How Can I Determine the Complexity (and Cost) to Develop My Product?

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Developing and bringing any new hardware product to market is no doubt difficult. This is true even for the simplest of products. Product development becomes significantly more challenging, and expensive, as the complexity of the product increases.

Exceptionally complex products may not be appropriate for an entrepreneur with limited experience and finances to bring to market. For example, Apple is reported to have spent over $150 million dollars developing the original iPhone.

Needless to say this is way outside the means of most entrepreneurs, or even well-funded startups.

So how can you judge the complexity level for your product? I’ll answer this question by breaking down product complexity by several criteria.

NOTE: This is a long, very detailed article so here's a free PDF version of it for easy reading and future reference.

Product Size

The size of your product has a huge impact on the complexity and cost to develop it. For example, without any size constraints, I suspect Apple could have developed the iPhone for hundreds of times less than $150 million.

The true complexity is in squeezing all of that amazing technology into such a small product.

Inside of a small electronic product

Product size has a significant impact on development cost and complexity.

This is why wearable technology products can be more challenging to develop. Of course, it also depends on the technology you wish to implement.

For example, if you have a wearable device that tracks your heart rate and transmits that data to a mobile app via Bluetooth Low-Energy, then I would classify that as not overly complex to develop.

On the other hand, if you told me your wearable device instead transmits this data to the cloud via cellular, then that becomes significantly more complicated.

Cellular is a power hungry technology, especially compared to Bluetooth Low-Energy, so it requires a larger battery. Large batteries and wearable devices don’t typically go together well.

Product Shape

Not only is the size of the product critical in regards to its complexity, to a lesser extent so is the shape of the product.

For example, if your wearable tech gadget is like a traditional watch with a flat compartment to incorporate the electronics, then that is much less complex than if your product is more like a bracelet.

This is because a bracelet shape will not have a flat area to easily embed the electronics PCB (Printed Circuit Board).

Traditionally, a PCB is flat and rigid. For a product such as a bracelet you will need to instead use a flexible PCB which adds considerable cost and complexity.

Unless you feel that your selected shape is absolutely critical for your product’s success, I always recommend designing your product to use a standard, rigid PCB.

Flexible PCB

A flexible PCB can add significant complexity to a product. Use rigid boards whenever possible.

Technologies

In almost all cases, developing a product that requires a fundamentally new type of technology is outside the means of most entrepreneurs.

The same may hold true for technologies that exist already but that haven’t evolved to the point of being practical for most applications. Power harvesting is a good example.

Power harvesting is the ability to harness power from external sources such as solar, thermal, wind, motion, chemical, or even radio waves. The most common, and practical, method of power harvesting is the use of solar cells.

Power harvesting can be especially appealing for small wearable tech products that have very limited space for a battery.

The idea of reducing, or even eliminating the need for a size constraining battery is very appealing for many products, especially wearable tech and Internet of Things (IoT) products. However, the majority of power harvesting technologies haven’t advanced enough yet to make them viable for most products.

If your product requires cutting edge power harvesting technologies in order to be a viable solution to the problem you are attempting to solve then that will likely classify your product as complex to develop.

The absolute worst-case scenario for a new product is one that requires a completely new technology, or one that is still in the research or experimental stage.

Developing any new technology will almost always be outside the financial means of most entrepreneurs and startups that aren’t heavily funded. Developing new technology is best left to big multi-billion dollar corporations.

For entrepreneurs and startups your uniqueness must be in the innovative way in which you apply these technologies.

Processing Requirements

Almost all products require some kind of “brains”. This can vary from a simple 8-bit microcontroller running at a clock speed of a couple megahertz, all the way up to multi-core 64-bit microprocessors running at blazing fast gigahertz speeds.

As you can imagine, the slower and simpler the processor, the simpler the product will be to develop.

Two of the most popular examples of a microcontroller compared to a microprocessor are the Arduino and Raspberry Pi development kits popular among makers. An Arduino uses a simple microcontroller, whereas a Raspberry Pi uses a high-speed, high performance microprocessor.

Developing a product with similar processing capabilities to an Arduino will be much easier than a product requiring the processing speeds of a Raspberry Pi.

A smartphone is another good example of a product based on a high-speed microprocessor, whereas a fitness tracking device is an example of a product likely to only require a microcontroller.

Although products with high-speed processing capabilities can still be practical for you to develop, they will be more challenging than a product based on a slower microcontroller.

In many cases, if your product does need fast processing then I recommend starting out with a processor module, instead of a custom circuit design based on a bare processor chip.

The gigahertz clock speeds used by fast processors greatly complicated the layout of the PCB compared to a slower microcontroller. These gigahertz speeds are also more likely to create complications with FCC certification.

The other major downside to fast processors is they are incredibly power hungry. So if you have limited space for a battery, then you definitely need to reconsider whether or not you really need such a fast processor.

You may need a really fast processor if your product includes features such as a high-definition display or camera (especially 1080p), speech processing, face recognition, artificial intelligence, etc.

If possible, your best option is to always use a microcontroller. There are some really powerful microcontrollers available that are fast enough for all but the most advanced applications.

Number of Features

One of the biggest threats to a new product being successfully developed is something called feature creep. Feature creep simply means that more and more features keep creeping into your product definition.

In almost all cases this is a grave error that will prevent you from ever finishing the development of your product.

I’m a big supporter of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) concept. Start with the absolute simplest version of your product that meets the end user’s needs. Then build in new features as needed based on your customer feedback.

