burkus provides a great example of not allowing management to inhibit unconventional ideas and how to convince others to jump on board.

By: David Burkus for Harvard Business Review

Your boss told you to “think outside the box.” You and your team burnt the midnight oil and brainstormed until there were no more clichés left to describe how hard you worked. You found a great idea, prepared an amazing pitch, and still your idea was shot down.

We like to think that great ideas are recognized as such from the beginning, but in fact that is rarely the case. Research shows we’re not as good as we think at recognizing the value of innovative thinking. In fact, managers might even be a bit worse. In an experiment by Jennifer Mueller, managers were more likely to reject the very same ideas that got customers excited. The most creative ideas also happen to be the ones more likely to look impossible, even if they are entirely feasible. This explains why executives at Kodak chose not to pursue digital cameras after the first one was developed in their own lab. The resolution was terrible and they didn’t see it ever getting better than film. The same thing happened to executives at Xerox, who watched as their Palo Alto Research Center invented the graphic user interface (the central feature of the personal computer) but chose not to invest in the technology. It wasn’t clear how it would help a photocopier company, so they left other entrepreneurs to take advantage of the opportunity.

These examples provide some comfort to the rejected innovators among us, but they don’t explain how we can better persuade others that our ideas are worth investing in. Fortunately, there is some research that can help.

Everett Rodgers, a sociology professor at Ohio State University published the now famous Diffusion of Innovation in 1962 and coined the term “early adopter.” Rodgers conducted a large-scale research project on why innovations spread. He wanted to know what common characteristics were shared by the rare products and ideas that made it all the way from early adopters to laggards.

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Multi-Disciplinary Collaboration = Faster to Market

By: Chris Gregory - HLB Director Marketing and Business Development

The efficiency and effectiveness of the product development process and the ability of a product to meet its objectives is dependent upon the composition of technical skill-sets plus collaborative abilities of core team members.  A plan developed by an experienced team will be thorough and logically organized via sequential phases comprised of comprehensive task lists and deliverables targeting desired outcomes.  Individual phases are typically based upon specific disciplines (research, design, engineering, etc.) and driven by representative professionals focused on each discipline.  This basically means research tasks are carried out by research analysts, design is carried out by industrial designers, engineering is carried out by mechanical or electrical engineers, and so on and so forth.

On the surface this process is very orderly representing an A leads to B, B leads to C, and C leads to D approach.  However, seasoned product managers from any industry understand the product development process rarely progresses in such an orderly fashion.  Reality often presents A leads to B, B leads to C, and C leads back to B scenario.  While “circling back” or additional refinement is often part of the process, reducing this scenario as much as possible is obviously desired for keeping a manageable timeline conducive to efficient launch planning.  The best method to alleviating multiple refinement situations is to have each phase addressed by multi-disciplinary team members.  

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Why Congress Needs to Pass the Innovation Act This Time

In our business, patent searches are a regular part of our work.  The often vague language associated with patents can be frustrating to say the least.  Patent reform seems to be appearing in the media more and more often.  The question is, when will we see action.  Read the piece below and drop us line with your thoughts on patent reform.

By:  Larry Downes for Harvard Business Review

In 1939, the most notorious politician in notoriously corrupt Chicago was Alderman Mathias “Paddy” Bauler. When he managed to beat a reform-minded opponent by just 243 votes (four of which cast by ghost-voters purporting to live at the address of Bauler`s own tavern) he made a declaration that still lives today: “Chicago ain’t ready for reform.”

Looking at the current calls for patent law reform, are we in the same state of readiness? Our patent system, designed to protect inventors by granting them limited-term monopolies over their innovations, has over the last twenty years largely collapsed, buried under an avalanche of new and generously-granted patents for so-called “business methods” and for software-related inventions, which are doubly protected under copyright law.

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As we are all too aware, there is a lot of buzz around The Internet of Things.  Regardless, our addiction to gadgets and the endless options for wireless control continue to capture our minds and imaginations.  Being able to control everything from from a fire alarm to a dog food dispenser via a smart device is one thing.  The ramifications on human factors when designing such products is another.  Below provides insight into how to take such things into consideration when diving into this new world.


HOW OFTEN DO you notice the tiny green light on your electronic toothbrush, or the backlight on your smart thermostat? Probably rarely, and that’s entirely the point: those luminescent cues are designed specifically to catch your attention only when the gadget needs to communicate something like a low battery charge, or unusual activity.

As screenless gadgets become more sophisticated—think smart locks and the like—designers will need to weave more and more of those light signals into the user interface of the product. It’s an essential, if less glamorous, part of any design. But as Daniel Nacamuli, the lead interaction designer at British firm Method, points out, “there isn’t an easy way to design that. You need someone with fairly strong programming skills.”

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A 5-Step Reality Check for Inventors

We are frequently visited by start-up product teams with "the next big thing."  Unfortunately these teams are often unprepared for the realities of transforming an idea into a physical, market viable product offering.  While not entirely comprehensive, the article below provides an interesting view into the realities of developing a market viable product.

By:  KEDMA OUGH - Entrepreneur Contributor

Inventors get lots of ideas for products. It’s more difficult to have that idea generate more money than the cost of bringing the idea to the market. Using an idea checklist evaluation tool can help you determine the feasibility of bringing your idea forward.

The idea checklist evaluation focuses on five essential aspects of an idea, each rated between 1 and 10. If the total cumulative score for your idea is less than twenty points, the idea should not be considered as feasible. A score between 20 to 35 indicates potential caution with proceeding, and a score of 35 or higher indicates strength towards proceeding with further discovery.

