There’s a ton of hype about hardware and how much easier it is to make and scale physical products today. While a lot has changed, the amount of discipline and wisdom it takes to build a great product looks a lot like it always has.
The most common missing piece of the product development process for hardware startups is thorough testing. They rush from prototype to crowdfunding to manufacturing, without due diligence on how the thing they’re making actually lives and dies in the real world.
As a consequence the startup ships product that looks great, feels good and performs fine in limited, supervised user testing- but once it meets the complexity of real users and environmental variations, it falls well below expectations.
The customer ends up with zero interest in coming back for product 2 or 3. The startup may be able to sell new customers on product 2 or 3, but their inferior quality and bad reviews will eventually catch up with them and a more disciplined competitor will prevail.
As a basic rule, the more complex the product, the more involved and extensive the testing needs to be. You can see this play out in reviews of Quirky products on Amazon.
Quirky is known for an exceptionally fast moving product development process that starts with crowdsourced concepts. It has worked very well for simple products, but with complex products like connected appliances it starts to fall apart:
Simple + low cost: expectations can be met, environmental variances are unimportant:
Complexity + higher cost: lots of features that can fail or be confusing for end users, moving outdoor air means environmental variation can become a critical factor, user expectations are higher because of price point:
If I had to guess why, I would say it’s because of the amount of time required for thorough testing. Something like a connected air conditioner has to deal with a high number of variables:
- Air (can be dusty, polluted, humid, etc.)
- Variety of window frame formats (+ end user skill with installation)
- Variety of smartphone operating systems (+ end user skill with troubleshooting)
Not to mention that a connected air conditioner will contain electrical, mechanical + fluid systems…
On the other hand the cord management product really only requires a (somewhat) flat surface.
More variables means that for a product success, there needs to be a substantial time budget for making sure everything works when the scenario changes.
To see how companies creating best-of-breed products handle testing, look at the lengths General Electric and Festool go to, literally importing dirt from all over the world to make sure their products hold up as expected:
While this level of testing may seem out of reach for a typical startup, there are a couple of options that can get you a lot of the insights you need without tying up too much time or money.
Build a handful of units that are as fully solved as possible- this means the geometries are injection molding friendly, wall thicknesses are where you they need to be, you’re using the battery chemistry final products will ship with, etc.
3D printing won’t get you the material fidelity you need, so using rubber molds and getting cast urethane parts to accurately simulate injection molding resins is the best route. Ship these units to people that are excited about your project and are representative of what your end users will be. Bonus points for users in different climates, different ages, etc. these beta testers will go a long way to getting you the diversity of environmental and usage conditions you want. Don’t tell them to treat your product with any special care- if the product breaks, that’s where the learning will come from.
Work with a testing lab or one of the better hardware programs like Bolt VC that has the engineering + testing support to run the right torture tests on your product (see how Bolt portfolio company Qleek has been doing their due diligence on wood + composite performance in an environmental test chamber: http://qleek.me/read/2015/6/17/getting-qleeks)
As annoying and unglamorous as testing can be, it’s a huge differentiating factor over the long term and can make or break your company. Biting the bullet and spending time now will save you and your customers a lot of pain later on.