Photo by Amador Loureiro
Big Ideas

The Mindtribe Master Guide to Connected Hardware Development

Introduction

Here’s a stunning statistic:

76 percent of hardware products fail to ship or gain meaningful traction.

Why? Because most companies take a traditional approach to product development that hamstrings their efforts before a prototype is ever built.

At Mindtribe, we’ve spent 20 years helping clients understand what is broken about traditional product development and how companies can build better connected hardware with a much higher success rate. This guide is designed to share those learnings, based on developing over 500 hardware products around the world.

Whether you’re part of a startup developing your first hardware product, or a Fortune 500 company ready to tackle your next IoT device, this comprehensive guide that will help reshape how you approach hardware-based product development.

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[1] The Process: Agile Product Development and Hardware

One mistake we often encounter is the assumption that product development and engineering are the same things. Engineering is not product development.

Here are the differences:

  • Engineering is the science behind what you want to build. What mechanical design should you consider? How do you design your schematic and layout? What software architecture should you use?
  • Product development requires you to think beyond the laws of engineering, and forces you to build based on business objectives. How do you manage the industrial design requirements? What are the current business needs and objectives? And, most importantly, is your product addressing your customer’s needs and wants?

Successful product development efforts leverage engineering to ensure teams build successful, innovative technology products that customers love.

Agile was initially pioneered for software development. However, we’ve found that by applying an agile approach to hardware development, teams can de-risk their engineering efforts, stay nimble, quickly react to new learnings, and build a product that matters to people.

In a nutshell, here are the principles of Agile Product Development:

  • Identify the most important aspects of your product (and align on those as a team)
  • Build prototypes to get user feedback as early as possible
  • Establish feedback loops between customers, engineering, business, and design teams
  • Frequently check in to incorporate useful feedback into the product

One way a team or organization can shape the outcome of a project is to embrace process as a tool. This understanding creates a solid framework to guide decision making when designing and building new hardware.

Applying an agile approach to hardware product development will increase the likelihood of shipping on time and building the product you envision for your customers.

We’ve distilled the Agile process into our own Mindtribe Method with four distinct steps:

agile product development process

  • Step 1: Establish clear product priorities

If product priorities aren’t made clear upfront, debating features and their implementation eats precious time. The later in the development cycle consensus is reached, the higher the potential cost when disagreements occur. To lessen the chance of this happening, we use a framework called Product Nucleus.

Product Nucleus helps you clarify a product’s feature priorities up front and makes sure that they are aligned with business objectives. Start by establishing the needs that your product should address in order of importance. From there, describe the minimal set of features required to meet each need. There should be no more than three or four prioritized product needs.

  • Step 2: Focus the team on the top priority first

The team should work on a single feature at a time, starting with the highest priority. Most teams will divvy work up so that a person or small team attempts to tackle one priority on their own, and then they integrate everything together at a later date. This inevitably leads to pain and extends development schedules.

Once the first feature (or relatively small set of features) is complete, the team can move to the next one, adding a new feature layer. Integrating various features together becomes a non-issue, as the product is built step-by-step, and features are continuously integrated.

  • Step 3: Build less, faster

Instead of trying to build the entire product at once, focus on creating a more simple prototype that confirms the feasibility of building a single feature. Learning as quickly as possible through rapid prototyping will allow the team to de-risk the project over the long run.

  • Step 4: Make frequent course corrections

Set defined sprints for testing each product need, and then check-in with the entire product ownership team to make sure you are building according to the product priorities you all laid out together.

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[2] The Team: Building The Product and Engineering Teams

Voices of a product development team

Successful product development comes from finding consensus as early as possible. When it comes to your team, aligning the viewpoints of all stakeholders across the organization will ensure you are delivering a product that is both successful for customers as well as your business. At Mindtribe, we often like to think of a complete product team as the synthesis of six major voices:

  • Product Visionary. This person is your dreamer. They have keen insight into user needs and desires, and imagine a better future for users of the product.
  • Customer Voice. This person is the user evangelist. They provide a clear customer voice throughout development, mostly by getting feedback and insights directly from user testing and feedback.
  • Business Voice. This person ensures that the product will support the strategic goals and needs of the business itself. They will be aligned with the company’s core competencies and will validate that the product and its production costs meet bottom-line expectations.
  • Engineering Voice. This person, perhaps, has the most influential voice as the team in charge of building the actual product. They are the rational person in the room, telling everyone what’s possible so the entire development team can choose appropriate trade-offs.
  • Design Voice. This voice works alongside the customer voice to represent user needs in terms of user interaction, industrial design, and user interface alongside features and functionality. They rely on user testing and feedback to make sure development is going in the right direction.
  • Product Manager. We often think of this person as the “product CEO”. Their job is all about knowledge and resource management. This person is responsible for reconciling and aligning competing inputs from the other voices. This person also creates and owns the schedule, defining sprints and target development windows.

Together, these voices are your anchors and will help you agree on the user features and product priorities, in order of importance. As you develop your product, these voices will need to reconcile new learnings and market changes in parallel with your product development.