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HLB will be attending MD&M Chicago 2014

HLB will be attending the MD&M Chicago as well as DESIGN & Manufacturing, ATX - Automation Technology Expo, and PLASTEC Midwest events on October 15 & 16, 2014.  We would love to hear what you are working on as well as share product development insight into the coming year.

Let us know if you will be attending and if you would like to schedule a time to consult with our product engineering and design professionals.

When:  October 15 - 16, 2014

Where:  Schaumburg Convention Center

Contact:  Chris Gregory - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


User Defined? Not Without Human Factors Research

By: Chris Gregory - HLB Director Marketing and Business Development

How often do we hear “user defined” when companies and people describe their products and services?    What does it mean for a product to be user defined?  What types of user research and feedback best support an effective development process?  To some, the answers to these questions may seem obvious.  In practice, however, reality tells a different story.

Meeting frequently with seasoned product development professionals within the corporate structure as well as “newbie” entrepreneurial start-up’s we often hear from both that a concept has been developed as a result of witnessing a need in the marketplace.  First, this is great and a basic principle of product marketing.  But, is need discovery enough to call a product user defined?  Actually, this is only a fraction of the truth.  It certainly isn't uncommon for corporately funded teams to conduct highly structured market research collecting customer feedback data on a concept as well as competitive alternatives.  Is a highly formalized market research program the answer to user defined?  A structured research program is certainly a highly informative and important piece of the puzzle but a large component of success is still not being addressed.

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Customers Are Better Strategists Than Managers

Once again another case for listening to and understanding the voice of your customer.  Mr. Graham's points are very well taken and provide a distinction between operation and strategic planning based upon customer vision.

By Graham Kenny for Harvard Business Review

I was once appointed CEO of a company in need of a turnaround. We made trusses and frames for houses, and one morning, after I’d been on the job about three months, I found myself staring out my window, watching the trucks and forklifts below. I thought: What am I doing here? Can I, on the fingers of one hand, list the ingredients of success in this industry?

In the weeks and months that followed, the senior management team and I made a number of major decisions about the company’s future.  As a team, I observed, we were busy doing things and making changes, all of which made sense to us as managers.  But as time progressed, I returned to these questions, over and over: How well do we know what our customers want? How well do we know what our suppliers and employees expect? What would it take to meet those needs better than our competitors could?

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Skip the Reluctant Customers. Start Resonating With the Right Crowd.

It's always tempting to lower your price in an attempt to win a job.  However, this goes against delivering value and often establishes a relationship based upon discounts rather than trust.  Is this how you want your work to be perceived?

By Kate Swoboda - Entrepreneur

A few years ago, I was on a call with business strategist Tara Gentile, when she said something that hit home: “You don’t actually want those customers that you have to convince to trust you,” she said.

In a tough economic climate, it can be easy to slip into the mind-set of trying to convince people to trust you. You want clients to see how your company differentiates itself from the pack and believe that you’ll actually deliver the promised results.

But always feeling the need to convince people of something means operating out of a fear-based energy. The customers drawn to this type of dynamic are skeptical and unlikely to become loyal fans. They’ll always try to get you to prove your worth. Instead, partner with clients who come to the table with trust and who feel that your company’s message, offerings and way of doing business resonates with them.

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You Can’t Collaborate Unless You Agree on the Problem

When partnering - especially with a client, organizations are required to balance individual needs with mutually beneficial outcomes.  I found the article below provided good insight into a process for needs identification which can help reduce the chances a relationship becomes more favorable to one over the other.  Or worse, more unfavorable to one or the other. 

By Alessandro Di Fiore, Gabriele Rosani and Elisa Farri for Harvard Business Review

To design and develop new products, it’s not uncommon today to get your research and engineering folks to collaborate with customers and other external stakeholders. In effect, you give these people the right to participate in your innovation process and influence its final outcome.

This sort of collaboration has been well-documented in the B2C context (where it’s often called “crowdsourcing” or “co-creation”), but we see it in B2B companies as well. In B2B customer collaboration, however, the customer tends to be driven by specific business goals rather than passion for your brand or product category.

In this context, agreement on the problem you’re going to work together on is the critical element. For companies to get real value from working together, the problem has to be aligned with the interests of all parties. This is not always the case in attempts to collaborate. Let me share a sanitized story of one such initiative at a company I will call WhiteCo, a parts supplier for the white goods industry (the durable consumer appliances that tend to have a white finish — air conditioners, refrigerators, and so on).

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The Case for Consumer-Centric Innovation

The article below is yet another prime example of how being a customer or consumer-centric organization leads to greater success.  However, there are a few additional topics touched upon that ring particularly relevant to us here at HLB.  The first being that looking for product ideas outside the organization can more rapidly advance innovation.  We have seen time and time again where a product manager’s, designer’s, or engineer’s close proximity to a product can actually strike blind their ability to see the way to answering user needs.  This is a prime example of how experience can actually work against you and where it can be extremely valuable to gain fresh ideas from outside sources.  Second, the past few years have revealed that a great number of new from the ground up ideas are being spawned from the start-up community while larger organizations take a revise or 2.0 approach to existing product lines.  We are asked almost every week by a start-up entrepreneur how to best transform their concept into a form that is best for adoption by larger product organizations.

Please enjoy the article originally published by Entrepreneur and feel free to share with us what you think or are observing in the world of product development.


Entrepreneur Contributor

CEO of Edison Nation and Edison Nation Medical

There was a time when leaders of most companies thought, why should we look outside of our own corporate walls for the next big thing when our own corporate R&D teams are more than capable of delivering it themselves?

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