Innovation Is Ongoing: Next Gen Product Design Strategies

Mark Clark, Bresslergroup

This is a guest post from Mark Clark, Account Manage at the product development firm, Bresslergroup. It originally appeared on their blog.

Version one of a new product is what gets people excited, but versions two and three are what will really establish you as a successful innovator.

Taking an existing product to its next generation often has a greater impact on a company’s long-term success than the initial innovation. But only if you respect next gen design as its own unique challenge.

Why Go Next Gen?

For many companies trying to push the edges of what a product can do, simply getting something to market is an enormous effort. The Minimum Viable Product strategy (MVP) has a lot going for it, but it’s rare that an MVP on its own is going to hold market share for very long.

Competition is the most obvious reason to update. If sales numbers on your initial product are slumping, but competitors’ are doing well, that’s a good argument for a refresh, whether through improved tech, new functions (that users actually want), or a more refined aesthetic — especially if your MVP looks like it was released in a hurry.

Here are some compelling reasons to go next gen:

1. Technology Advancements

Technology is always improving, offering a steady stream of possibilities for your product: reducing size, extending battery life, cutting costs, or adding features. All of these expand a product’s appeal, moving it beyond the domain of early adopters and into the mainstream.

When Bresslergroup redesigned Temptu’s cosmetic airbrush system, for example, we were able to take a unique product with niche appeal and make it more portable, intuitive, and easy to use, opening it up to a much wider range of customers. Pump and battery technology advancements made this possible.

2. First Gen Failed to Resonate

In some cases, a truly innovative product may look or work so differently from what’s on the market that it fails to resonate with customers. Early versions of the Honda Insight, for example — the world’s first production hybrid car — were so high-tech looking that people felt self-conscious driving them. It took another couple of years for the Toyota Prius to come along, with its just-different-enough aesthetic, and truly break the market open.

As an innovator, you have the unique advantage of getting to watch firsthand how people react to and use your initial product. With a little well-directed user research, you can learn an awful lot about how to improve the experience it delivers, what features users might want in a second version, and what can be pared down or removed. Implementing these changes is a relatively low-cost, low-risk way of providing a UX that earns real love.

3. To Scoop “Fast Followers”

“Fast follower” products can be a headache: plenty of companies have done well for themselves by waiting for others to innovate, then swooping in with a cheaper, slightly more mature product a few months later. Developing your own next gen product can help stave this off.

4. To Improve User Experience

The best reason for a next gen design might be an improved user experience (UX). Rachio, a smart sprinkler system manufactured by a startup that Bresslergroup has worked with for several years, offers a good example.

Rachio’s first generation was a classic MVP, offering some unique functions (a smart, Web-connected sprinkler system that could adapt to changing weather) in a no-frills package. The initial product was a hit with early adopters, willing to accept certain functional limitations and a nearly non-existent interface in exchange for a truly game-changing product.

Looking closely at what those early adopters were doing with their Rachio units, and what they wished they could do, gave some clear ideas on how to improve the UX in the next round. Rachio’s version two allowed direct control of the unit (not just via app), an easier installation process, and greater WiFi reach — and sold dramatically better than version one.

The approach was so successful, in fact, that Rachio now has a dedicated User Research team on staff — an unusual investment for a small startup, but one that’s yielded huge returns, especially now that version three is on the market.

How To Approach Next-Gen Product Design

Evolving a product to make it more competitive can take many different forms, but in our experience, most next-gen redesigns fall into a few common categories, each with its own advantages.

1. Give It A New Look

A new form factor is an obvious place to start. The technology inside makes the product work, but the external form is what people touch and see. Updating that form is the most direct way to show them your product is grown up and here to stay.

An aesthetic redesign can also help bring a new product into line with a coherent visual brand language, something Bresslergroup has done numerous times for clients including BD and PetSafe. A coherent visual brand can create a network effect, adding legitimacy to each product in the line, and inviting one product’s customers to embrace another as their needs grow.

2. Refresh the Electronics

Refreshing the electronics can serve as both a cost-saving measure and a way of adding function, especially given the speed with which off-the-shelf components are improving.

Trice Medical’s mi-eye+ arthroscopic probe, for example, got an update from Bresslergroup that switched out its custom display for a modified Surface tablet. This not only cut manufacturing costs significantly, it also opened up software options that let us improve the UI and expand the device’s capabilities.

As products age, companies are often forced to switch out individual electronic or physical components in manufacturing, to replace obsolete ones or take advantage of price reductions. At a certain point, this can actually become more expensive than redesigning the entire product with new components in mind. Knowing when that tipping point is reached is crucial to long-term product success, and in our experience, companies are more likely to wait too long than redesign too early.

3. Redesign the App

Since so many products these days also have a digital component, redesigning the app can be a relatively quick, low-cost way of refreshing a product. Customers have gotten accustomed to apps that update every month or two, so last year’s digital experience (on a smartphone or the device itself) can make a product feel dated.

A redesigned app offers another advantage as well: it’s a way of field-testing new features, UI elements, or visual designs. The rapidly changing landscape that makes users expect frequent updates also makes them fairly comfortable with digital change, so you can use an app as a kind of design sandbox, then take cues from it later on when you’re ready to commit to a physical redesign. For many products, two to three rounds of app update per physical redesign is a ratio that works well.

Innovation Is Ongoing

Innovation is an ongoing process, and the truly successful innovators are those who view a new product not as the end of a design process, but as the beginning of a refinement process.

We’ll always love reading about what’s new and novel in products, but when it comes time to open our wallets, we’re more likely to go for the product that’s benefitted from time and careful improvement.

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