There are three distinct phases in any product’s life cycle: New Product Introduction (NPI), Sustaining, and End of Life (EOL). Most of the similarities between the industries I have worked in, and the applicable lessons learned, are in the first phase: NPI. These lessons will be covered through a series of articles, each covering a different aspect of the process. Eventually, lessons from the other phases will be discussed.
Whether it is electronics, a website, commercial application software, or a video game, the product is central during NPI and it must drive the process. Whenever you start a new project, ask the following questions about the product. The answers will determine your introduction and/or development strategy.
0. Who is the customer ?
Yes, this is Step Zero. When you start with the product, you must start with the customer. The customer defines the product, determines the quality expectations, sets priorities and, ultimately, determines what they are willing to pay for the product. Even entrepreneurs and start-ups without a signed customer need to have a clear picture of who will use and pay for their product to properly guide the development of the product and of the company. Contract manufacturers not only need to know the customer to whom the product is shipping, but also have to understand their customer’s customer. It’s the same situation for independent video game developers. We have to understand the publisher and the game’s audience. Being a creative industry, this is further complicated by having what seems like a million passionate egos throughout the entire customer chain, all of whom are supposed to be figuring out what is “fun” for the target audience.
1. What are the key features of the products? How is it intended to work?
Before you can plan any project, you need a high level understanding on how the product works. Even though you know the product details will evolve, it is important to establish that understanding early to be able to intelligently break down the project into practical plan, set up the process, and adapt to the inevitable changes. If not enough is known to even create a rough block diagram, go back to Step Zero. A clear vision of what the product is supposed to be is critical for aligning the team. If they don’t know what the goal is, why should they care? Knowing the major components and how they work in context makes it much easier to ask the right questions, set the appropriate urgency and, if necessary, make the necessary decisions and recommendations quickly when plans change.
2. What is completely new and/or never been done before?
The length of this list is determines the amount of risk on this project. These are also the areas that need the most hands-on attention. Many project leaders try to manage and control every little detail. It becomes overwhelming and a recipe for failure. Focus on what is new and never been done before and build your plan, and your team, around that. This does not mean the rest of the details are ignored. Just make sure the riskiest areas are covered first and get most of your energy.
3. What components have the longest? Yes, this applies to software, too.
For hardware development, this is a no-brainer since component lead times are a physical constraint to the project, but too often the software for the product is not considered. Software development that depends on new hardware delivery for testing puts some thought into lead time, though if cutting edge technology is involved, then it deserves more attention. However, not much thought, if any, is put into lead times in the development of software application or video games because it is almost impossible to accurately estimate the work. However, there are a variety of techniques to make a reasonable estimate of the work and plan lead times. I will get into more detail on these techniques in future articles. When it comes right down to it, there is a limit to how much you are willing or able to invest in a feature and it is possible to build a plan around that.
4. What is the market window for the product?
Whether there is a good time to launch the product or a race with competitors to get the product to market first, the pressure to meet a market window can have a profound effect on the product. It can drastically alter features late in development, force an interim product release, or push a development team to take more risks. If there is a tight market window for the product, it is critically important to set and continually update clear priorities. The team must be constantly aligned to those priorities. When push comes to shove, you then have confidence that the highest priority features will have the highest quality and the greatest impact on the product.
The answers to these questions set the foundation for the process early on, but answering these questions is not just done at the beginning of the project. It needs to be done iteratively and throughout the NPI phase guide the product through its natural evolution.
To read more of my thoughts on the NPI process, please see: NPI: The Creativity Of The Funnel