Think about the last time you bought a car. If you’re like most people, you’re probably recalling the experience with a degree of dread or even regret. There are so many vehicle makes and models, each with its own combination of features and functionality. But what were you really shopping for? A machine to get you safely, comfortably from point A to point B.
This seems simple enough, but with endless options choosing a car, quickly becomes a chore. New product development (NPD) is no different. There are so many product development processes out there. Deciding which one will accomplish your vision for your organization, team, and product is nothing short of overwhelming, especially when you’re a startup working from scratch.
Every car you look at will have a few things in common to get you where you need to go. There will be an engine, transmission, lights and if you’re really lucky, seat warmers. Similarly, almost every type of product development process will get you from point A (your vision) to point B (a revenue-generating product), albeit with varying levels of difficulty, time, etc.
Whether you’re an early-stage startup, a respected new kid on the block, or a seasoned pro, picking the process isn’t the most important thing. The most important thing is making sure the product development process you choose includes a few critical components because there are essential elements every high-impact NPD process worth its salt has.
We’re not going to spend time here trying to talk you into one product development plan over another (stay tuned for a future post on that) because there are subjective merits and drawbacks to every kind of NPD process. The most important thing is to recognize and understand the essential elements of successful NPD. And guess what — we’re here to demystify it for you.
We’ve put together eight components of the product development process we believe are critical for success. These components — and the order in which they appear — are not hard-and-fast. Every NPD project is different, and you may find some of these steps happening simultaneously and to varying degrees. The important thing is to remain agile and lean into the process.
8 Critical Components for Your Next Product Development Project
Read through the list or click on the components below to jump ahead.
1. Identify Product-Market Fit 2. Create a Product Charter 3. Choose a Process 4. Formulate a Plan 5. Establish Stage Gates 6. Complete a Checklist & Template 7. Conduct Beta Testing 8. Devise a Product Launch Plan
1. Identify Product-Market Fit
What: Getting the right product-market fit isn’t what most project managers would call “the easy part.” But while the process of confirming product-market fit is involved, the concept is something everyone on your team should understand. Ensuring the right product-market fit is when you identify a need (or needs) in the market for the product or service you plan to create.
Doing this well takes a great deal of research to ensure you find your target market and create a product they’ll buy. You should devote a lot of time to identifying your market to hone in on your customer. Once you’ve clearly defined your base, spend just as much time learning about them. Who they are, what they like and don’t like, and what they want in a product like yours. This process may even involve creating some rapid prototypes. There are a number of technologies that you can utilize depending on your product type, such as 3D printing or wireframing software, to do this quickly and cost-efficiently.
This is where things get interesting because there are numerous big data tools at your disposal in this day and age, enabling you to drill down until you get the right product-market fit. But don’t let that intimidate you; you can also start small with a simple tool like this one.
Once you know who your customers are and what they want, you need to figure out how much they’re willing to pay for it. iRobot is an excellent example of this. For the last several decades, people have expected to spend about $100 to $200 on a standard-issue, upright vacuum. When iRobot’s Roomba robotic vacuum hit the scene in the early 2000s, consumers were suddenly willing to shell out several hundred dollars for a machine with less suction power than a typical vacuum. Why is that? Because iRobot figured out there is a high market value for automated appliances, like vacuums.
Why: This is an easy one: not identifying product-market fit is the number one cause of startup failure. If you build a product no one wants or needs, you will fail. Period. And you’ve got to establish product-market fit early, maybe even first in your journey to create a new product. Wasting time and effort on a product or service before showing demand for it in the market is simply a waste of time. Doing your research first to create the right product at the right price will always pay off.
2. Create a Product Charter
What: Once the concept is firm and you have a proven product-market fit, formalize the product’s concept with a Product Charter. The charter is usually the first official documentation of the product itself and sets the team’s tone and direction for the project’s remainder.
A Product Charter is a living document the team should look at often. When challenges arise and changes materialize, take time to discuss what’s happening and how that should impact the Product Charter. Charters can and sometimes should change, but the team needs to be on board with these pivots to ensure they aim for collective goals.
If you need a charter for your new product, we have a template for that. Our Product Charter Template was designed with startups in mind to give them the head start they need in the race to create the next big thing.
Why: Product Charters guide the entire process in a more refined, nuanced way than typical project planning documents. Think of the Charter as a giant poster of a destination you’re saving up to visit. You walk by the poster every day as you prepare for your trip. You might veer off course of your budget, only to be pulled back in the poster’s reminder of where you’re trying to go.
3. Choose a Process
What: Every successful product launch needs a process. The kind of approach doesn’t really matter, and trust us; there are many to choose from. Pick a process, any process!
As we’ve mentioned before, every process has its pros and cons. Understanding each one and how they work will help you determine which one will effectively meet the needs of your organization, team, and product. And that’s what’s crucial in this step.
Why: We’re not saying it’s impossible to succeed without having a product development process in place. Everyone’s heard founders’ war stories about building the wrong product, starting over and rebuilding it incorrectly, losing sleep (and their sanity) for several weeks (or more), and then BOOM! Working out all the kinks (several years later), successfully launching something akin to the Post-it Note, making millions of dollars, and living happily ever after.
Great story, but why did it take so long for them to achieve their goal? No process. Without a process, your next NPD project will face a similar fate. When you use the right approach on the right product, you lessen the time it takes to launch a new product and exponentially increase your chances of success.
Having a process is especially important for startups that often don’t have time on their side. The sooner they get their product or service to market, the sooner they can begin to generate revenue to finance their next big dream.
