Putting people together to create new products

When companies plan out a new product (or service, or business process) they often think of the effort as the coordination of two teams solving different problems. Engineering addresses the question "what can you make?" Marketing addresses the question "what can you sell?"

You could engineer a combined toaster and cell phone, but you could never sell it. Marketing would tell you that you have a product no customer would buy. Likewise, you might successfully market a car that runs on tapwater, but the impossibility of building one makes it a meaningless product idea. Smart organizations know that they need to combine the insights from both marketing and engineering to find products that they can both make and sell.

You might think that those two perspectives cover everything you need for a success. Certainly, many products have had modest successes this way. But to have a big success, you need more than just engineering and marketing.

If you want to sell a new spaghetti sauce, for example, engineering can set up how you will cook and jar the sauce, while marketing can come up with ways to advertise, distribute, and promote it. But if you want loyal, satisfied customers who tell their friends to try the sauce, you have to make it taste good. Design addresses the question "what will people like?" It makes sure that the sauce tastes good.

A separate design team

Many companies give their marketing group responsibility for determining what people will like, but marketing must focus on customers and their purchase decisions. This differs subtly from design’s concern with users and their satisfaction. To succeed with a spaghetti sauce for children, you need marketing that will motivate adults to buy it, but designers need to give it a flavor that appeals to children. Marketing and design apply different skills to different problems.

With interactive products like software, consumer electronics, and Web sites, design means determining how the product will behave when people use it. Since engineering creates the software which generates the behavior, many companies leave it to engineers to decide what behaviors the product should have. But leaving the design in the hands of engineers tempts them to create behaviors which they can build more easily, or which may make sense to them but not to users. Engineering and design also apply different skills to different problems.

Responsibility, authority, and resources

Any organization draws its shape from the responsibilities assigned to its members. As most people in business know, if no one has ownership of some area of responsibility you can expect that it will not get done. Your organization’s success comes from the sum of your employees’ successes, so you must measure your employees’ effectiveness against their responsibilities. Your organization will only get what you measure.

You also need to give people the resources and authority necessary to meet the responsibilities that you give them. This governs how the different groups in your organization work together.

Design should have responsibility for users’ satisfaction with the product. Look carefully at your company—many organizations do not really hold anyone responsible for this! In order to accept this responsibility, designers need to have the authority to decide how the product will behave. They also need to gather a lot of information: they must talk to potential users about their needs, to engineers about the technological opportunities and constraints that define what the product might do, to marketing about market opportunities and requirements, and to management about the kind of product to which the organization will commit.

Marketing has responsibility for the product’s appeal to customers, so they need to have authority over all communications with the customer. In order to do this, they need a lot of information resources including the results of designers’ user research and customer research of their own.

Engineering has authority over all of the system architecture that users do not see. For the design to deliver its full benefit, engineering must have responsibility for building the behaviors that the designers define, on budget and on schedule. Too often, engineers get handed a schedule and vague product requirements, leaving them to guess what will satisfy management. Engineers need to get better resources in order to fulfill their responsibility, in the form of a clear description of the product’s behaviors which guides what they build and drives their time and cost estimates.

Management has responsibility for the profitability of the resulting product, and therefore has the authority to make decisions about what the other groups will work on. In order to make those decisions, they need to receive information from all of the other groups: design’s product description, marketing’s analysis of the volume of sales they project, and engineering’s projection of the time and cost to create the product.

Design and engineering

In order to make this work, the design and engineering groups need to have an effective working relationship. They have the greatest opportunity for friction, but also the greatest opportunity for mutual benefit if they work together well.

In many companies today no one has specific responsibility for the satisfaction of users, so, by default, in those companies this falls under engineers’ broad responsibility for the quality of the product. As a consequence, engineers tend to regard designers’ plans for product behaviors as suggestions rather than directives, and instead implement behaviors that make sense to their engineering sensibilities. Software engineers, in particular, tend not to respect mere authority, and may call a design "impossible" in order to take control when they distrust designers’ judgment. But if management makes it clear that the designers have accepted real responsibility for users’ satisfaction, designers will have the respect of the engineers who, in turn, will fulfill their responsibility to build what designers specify.

Furthermore, designers must serve the engineers well by writing very clear behavior specifications. Engineers find vague requirements directives frustrating, because they expect that they will lead to requests for changes later in the process, wasting their time when schedules get tight. Engineers value designers who can give them a specific picture of what the product should do.

Engineers also may fear that unsophisticated designers will demand the impossible. Designers have an obligation to understand the technology involved well enough that engineers can really implement everything they design. However, designers should not concern themselves with ease of implementation, only possibility. Evaluation of the ease of implementation should only happen when engineering takes the design and creates a time and cost estimate to give to management.

The relationship between design and engineering shifts when the designers complete the behavior specification. Before that point, the designers draw on the wisdom of the engineers in order to understand the technological opportunities and constraints that control the vocabulary of behaviors which the product can use. This ensures that the designers deliver a design that the engineers can implement.

After the designers have created the behavior specification, the situation reverses and the designers become resources for the engineers. No specification can anticipate every possible behavior and situation, so the designers must support the specification with explanations and elaborations as the engineers proceed with the creation of the product. This also acts as a check on the designers, ensuring that they deliver a clear specification.

The benefits of a good organization

Setting up the right responsibilities in your organization reduces costs and risks throughout the entire product development process. Engineering efforts become easier to manage because you can measure engineers’ work against the behavior specification, without mid-course changes. This makes it easier to keep costs and timelines from spiraling out of control. It also means that marketing has more lead time to prepare a campaign for the new product because they can get a good picture of it before engineering has finished their work.

The end result: great products. Your business benefits because a well-designed product spurs users’ enthusiasm, making it easier to sell, support, and market. Beloved products help to build your brand. And everyone in your organization can take pride in what they have produced.

Jonathan Korman

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