Next, you should think about the structure of your core technical team. Building a strong engineering team means you have the knowledge and expertise in-house (or via consultants) to build the product you are envisioning. We recommend getting started with hiring these three key roles that often serve as cornerstones for a hardware engineering effort:

  • Systems lead. This person will act as the central hub of hardware engineering and will help architect and coordinate activities across the mechanical, electrical, and software subsystems. Electrical engineers are a good fit here because they sit between mechanical and firmware.
  • Firmware Lead. You’ll want to find someone who understands the core elements of your firmware codebase, and who enforces good coding practices throughout development. Get started on this hiring process early – good firmware engineers are some of the hardest people to find.
  • Operations/Manufacturing Lead. As your product progresses and you get closer to manufacturing, overseeing this process becomes time intensive. It’s important to hire someone that can take over communications between your company and manufacturers.

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[3] The Development: Building and Testing The Product

The product development process can be a challenge if you’ve never been through it before. There are so many steps to get your product from concept to manufacturing. Before getting started, here are the most important milestones for launching successful hardware:

  • You’ll need electrical expertise. Although an Arduino is great for prototyping and testing your idea, a PCB is what will actually power the final product. Familiarize yourself with a few design guidelines before building the product architecture.
  • You’ll need mechanical expertise. The mechanical engineering of a hardware product can get complex and is important to get right. Remember to carefully design and test your prototypes based on user feedback to make sure the product is mechanically feasible.
  • You’ll need firmware expertise. Today, even the most basic hardware products require intelligence. Having a solid understanding of coding best practices will help in the long-run. Tools like Codeacademy and Treehouse offer interactive tutorials that can help you learn or refine your coding skills.
  • You’ll need project management expertise. Having someone own and oversee the planning process can make or break your product. Planning tools like Jira and TeamGantt help make timelines and deliverables visible so that the team stays in sync.
  • You’ll need to test, test, test! Every prototype or product feature should be tested as it is completed so there are no surprises during manufacturing. There are a host of testing options to ensure that prototypes are built correctly and performing up to specifications.
  • You’ll need to design for manufacture (DFM) and assembly (DFA). DFM and DFA are your next steps before prepping for mass production. Get feedback on your electrical and mechanical designs from your manufacturing partners. Failure to pay close attention to this feedback leads to increased cost, production time, and headache. Here’s how you can minimize product delays.
  • You’ll need a manufacturing partner. Start thinking about this sooner rather than later. You’ll need a credible organization to help manufacture your product in quantity. Jumpstart your production by understanding the landscape of manufacturing options.

Great product development teams have a bias toward building things over mocking up a CAD model or paper sketch. Whether through instinct or experience, a team should know a design that works on paper is nothing like having a physical prototype that users can interact with.

Prototypes are unmatched communication tools; they help different members of a product team see the product in the same way — or highlight viewpoint differences that would otherwise stay hidden, and only surface later in the product development cycle.

To get started, explore ways to rapidly prototype designs. At Mindtribe, we use a variety of prototyping methods to create models for clients to review. When it comes to prototyping, make sure you strike the right balance between research, analysis, and action. Don’t get stuck developing too many prototypes or trying to reinvent the wheel when you don’t have to. Take it step by step.

Adobe ink and slide prototypes

Adobe Ink and Slide prototypes

Once you’ve got a prototype ready you’ll want to get it in the hands of your users. Consider these seven principles that will help get you and your team ready to make the most out of user testing with prototypes:

  • Start at the end. Project yourself to the end of the current round of user testing. What did you learn? This helps develop a hypothesis around what the test will achieve, what the success criteria are, and next steps — regardless of the outcome.
  • Define test phases. Make sure that each round of testing has clearly defined phases with a discrete beginning and end.
  • 1 question, 1 prototype, 1 variable. A prototype is a question and each prototype should only ask and help answer one product question at a time.
  • Get your (physical) sh*t together. Have a well-organized space, including a dedicated area for user testing props. This not only helps increase productivity but also ensures your prototypes are working and ready to go.
  • No excuse recruiting. After you’ve designed the test you’ll know exactly with whom you need to test your prototype. If you can get a statistically relevant sampling, go for it! Anything less than that, you’ll have to stick very close to your target end user.
  • Templatize your workflow. Automate as much as possible. Everything from email communications and presentations, to data collection and quantitative analysis can be templatized or automated to save you time and effort.
  • Tie it back to the team. Bring your findings back to the team. Refer back to your hypothesis and the next steps you outlined.

In the end, you may go through many, many rounds of prototypes and testing. At Mindtribe, we may create two or three dozen prototypes to build and test all the various features.

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[4] The Scale: Manufacturing and Shipping The Product

Manufacturing is a big world with a significant body of knowledge surrounding it. There are a number of manufacturing options to produce a product. To get started, pick a manufacturer that best suits your development goals. Different kinds of manufacturers can offer different services:

product development manufacturing options

After all the development work is done, the path to manufacturing a hardware product is still a long one. Long story short: getting from tool release to mass production can easily take 4-6 months.

mass production timeline

In order to minimize product delays and make sure a product ships on time, do not take shortcuts! The way to speed up manufacturing is by executing properly, earlier in the development cycle – not by relying on a manufacturer to work on your timeline, move faster, or skip steps. Hardware developers that understand the required steps and prepare themselves accordingly will be in a much better position to ship on time and build game-changing products.

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