Pallina is Italian for sphere. The form of the sphere is naturally occurring and important to anyone that’s interested in design. I am a product designer for hire, and this website is built to showcase my philosophy on product design, as well as highlight the best new products from a visual and experience perspective.
The best designed products – be they mass appeal or niche – come from product designers that understand how to observe the world through the lens of creation. That is, to come up with ideas that nobody has ever thought of before and that cannot be searched for on the web or purchased on Amazon.
There are many thoughts about how this process occurs. Below I have laid out my methodology and process to discovering significant unmet consumer needs, and then acting on them from a product design perspective. I hope you find it interesting and valuable. If you have questions or comments, feel free to contact me.
How to Identify a New Product Opportunity
There is a moment that every product designer experiences. Some call it epiphany, others call it divine intervention. It’s the moment when we realize an insight that has breadth and depth. An insight that shows us what it means to be human, and connects us together. This is the starting place from which all truly great products arise.
Formulating an Insight
Great insights don’t come along every day. But there are methodologies one can employ to begin working with insights in a productive manner. This can – in theory – help you focus on insights that matter, and discard insights that are wonderful at face value, but dead end with failure of one kind or another.
I don’t recommend you put yourself too far into a box. After all, we are talking about invention. Thinking up things that have never been conceptualized before requires a bit of freedom to work correctly. Some may even say chaos must be injected into the system for it to produce something new. Evolution follows a similar path. Unfortunately, as product designers we don’t have millions of years to refine our designs. We must act, and decisively, to create something meaningful to human beings.
The I, Because, But Methodology to Insight Discovery
Insights are, by their nature, forward looking statements that predict or define the human condition. They lead us to significant unmet needs in the human experience, but they do not tell us the need directly. Sometimes market research is employed to survey customers, random consumers, or other test groups. The results of the data are parsed for various slices of data that can be overlaid to discover patterns.
Unfortunately, surveys can be unreliable. Consumers don’t always know what they want until you show it to them. After all, did anyone conceptualize a truly massive unmet need for smartphones before the iPhone came along? And if the iPhone had not been designed and constructed at a massive financial risk with only the best specs and materials, would it have been accepted by consumers? These are questions on which a solid insights process can deliver.
Discussing challenges of daily life with consumers does have value. It’s often a more informal process that yields the best data. That said, product designers must also allow for a level of abstraction beyond simply asking a direct question and recording the response. We need to read between the lines to uncover something that has never been discussed.
A wonderful formula for this discussion can be applied to help the discovery process along. While it doesn’t need to be repeated in a customer-facing discussion, it can be internalized later and created based on nearly any conversation. Here’s how it works:
I (insert action here) because (insert why the action is performed), but (insert a pain point in the process).
By way of example, this sentence may be played out in the following way:
I listen to music during my workouts because it keeps me energized and moving, but I hate managing my headphones cord and smartphone while moving.
In this simple example, we may have approached ten consumers and discussed their workout routines. They can tell us the above statement in several ways, and do not need to literally respond for us to understand. Better still, we can observe behaviors to come up with the above statement. By simply watching gym members work out over a period of days, weeks, or even months, we may note that many of them are listening to their headphones connected to smartphone devices, and that process has certain pain points attached.
We may see consumers drop their phones on accident. They may also become tangled in cords and wires. All of this behavior is easily observable, but requires product designers to leave the office and go out into the world.
Finding Significant Unmet Needs
In the above example, it may be important to observe a variety of gym environments in many geographic locations. Otherwise the product designer assumes all people are behaving according to one small group that may be bound by geography and status in society. Expanding horizons is important, because as product designers we will eventually need to prove our design is successful through commercial success. That means profitable sales over a long period of time.
The Argument for Fast Design
It’s worth pausing here to discuss the fast trend sweeping the world of product design. No matter your industry or category, the effect of automation, computer aided design, and technologies like 3D printing are pressuring product designers to innovate faster. Small iterations, or experiments, can be mass produced in limited quantities, sold, and then evaluated.
The fashion industry was the first to be disrupted by this new era of product design. Textiles by their nature lend themselves to cheap, quick, and hands on manipulation. Brands like Zara demonstrated that products can be observed, copied and made better, and distributed to retail locations in weeks rather than months or years. And while it requires an extremely disciplined level of supply chain and inventory management to succeed, the model works because product designers can innovate quickly.
