How to Overcome Time-to-Market Pressures from Smart, Connected Product Development

Kevin Smith | August 8, 2017

As part of an ongoing series, we’re looking at insights and trends uncovered within the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services study, “Bridging The Gap In Digital Product Design.”

Product development is already a stressful endeavor. For companies focused on merging hardware and software into smart products, it’s only getting more intense.

According to the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report, “Bridging The Gap In Digital Product Design,” nearly 90% of companies are either adding or planning to implement digital technologies to their products.

Given the new process and competitive landscape, 80% of those same businesses say they’re feeling extra time-to-market pressure. Not only that, but an even larger majority (89%) believes the strain will only grow in severity.

“There is pressure to always innovate and create the next generation version of your product,” Jama Software’s vice president of product, Jennifer Jaffe, says. “Sitting in that market is, by definition, a very uncomfortable place— specifically for a lot of companies who have been around a long time and who didn’t used to have all these pressures.”

Driving business concerns are fears of disruption. From cell phones to taxis, home energy management to automobiles, it can feel like no industry is immune to being blindsided by new technology. While companies can’t stop a savvy new competitor gunning for their position, how they innovate in response is crucial.

Software vs. Hardware

Traditional product companies are used to building hardware. When you add software development to the mix, there needs to be some alterations to the process.

That’s why one of the biggest priorities for businesses adding digital technologies to their products should be creating a plan to integrate the hardware and software teams. To do this, businesses must have a firm understanding of their existing development process, its necessary documentation, and logical gaps.

They’ll also need to recognize that software developers and traditional hardware developers work very differently. Figuring out how to unify these two practices, so they’re operating in tandem and not as opposing forces, is key. One of the best ways to do that is by having a method facilitating open communication and accountability.

“Most critical is having real time transparent communication, so that when things change on the software or the hardware side, all parties are informed and can adapt,” Jaffe says. “Without that collaboration, the two teams run the risk of working in isolation and developing products that are incompatible with each other.”

When to Innovate

Another area to consider when moving to connected products is not trying to start from scratch with every release. If a strong hardware platform has already been built, for instance, it makes sense to reuse it. Then, you can focus on incremental gains that can be handled in software updates.

“The more you can put the heavy lift of innovation on the software side,” Jaffe says, “The more likely you are to be able to respond quickly and create lots of different, compelling variants of your product’s experience — and do it as cheaply as possible.”

In that case, the product management team can set about envisioning the requirements of the future and brainstorm all the different use cases for the coming years. For instance, maybe that means creating hardware that can scale to accommodate a heaver usage on processing or memory. Then, looking ahead, if 80%-to-90% of the hardware requirements will basically remain unchanged, the development team can really be pushed to innovate on that extra 10%-to-20% of a new product.

This is also where a product development platform can really give developers an edge. With a simple, efficient solution for saving and reusing your hardware requirements, teams can focus on innovating iteratively.

That’s also why more than half of the companies going digital are partnering with software or other companies to assist with the digital transformation, according to “Bridging The Gap In Digital Product Design.”

What to Focus On

Today’s market is driven by consumer choice. Whether we’re talking about watches or coffee makers, customers have high expectations from products, and there’s a heavy push to constantly move forward. When one company’s product family goes smart, it almost feels inevitable competitors will too.

So businesses must listen to their customers to develop requirements. “The companies that are getting disrupted are oftentimes legacy companies whose business model, technical model, or both, don’t support newer methods for developing products,” Jaffe says. “And, specific to this idea of building to customer requirements, they’re companies that don’t have specific practices or tools to bring customer requirements to the forefront when they’re defining their product.”

Before production, then, companies should be putting prototype ideas in front of consumers for feedback on usability and value. And then running those customer requirements past engineers to sift through what’s feasible. Also, ensuring the requirements are documented in a clear way will keep various teams aligned throughout the process.

Moving Forward

All these shifts and crunches can significantly rattle a traditional product company not used to dealing with them. Keeping your team laser-focused on the evolving process will guide it to success.

“You have to prioritize the work that’s being done by your product development team and then not allow additional scope to creep in,” Jaffe says. “You really have to be judicious about the decisions you make, about what to prioritize, what to work on, and make conscious decisions to say no to projects that aren’t priority one for your development team.”

One thing that titans of any product category should avoid is kicking back with the belief that their winning days will be endless.

“A new, fresh company can come in today without all the legacy of old development practices, of old expectations of what it meant to serve a market,” Jaffe says. “Not only can they be more nimble and receptive on the technology front, but frankly, as a business, they can pivot quickly in the face of shifting consumer demand. That’s how they roll.”

Get a deeper look into the pressures driving companies to develop connected products with our report, “Bridging The Gap In Digital Product Design,” featuring insights from nearly 300 innovators from a variety of industries, including manufacturing, technology, healthcare, financial services, and more.