4. Formulate a Plan
What: Ever hear the quote, “whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well?” If your product is truly worthy of the market, you must begin your NPD project with a plan. We’ve touched on what every project plan should include before, but there are a few big-picture issues to keep in mind when creating a project plan. The plan should answer a few basic questions, including:
What are our Stage Gate goals (more on that later)?
What is our end goal?
What is our timeline?
What are the team members’ roles?
This last question is fundamental because immediately after deciding what you’re going to do, you need to start thinking about who’s going to do it. Consider carefully because your product will be a reflection of the people creating it. Clearly define the roles for each team member and frame a logical organizational structure.
Why: The merits of creating a plan before embarking on NPD should be fairly obvious, even though all too many startups and even tenured businesses think they can skip this part and still end up with a profitable product or service. This vital step defines specific aspects of the project’s scope, budget, schedule, and more. When done well, the plan not only gives you structure but also allows flexibility and change. Cultivating such a plan may seem complicated, but don’t let the fear of a challenge keep you from this critical component of the product development process.
Fortunately, we've done the hard work for you and has an excellent Project Planning Template to get you started.
5. Establish Stage Gates
What: Stage Gates are precisely as they sound: gates, or checkpoints, between the stages of your NPD process. They’re a point at which your team sits back and asks:
Are we on the right track?
Are we meeting our goals?
Are the results as we expected or surprising?
Do we need to adjust our approach and pivot in the next stage of this process?
Every product development process is different, but they almost all share some form of this self-checking mechanism. The most significant difference in these processes is the Stage Gates’ frequency and the rigidity in upholding them.
Why: The reason you need Stage Gates is simple: to identify and root out hiccups before they become problems. Stage Gates prevent teams from using up too much time and resources before recognizing a need to change course. They also add needed structure the team can lean into as they get closer to launching a new product.
6. Complete a Checklist and Template
What: You may have completed a few product development planning documents already. Those are very helpful, but they only offer a big-picture, 10,000-foot glimpse into what your project should be, providing little detail or guidance on specific things you should do to meet your objectives.
Our Product Development Plan Template and Product Development Checklist drill down into the necessary details of your NPD project. Even if you choose a comprehensive NPD process, you’re still going to miss important information, benchmarks, and opportunities if you don’t get organized with tools like these. And before you start to think our Product Development Plan Template and Checklist are just two more rigid planning documents, you should know they’re anything but. These tools were created with startups in mind and offer the flexibility you need to get your project done the way you want, when you want. These are tools we use to customize your project management experience so that we can meet your needs with agility and precision.
Why: When you’re creating a new product, the devil’s in the details. Don’t know the details, and they’ll burn you. Using checklists and templates increases your chances of success by reducing risks from the unexpected and lessens the chance of finding a missing component late in the game, which would cause most teams to have to go back and perform re-work.
With these tools, you’ll develop a plan with a realistic scope, schedule, and budget. You’ll save time and money and be more organized, to boot! Who doesn’t want that?
7. Conduct Beta Testing
What: Depending on your particular process the terminology may differ, but once you get to the “Beta” phase (probably after a few rounds of prototyping), it’s time to test the product with real users. Find a representative sample of your customer base and allow them to interact with your product. Let them touch it, use it, maybe even try to break it.
The time they spend manipulating what you’ve spent weeks or months to create will give you all the information you need before proceeding with a product launch or going back to the drawing board. Now’s the time — your last chance — to determine whether this product is everything it’s designed to be or falling short in some way. Identifying failure during this phase of NPD could be the best thing that ever happened to you. But you’ll never know if your product will sink or swim without taking this critical step in the product development process.
Why: Beta testing is a continuation of the product-market fit process. It’s how you make sure your product-market research was accurate, and you created a product your market needs and wants.
Beta testing also offers excellent insights into product design and can usually help developers identify if their product needs to change before mass production begins. In some cases, issues found with the product’s design during beta testing are significant. That’s OK! This is why we beta test. Don’t be afraid to take what you learned and go back to the drawing board. During your planning process, you may even want to assume that you’ll have to address some amount of changes coming out of the Beta testing.
8. Devise a Product Launch Plan
What: You made it! You’ve followed every step, filled out every template, checked off every box, and (maybe) lost a bit of your sanity. Your efforts have yielded a product or service that could change the world, and the success or failure of your NPD project hinges on one last step: the launch.
Many of the most memorable product launches of the past two decades have come from a single source: Apple. Their simple, lecture-style launch events routinely build anticipation and excitement for the latest and greatest in their lineup, translating to substantial sales numbers and impressive revenues. The iPhone 12, released on October 23, 2020, accounted for nearly 25% of all 5G phone sales that month. But launching a new product takes a lot more than a glossy event with a lot of press coverage.
It takes extensive planning with the utmost precision and care to execute a high-impact product launch; you better believe Apple creates detailed product launch plans before releasing anything with its logo on it. If a product launch plan is important enough for Apple, shouldn’t it be for you, too?
Start by revisiting your product-market fit research to get reacquainted with your customer. The product launch plan should address who you’re targeting, the marketing mediums you’re using, and more. For more information on how to do this well, check out this helpful article from our colleagues at Entrepreneur.
Why: At this point, you may be wondering why you can’t just send out an eblast and write a few social media posts to tell people about your new product? You could do those things, but you could be doing so much more. After all the work you’ve put in at this point, don’t you want to do everything in your power to promote your product and get it into the hands of consumers who will buy it? A product launch plan marks the beginning of a lifelong marketing effort to keep your product top-of-mind for consumers.
There you go, the eight things you’ve got to do to maximize returns and minimize failure for your next NPD project. This list is daunting, but so is launching a new product. If it were easy, we wouldn’t be in business.
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