- December 18, 2016
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In the beginning is the concept.
All devices start with an idea. It might not be much of an idea, but you have to start somewhere. However, most ideas are bad. You can make a device from a bad concept, but usually not a great device. Bad ideas, however, can sometimes be refined into good concepts with effort and the ability to tell when the initial idea is bad. This is often much harder than it seems. Many very smart people have chased bad ideas for years and decades.
It doesn’t necessarily matter if the idea for a device has been done, although it helps if the idea was done poorly before. Recreating a successful device is harder than resurrecting a good idea that was executed poorly. (The poor execution could be caused by any number of factors, including the product vision being ahead of the technology to execute it well. This is not necessarily bad.)
In general, ideas come from two main places: creating something entirely new, or combining existing pieces into a new whole. The former is so rare it might not even be worth discussing. Those kinds of ideas usually only exist in philosophy, science, or the arts, not in product design. Product design is an applied art; it relies on not having to recreate the wheel every time, the wheel in this case being components, materials, and the tools and factories used to create the device. Even if you’re using a piece of new technology in the device (and unique technology itself is uncommon), it is usually surrounded by “old” technology.
Ideas are easy to come by. As a theoretical construct, it’s easy to convince yourself it’s great. But until it’s considered, measured against other ideas, sketched, prototyped, refined, and built, it’s difficult to tell if it is worth pursuing. “No ideas but in things,” said William Carlos Williams. Sometimes, even after design and development, a device’s true potential isn’t known until it’s in the marketplace and people use it. But without any of these steps, an idea is just that: an idea. And, unless patented, it is practically worthless. The execution of a concept is (almost) everything.
Sometimes it is almost impossible to tell if a device concept is a bad one at first. But there are warning signs:
- if the concept doesn’t meet a real (voiced or observed) need
- if the concept adds no new (read: better) extension or refinement of an existing device
- if the device relies too heavily on other services not in your control to deliver value
- if the concept’s value cannot be delivered at a price point that users will tolerate
Of course, there are examples that overcome all of these warning signs, and some of these cannot be determined when you first have an idea, only after examining it for a while.
Device concepts are the most interesting when they use a new technology to solve an old problem or use old technologies to solve new problems.