Following the right hardware development process can ensure your new product or technology makes a successful impact on the problem you are trying to solve.
In the world of software development, processes and mentalities described as ‘Lean’ and ‘Agile’ have become common practice as the path to successful development. Or at least to failing gracefully. Typically, ‘Lean’ is characterized by the ‘build-measure-learn’ loop illustrated below.
Hardware development requires more planning than software development. This requirement is driven by the sheer number of tasks that must be completed before shipping a hardware product. Many of these tasks have long lead times and high costs if done improperly.
Bolt, a venture capital firm that specializes in early-stage hardware startup financing, has developed a hybridization of the heavy-handed processes prescribed by the manufacturing/quality community, and the lightweight processes used by many design professionals. Bolt divides hardware development into four general phases: ideation, design, engineering, and validation.
We feel that Bolt has done an excellent job of clarifying the sometimes chaotic hardware development process. Their guidelines provide everyone with a clear roadmap to creating better products, faster, and at lower risk. We strongly recommend reading their full-length series of four blog posts, but as a primer, we have summarized their approach for you here.
The main principle to understand is that the success of a new product or technology increases dramatically when the development process is user-centric and iterative.
A user-centric approach ensures your product solves a genuine need its users. This can best be achieved by validating ideas and solutions with users throughout the development process.
In addition to a user-centric approach, an iterative development process ensures you can implement your learnings continuously, as well as act on insights that you gain when engineering your technology. The added benefit is reducing the impact of mistakes.
It’s important to remember that this process ends with mass production; the aim of the final phase, ‘Validation’, is to ensure that a product is ready for production. However, even if the aim of your project is not mass production, the two preceding phases and their approach is more than likely the best route for building the right product.
The user-centric, iterative process consists of three major phases; `Ideation`,`Design and Engineering` carried out as two parallel processes in a single phase, and finally `Validation`. The above graph is a simplification of the more detailed map provided by Bolt.
Before the design and engineering the process, there is the ideation phase. This phase begins with clearly defining the scope of the problem and ends with a proof-of-concept prototype.
Most of a product’s ideation occurs in two distinct phases:
- Problem Research: talking with users/customers to understand them, and their needs.
- Proof-of-Concept Prototype: validating the major assumptions that your problem research uncovered.
- Using off the shelf parts
- Building a prototype iteratively
- Speed over quality
Ideation ends with good understanding of the problem and how we’re going to solve it, meaning it’s time to optimize the solution
Design and Engineering
The design and engineering processes happen in parallel:
The design phase tests assumptions of what a product will look like and how customers will interact with it.
The primary goal of the design phase is a looks-like prototype. The design process ends with a model that demonstrates your final product but doesn’t function. Communicating with customers is critical, especially during the early design phase.
Wireframing: Feedback received from potential customers fuels an iterative wireframe process whereby the entire product lifecycle is mapped out. Wireframing results in a conceptual idea of how users will interact with every aspect of the product.
Looks-like Prototype: The looks-like-prototype design process starts with high-level sketches of the product. Models are made quickly and cheaply to visualize how the product will look in real life. Details of the model’s scale are decided once a general form is selected. There are usually a couple of key criteria specific to the product that impact whether or not it “feels right”.
The engineering phase ensures that the product will reliably function and be cost effective to manufacture. The ultimate goal of the engineering phase is a works-like prototype. The works-like prototype demonstrates the core function of the product.
- Building a works-like prototype begins with component selection. Each of the physical aspects that we see in most hardware products (PCBs, metals, plastics, feel) can each take many weeks to engineer and source.
- Once each part is chosen, the prototype is assembled and work on firmware and interfaces generally begins shortly afterward. This is because both rely on functional hardware. It’s also common to build at least 3 or 4 fully functional prototypes before feeling comfortable enough to move on to the final development phase.
By the end of the works-like process, the prototype should validate the feasibility of building a reliable product at scale.
Validation is a progressively rigorous process that combines the output of the design and engineering development phases and ensures the product can be consistently manufactured at scale. It moves through distinctive phases, with each one focusing on optimization for mass production.
Engineering Prototype: The Design and engineering phases each conclude with a prototype.When creating the ‘engineering prototype’ these two meet. Merging design and engineering will often require sacrifices on both sides.
Engineering Validation: This is the final test of core product engineering. The question being asked here is “does my product cover the functional requirements of my specification?” Again, it is not uncommon for this to be an iterative process. The ‘Engineering Validation Test’ units are produced using the real production and assembly methods.
Design Validation: This phase is the first time the production process is the primary focus, and iterations on the product itself are less likely. The question here is “does the product meet all possible requirements including cosmetic and environmental?”
Production Validation: This is the first official production run. Production validation test units are focused only on production and never yield changes to the product (unless something goes horribly wrong). At the end of this phase, the project can go into mass production.
Iterative Hardware Development
At Wevolver, we believe that many of the development processes described above would significantly benefit from an effective workflow that supports an iterative approach. As a result, we have created a workflow guidelines document to help you increase iteration cycle speed and improve overall development productivity.
If you’re interested in learning more about how Bolt’s hardware development process translates into this secure, iterative workflow, please check out Hardware Version Control.
All credits for this article go to Ben Einstein and Bolt. If you want to dive deeper after reading this, you can find their full extensive write-up The Illustrated Guide to Product Development.