Inventing Advice: How to Improve Upon a Product

By Andre Nel
April 20, 2010

This article describes how to develop a product. In a nutshell, it is a simple, albeit sometimes painful process.  The pain comes in because the method I am about to suggest will put off the fun part of inventing, the solution creation, while you engage in brainstorming aimed at focusing you to figure out what it is you want to accomplish.

First observe the current method or solution. That is, look around at what is used or how something is done to produce a desired result. If there is no desired result then find one. Do not waste time in developing a tool or process to produce something that is not wanted or needed. Examine the current tool or process, note all the short comings and compile a list. This list becomes the working document for generating the design of the new tool or process. How well this list is used and managed, in effect, determines the quality of the solution that is produced. In turn, the quality of the solution influences the likelihood of success.

As you go about compiling the list it is best to not only rely on your own observations, but observations of others as well. These others are most likely the future customers for your product. Initially include anything and everything. You do want to prematurely trim branches that may yield fruit. By all means avoid generating solutions at this point! Strive to see the big picture and ignore the details! This is the brainstorming part of invention.  I have often found that people will rush to figure out how to do something before they completely define exactly what they want to do. Expertise in many of these cases becomes a conditioned response. The old saw that to a person with a hammer every problem looks like a nail, seems to be true in my experience.

[Enhance]

There are always trade-offs in design work. Design features often conflict. For example, a big heavy vehicle is usually safer but the gas mileage is lower.  But one of the things I have learned in my years as a product developer is that decisions have consequences.   The biggest consequence of making a decision in product development is that the field of all subsequent decisions is contracted. That is, you reduce your list of options. Take for example, if you wanted to do something to lessen human suffering. At this point, your list of available options is pretty large. However, if you decide to tackle world hunger, you constrict the options to those dealing with food production and distribution. If you make the decision to deal with rice then your further reduce your options. It seems that ideas condense from a gas to a solid. They start out in a nebulous intangible form and condense into a solid physical entity. So bottom line, postpone any decisions on how to do things, for now.

Once the list is compiled the trade-offs need to be examined. To do this I would recommend using a tool like the Quality Function Deployment Matrix or House of Quality. Excel spreadsheet templates are available online for free. Do not be intimidated by the jargon. Basically what you want to do is cross link everything on your list to every other thing. Then you want to judge how one item affects another. For example, capacity and size would conflict negatively. That is if size is an issue, it needs to be smaller rather than larger, then increasing the capacity might require the product be larger. Alternatively, items might interact positively. Play around and get a feel for the interactions. At some point, you might want to assign numbers to the interactions. Assign positive numbers for positive interactions and negative numbers to negative interactions. The larger the number, the stronger is the interaction.

The next step is subjectively assigning a value to a short coming. That is how much value there is in reducing or removing that short coming. As before, do not rely only on your judgment and be sure to include the voice of your potential customers. Again, assign the short comings value numbers. The larger the number the more value assigned to overcoming that short coming.

Play around with the trade-offs again, take the product of the value and interactions and sum them. Try to get the largest sum. At this point, you should still not be considering how to do something, that comes next.

A word of caution about playing around with tools like House of Quality, do not become engrossed. Do not let these tools become ends in themselves. Further, only use them if they work for you. If they do not work find some other way to sort things out.

Now comes is the time to start figuring out how to do it. All the playing around above should have told you the potentially most profitable avenue. However, proceed slowly and deliberately. Do not jump on a solution and consider as many options as possible. Can the benefit be achieved mechanically, electrically, and/or chemically? What about a combination of these? Do not settle on the first solution that comes to mind. Keep expanding the list. Do not prematurely prune the branches, include anything and everything.

Once the how-list is compiled, the trade-offs must again be analyzed. Use whatever tool works for you.  The exercise of considering the options and implementations is the goal, as is the creation of a design history that could later be used as an invention record.  Don’t try and keep it all in your head, make notes.  It will be easier to trace your steps should that later become necessary or advantageous.

At some point you will become absolutely sick of doing this type of analysis. You will probably reap diminishing returns. This is the time to start designing the solution. The exercise above should have fixed your course in that you know unambiguously what you wish to accomplish. This should make the design work easier and more directed.

The whole point of this exercise is innovation. This method seems to help me jump from known methods of accomplishing something to novel solutions. It is painful but it works for me. It makes me slow down and consider alternatives – the road not traveled so to speak. I guess engineers and inventors, like artists, need to suffer to be productive. I offer you the method above to maximize your suffering and, I hope, the returns on your efforts to innovate. I wish you the best of luck.

The Author

Andre Nel

Andre Nel

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