Your goal is to get to a point as quickly as possible where you can begin gathering market feedback from real customers. Ultimately, your product’s feature set must be determined by your customers, not by you or your team.

Wireless Functionality

Wireless functionality can be one of the most complicated functions for many new products. Fortunately, there is a way to simplify the use of wireless functionality: modules.

There are numerous electronic modules for just about any wireless function including Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low-Energy, WiFi, cellular, ZigBee, Z-wave, GPS, etc.

Using pre-certified wireless modules has many advantages.

Pre-certified electronic module

In almost all cases it is best to start off with a pre-certified module for any wireless functions.

Their use will lower your development complexity which ultimately means lower development costs and faster time to market. Even large companies will use wireless modules mainly to speed up their time to market.

Another big advantage of using modules for wireless functionality is the lower cost to get your product FCC certified (or similar certifications for other countries/regions outside the U.S.).

Of the wireless technologies l listed above the one outlier is GPS (Global Positioning Satellite). GPS is a receive-only technology so FCC certification is easier than for a device that also wirelessly transmits.

The FCC is primarily concerned with making sure your product doesn’t emit electromagnetic radiation (i.e. radio waves) that may interfere with other products.

So with GPS the main reason to use a module is the reduced time to market. GPS is an extremely challenging technology to get just right. I mean, after all, you’re trying to detect extremely faint radio signals from space!

Battery Life Requirements

For portable products there is always a tradeoff between battery/product size, battery life, and performance. Performance can mean processing speed, wireless communication speed, wireless range, etc.

In general, engineering and product development are always about tradeoffs.

For example, you can’t make small size, long battery life, and high performance all the same level of criticality. Instead, I suggest ranking these criteria in order of priority.

If high performance and small size are the most critical then you better expect the product to need to be recharged frequently. On the other hand, if battery life and small size are most critical, then processing performance will be compromised.

Assembly Complexity

One measure of product complexity that many people overlook is the difficulty of final product assembly.

Final product assembly for an electronic product

Designing a product for manufacturing includes simplifying assembly as much as possible.

An example of a product that can be easily assembled would be one where all of the electronics are contained on a single board, and that board fits easily inside of a simple enclosure consisting of two halves.

At the other extreme, an example of a product that is complex to assemble is a wearable tech bracelet that requires multiple flexible boards with numerous electronic components not mounted on the PCB.

For example, if the product is loaded with antennas and sensors not mounted on the PCB, assembly will be more complex. The same is true if your product requires a complex enclosure consisting of many pieces, or if the product includes many mechanical parts.

Another example of a technology that can greatly complicate product assembly is wireless charging. Wireless battery charging requires a large wire coil for receiving the wireless power. Placement of this coil is critical, and for really small products this can be quite challenging.

Software

Software can generally be broken into various categories. Firmware is software that is embedded inside a hardware product. In simple terms firmware can be thought of as software for hardware. The function of firmware is to control the hardware.

If your product requires any type of “brains” then you will need to have firmware developed. As with all things the range of complexity in developing firmware can vary drastically.

For a product with a simple microcontroller controlling a few buttons, lights, and/or relays, the firmware development will be quite easy.

At the other extreme, if your product has a high-resolution display and performs complex processing functions such as video or speech processing, then the development of the firmware will be much more difficult.

Just about any electronic product other than perhaps a power supply, will require firmware. However, if your product is wireless and interfaces with a smart phone then you will also likely need to develop a custom mobile app.

The complexity of a mobile app can be determined based on the complexity of any behind-the-scenes processing required, and the visual graphics. From my experience, complex graphics can significantly increase the complexity of developing either a mobile app or firmware.

Any aspect of your product that is visually critical, whether that means advanced visual graphics or the physical aesthetics of the product’s enclosure, will increase the time and cost of development.

Product Appearance / Aesthetics

If the appearance of your product is of prime importance that will add considerable challenges to your product development. This generally means that you’ll need to prototype many revisions of your product in order to get it to look like you want.

If appearance isn’t all that critical then you’ll likely be able to get your product enclosure design finalized in only a couple of prototype iterations. However, if appearance is really key for your product’s success then you may find it now takes you a dozen or more iterations to get it right.

Since appearance is subjective, whereas functionality is testable, I find that for some products it can take longer to get the aesthetics correct than the functionality.

Summary

Developing any new product for mass consumption is extremely challenging. Even the most simple product you can imagine will be difficult to develop and mass manufacture.

As an underfunded entrepreneur or startup you absolutely must focus on reducing your product’s complexity.

You have enough obstacles in your path to success with a simple product, so be cautious of adding even more obstacles by trying to develop an unrealistically complex product. Doing so is a sure fire way of ensuring that you will be developing your product for many years to come.

Wouldn’t you love to be able to bring your new electronic hardware product to market faster, cheaper, and with less risk? If so, check out our Predictable Hardware Report which includes a preliminary product design, detailed cost analysis, engineering review, and private consulting. There is no better way to get started.

Leave a Reply 3 comments

Francois Mc Duff - January 11, 2018 Reply

Nice article John! You get right to the point! Many thanks

Stephen Young - January 9, 2018 Reply

I knew about feature creep, having witnessed it often enough, but I did not know about MVP. Thanks for bringing this one up!

    John Teel - January 9, 2018 Reply

    Yes, MVP is especially important for hardware startups. Thanks for the comment.

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