By Olly Eades
Small increments in the product development process are nothing to be sniffed at. All too often I end up working on projects that highlight people who want to take one single leap into a new technology zone.
This is a great aspiration to have and is one that has the potential to change any sport. In golf, this big leap was from small wooden drivers to the big metal drivers we see today, from wood to metal. This resulted in much longer and straighter drives.
In tennis it was the move from wooden, to aluminium rackets, and, ultimately, to carbon rackets. Bigger head size + lighter materials = more area to hit the ball with, more power and higher consistency.
In football the move from leather footballs to synthetic materials changed the game for the better. This means the ball doesn’t get heavier when it rains, maintaining the playing conditions of the game, no matter what the weather.
Each of these examples may provide incentive to inform the next big step in a different sport. Ultimately, however, these innovations were unlikely to have been developed in one step.
In golf, the introduction of a metal driver was as a result of tinkering with different materials. The move to metal from wood, at the time, was seen as one big, and largely unpopular, leap. Internally, however, I would be willing to bet that this product came to exist as a result of trying lots of different materials, small moves forwards to find the right metal alloy that allowed the idea to take shape.
Technology works or Technology fails
To the public eye this innovation looks like a big leap but in development terms it stems from many little leaps. The same trend can be seen in tennis, in a more visible way. Movement from wood to metal allowed the shape of the tennis racket as we know it today to be born, but a further innovation using carbon fibre allowed an extra step change that saved more weight and allowed us to make even bigger racket heads.
My point is not that big leaps into new realms of sports technology is not one step. These big leaps are almost always as a result of small incremental changes made behind the scenes. The garnering of knowledge and insights that inform the following concept allows us to be steered in the right direction to make a big change. Innovation is not binary, it is iterative.
Too often I see people wanting to make one significant step change with a hypothesis the basis of the final product that they want to test. So many products that I end up working on here are as a result of a designer having confirmation bias from their own idea.
There is, however, a work around: building insights to guarantee a performance improvement. By working with a team like Progressive from the early stages in product development it is possible to test out a hypothesis without having invested a lot of time and money.
A test early in the design phase is not a binary output of ‘technology works’ or ‘technology fails’, it provides insight to the product development process.
Even if the product does not work, we can start to understand why. We can make tweaks to the product based on a new, informed hypothesis, and test that too. Each of these steps, whether the outcome is ‘positive’ or not is valuable because the knowledge we gain from the testing means we can make sure to avoid the technology that doesn’t work and use the technology that does.
Eventually, this will lead to a product that we know will give positive test results for a marketing claim or against a previous or competitor product. We know because we have already identified this improvement. When we come to running the test on the final product it is a product that has been designed and tested to make sure of this.
Often, this embodies itself as a small improvement, but how will we ever give ourselves the opportunity to make a big leap if we aren’t even generating the knowledge from an early stage that allows that to happen?