How Can You Improve Your Product Development?

At our recent workshop for food industry product developers, we opened by asking our attendees what they wanted to get out of the workshop. Their answer? They wanted to learn better ways to develop products.

Fortunately, we were speaking about design thinking — an approach that we know improves product development. With design thinking, you look broadly, and this allows you to be more innovative and disruptive. If you focus too closely and quickly on solving a problem, you can miss opportunities that design thinking can help you find.

We wrapped up our workshop with our top three reasons design thinking can improve product development.  And before we share our top three reasons you, too, should consider design thinking, let’s start with a quick definition of design thinking.

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a mindset, a process and a toolset that help innovators develop solutions that have a meaningful impact:

  • The design thinking mindset emphasizes starting with the customer to identify the problems they’re having that are worth solving.
  • The process adds structure and discipline to the inherently iterative nature of design thinking.
  • And the robust set of tools helps design thinkers execute each step in the process.
Sue and Jim speak about design thinking and product development

Design thinking is a deep and robust field of academic and practical study. A challenge when giving a four-hour workshop around design thinking is deciding which tools to highlight – particularly when you could spend months or years learning about design thinking. We exposed workshop participants to the widest range of design thinking tools given the time restriction. And participants used these tools to quickly apply the core design thinking mindsets to a hypothetical problem — because a hands-on approach is the best way to learn design thinking.

There are many reasons design thinking can improve your product development. But of them, we believe three stand out as the most important.

Design thinking identifies problems worth solving.

Design thinking immerses you in stakeholder pains and goals. You’re speaking with potential consumers and stakeholders who will be impacted by a potential product. You’re thinking about their pain points, their wants, and their goals.

As you consider the stakeholder, the potential product, and your organization’s role in development, you approach your work with a more global understanding. You have a better idea of who you are selling to, what’s important to them, and what problems they have that you can solve.

This leads you to consider solutions to the problem(s) that reach far beyond the development approach many companies use. When you consider product development using design thinking, you find a solution that is potentially more disruptive or innovative because you’ve identified benefits to the user or consumer, rather than developing a product based on what you can manufacture.

Design thinking helps you shift from a mindset of “where does my technology fit” to “what problem can I solve?”

Many in our audience – and often many of our clients – have a specific technology, product or service, and weren’t convinced they need – or want – to understand the consumers’ pains and gains. Rather, they wanted to know where they could sell their technology / product / service. We helped our attendees – and help our clients – change their thinking.  We showed workshop attendees that by focusing on end-user needs, they will find consumers and markets where the product or service is a fit.

When you understand your users’ needs, you create a way to showcase your technology in an ingredient, service or product that customers want and that has a greater chance of success. Design thinking compels you to consider what you can make – to imagine the possibilities.

Iteration early in the design process decreases product development risk.

We find that this is one of the more challenging aspects of design thinking. The idea of repeatedly creating concepts or prototypes before getting to the final design is uncomfortable. But it’s okay to fail and to do so quickly. You’re using these opportunities to learn about your end-users and their needs and to rework your concepts.

Iteration has many benefits, one of which is cost-effectiveness. When you iterate rapidly to search for the right problem at the beginning of your development work, test your prototypes with the end-users, and get feedback, you spend less on the project overall because the solution you identify responds to needs.

We leave you with a parting thought we shared at our workshop – a quote that we believe highlights the essence of the design thinking process.

“If I had 60 minutes to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and then five minutes solving it.”  Albert Einstein

Otherwise stated: take the time to consider your problem before rushing to a solution.

As innovation advisors, a design thinking approach underlies our work. We know design thinking improves the product development process and helps innovators develop solutions that have a more meaningful impact. Why? Because the approach enables us – and our clients – to start with the customer or end user, identify problems that they’re having, and develop products and services that satisfy market needs. Design thinking allows us to look broadly for solutions – rather than looking narrowly through an existing frame of reference which leads to missed opportunities.


Get in touch when we can help you solve your product development challenges.

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About the author

Susan Mayer is our technical food industry leader, with great problem-solving, strategic, and communication skills. Our clients rely on her experience in product development, product lifecycle management, and public-private food industry partnerships to understand how technology, research, and the right suppliers can create innovation opportunities. How does her work with us benefit food companies? Susan believes that our human-centered design perspective makes all the difference. ‘Product developers always believe they are thinking about the consumer, but our human-centered design approach to considering technology brings an entirely different perspective.’ Susan applies her love of food science to her hobbies; she and her husband formulate and brew beer, much to the delight of their friends and neighbors. Susan has an M.S. in Food Science and a B.S. in Foods from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is a Certified Food Scientist.

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