Fast design will always be a part of business going forward. There’s no doubt in my mind that things will move even faster. This has as much to do with social media marketing for new products as anything else. But think about this: If Zara disrupted fashion by changing the business model of how clothing is designed and made, then who invented the idea of the new business model? That’s also product design at a global level based on a massive unmet consumer need, and it’s something that every designer must keep in mind.
So often we jump quickly to design without thinking about need. A true unmet need stems from a place of significance. In other words, the need is great and abundant. There are many kinds of significance, and typically we must choose only one or two that can be prioritized.
Quantified Need Significance
The most traditional analysis and often a starting point is quantifying the universe of customers that could or would purchase a new product. If we reach an acceptable number based on established financial information then we have a green light to proceed. If not, it’s back to the drawing board. While many products have been created without a firm understanding of this metric, it is somewhat useless on its own.
In other words, willingness to buy does not mean willingness to pay any price, nor does it mean willingness to accept the new product once presented with a real opportunity. There are many variables that make up customer choice, and so starting with market size before adding other elements to the equation is the best path to understanding truly significant unmet needs.
A financially significant need for product design requires that profit be present. This can mean selling a highly-specialized, high margin product to a very small number of customers. It can also mean selling a low margin, mass produced product to everyone in the world. On rare occasions, we see a highly-specialized, high margin product find its way into the global zeitgeist. Apple’s iPhone is a perfect example. Should any aspiring product designers come up with such an idea, please contact me first.
While money alone isn’t a reason to design a product, it must be considered as certain decisions on materials, shapes, and other details are made.
In some cases, markets themselves can define the level of need that must be achieved to consider something significant. Markets can be forward looking. If you are aware that gasoline prices at the consumer level will be much higher in the future due to reduced oil production in the Middle East, you will also know that designing better electric cars is important. That’s an engineering feat, but it starts with the simple idea of significance. After all, over a quarter of the world’s population drives automobiles fueled by petrol. It’s hard to imagine a market more significant than that.
Markets may also react to psychological manipulation. In that case, what was once popular may quickly become the opposite. As we struggle with time management and screen use, it is becoming increasingly popular to limit child interaction with smartphones and tablets. The growing data shows spending too much time on a smartphone is damaging to development, and may inhibit certain healthy brain functions. As studies continue to come from reputable academic institutions, product designers may predict an opportunity based on changing tastes and preferences.
Society is rapidly changing. That change creates many unfortunate outcomes, including growing wealth and health disparities. Significantly balancing the equation for the better requires that basic human needs be met. Clean water, fresh air, and a healthy diet are all basic human needs that create the best conditions for other effects such as education, egalitarianism, and psychological development.
Product designers can solve these needs, though often it is not profitable for companies to do so. That’s why we spend so much of our aggregate mental output designing luxury products rather than life saving products. Consider this: Engineering stainless steel straws that serve no practical use other than the aesthetic versus straws that filter drinking water to stave off disease and dehydration in the third world. Or the Japanese blacksmith using time worn techniques to craft a Japanese chef knife to sell on the global market.
Altruistic product design is increasingly considered a profitable endeavor. Movements such as conscious capitalism and sustainable investing offer us the opportunity to do better by providing liquidity to designers and engineers that must do the hard and skilled work of solving human problems.
Can a product have a soul? To many customers buying is more than just a simple act. Products in modern society show status, celebration, or other functional benefits that make lives better. This can be as simple as a soft-closing cabinet drawer that leaves you with a pleasurable experience each time you use it, and as complex as a six-figure wristwatch that signals achievement to the rest of the world, uplifting confidence and even attitude.
It is part of a larger experience that produces a positive – if often fleeting – emotion. That’s critical to understand when creating a product to sell. Purchasing a luxury car can elicit a strong sense of excitement and achievement, that is until the first payment comes due. And after a year of ownership with the high cost of fuel, insurance, and storage, that purchase may create a net negative emotion. Product designers must keep this in mind when thinking about new opportunities, luxury products in particular.
How to Conceptualize New Products
When a significant unmet need has been identified, it becomes much more straightforward to create a product that solves for that need. While it isn’t easy by any means, it does become more so by rigorously exploring the insight and need first.