Episode #26 – How to Define and Specify Your New Hardware Product

Published on by John Teel

In this episode of the Predictable Designs Podcast I’m sharing another one of the lessons from a course in the Hardware Academy. The topic of today’s lesson is how to properly define and specify your product.

This product definition is not only required for whoever eventually develops your product, but it is also needed in order to estimate your development cost and even your manufacturing cost as soon as possible.

Be sure to also download the free PDF that goes with this podcast which is a product definition template I’ve created to help you get started with properly defining your new product. You can download it here.

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Links mentioned in the show:
The Hardware Academy

Download the PDF transcript of this podcast episode.


Podcast Transcript:

John Teel: We’re going to review some of the main characteristics of your product that you’re going to need to define in order to be able to estimate all the different cost and, of course, to even get the product design, you have to have that defined for the developers.

Some large design firms may have their own templates that they would like you to use for sharing your product information. I’m going to be going over some of the general characteristics of a product that you’ll need to specify or give some thought to and prioritize.

The first one is start with describing the purpose of your product. Generally, for the product definition, I don’t recommend that you go into detail about the market and how many people are going to buy your product.

That would be more for a business plan, but for a product definition, stick to just the technical aspects and what the product is supposed to do and, of course, any other specifications. Just don’t be too verbose in this section.

Try to generally keep the purpose of the product simple. Usually, just a paragraph or two should be sufficient for you to describe your product.

Next, we’re going to break down the product into three parts, four if you count the packaging, but three for the product itself. We’re going to be looking at you have to specify the electronics. We’ll specify into the software, the firmware, and mobile apps.

Then we’ll specify the enclosure requirements or the mechanical design requirements. For the electronics, I recommend that you start off by listing all of the various features or functions of the electronics and list them in order of priority.

For instance, you would list Bluetooth, WiFi, accelerometer, cellular service. You would list all those broken down.

Do your best, and this is I’ll say more difficult if you’re a non-technical founder, but do your best to keep the software and the hardware features separate.

For instance, Bluetooth and WiFi and cellular, those are the hardware features, but some of the specifics of what the data that’s communicated and how that’s being communicated, that would tend to be more in the software aspect. In general, try to differentiate between those two.

It just makes it a little bit easier when you are trying to estimate your manufacturing cost because software is obviously a lot different than hardware. Software complexity will increase your development cost but not typically your unit cost. Be sure to keep those separate.

Just list as many of the hardware features of your product as you can. I know this is challenging if you’re non-technical, but just do the best that you can. You can use this as a reference list of different features for a product, whether you have a display or touchscreen or camera or HDMI or various sensors. This can be a good starting place for getting an idea on the various features that you may want to specify for your product.

Next, you’re going to want to also specify your target retail price. The reason that this should be part of your product definition is this is going to set basically your upper end on your manufacturing cost. This can be very beneficial when development is happening for the components selection and prioritizing the performance specifications.

For instance, if you’re developing a $10 product versus a $100 product, the components that you’re going to have to be able to use in each of those products are going to be drastically different. Obviously, the $10 product, you’re going to be a lot more limited in the functions that you select and you’re going to have to obviously go with the much lower-cost solutions.

That’s really beneficial for the designer who’s doing the cost estimation. That’s really beneficial to know that well in advance so that you can incorporate that knowledge into the component selection.

Next is the product dimensions and the weight. How small is the product? How much do you anticipate it weighing?

Now, you may not have exact specifications for the size and the weight because you don’t really have the design yet to know what those are going to be, but what you can do is estimate or give a range that would be acceptable and then also prioritize how critical is small size, for instance, or how critical is low weight. These can really add a lot of complexity to a product.

Designing a product where size is supercritical takes a lot more time and a lot more effort, which translates to more money to design than something where space is not a constraint because packing things tighter together, for instance, on the printed circuit board, that just takes more time.

It’s much easier to plop down different parts of the circuit with large spacing between them versus when you’re packing things tight, then you have to measure everything and make sure that you’re meeting the minimum spacing requirements for that printed circuit board process, so it just take a lot more time.

It’s really beneficial to specify upfront, estimate the size and the weight that you would like to target, but also specify how critical small size is and lightweight is for your product.

Next, you’ll want to look at the operating environment. Is this going to be operated in really cold temperatures? Is this going to be operated in the rain or high humidity environment? These are the types of things that you’ll want to specify upfront.

Obviously, temperature will be required to know because one of the key things that will determine is the battery type, for example, alkalines don’t perform very well at all at cold weather. In a case like that, you’d probably want to go with some type of lithium battery.

Obviously, if it’s going to be in the water, then it needs to be waterproof. These are important things to identify upfront. If it’s just going to be used in a normal indoor environment, then that lowers the specification requirements, but if it’s going to be used in any type of extreme environment, then you’ll definitely want to specify that.

Next is how is the product going to be powered? Is it going to be battery powered? Is it going to be powered from an external DC source? Is it going to be powered from an AC outlet?

If it’s battery-powered, is it going to be a rechargeable battery or a disposable battery like an alkaline? You want to specify those requirements upfront, that’s obviously really important.

The majority of products that I see, by far the most common solution is a rechargeable battery with like a micro or a plug for recharging that battery. That’s probably the most common, but obviously, there’s a lot of issues with rechargeable lithium batteries as far as safety and certification.

Using a rechargeable battery can add a lot of complications for you, so you may want to give some thought to starting off with using alkaline, non-rechargeable batteries, but they have their own complications. You have to design the mechanical enclosure so the customer can access the batteries and change the mouth, so that adds some other complexity. You need to specify.

The power source is going to also impact certifications and what certifications you’re going to need because, obviously, if you’re powering this from an AC outlet, then that requires different specifications than a lithium battery versus an alkaline. You want to know these.

The power sources needs to be one of the main things that you specify. Then if it is battery operated, whether recharge board disposable, then what type of battery life are you looking for? Then that will determine the size of the battery. This obviously also plays with the size of the product and how critical that is.

When looking at battery life, if the product is always on and it’s always into a certain mode of operation, then that makes estimating the battery life a lot simpler.

Anytime it’s turned on, it’s always draining 10 milliamps, then that becomes a really simple calculation to estimate the battery life or the battery capacity that’s needed. In more complicated products where certain features are going to be on part of the time, other features will be on at different times, it may have a wireless functionality, so it transmits information, say once every 5 minutes or once every 10 minutes, all these things impact the battery life and make it a lot more complicated to estimate at the needed battery capacity.

In these cases, what you need to do is you need to specify use cases. Instead of saying, “I want my battery life to last for 20 hours,” you have to say, “I want it to last for 20 hours assuming that the GPS is turned on 10% of the time, the accelerometer’s on for 20% of the time, it communicates information wirelessly through cellular, maybe once every 10 minutes or something.”

You need to specify the exact use cases, and you can have multiple ones. This is going to be something that’s going to be up to you to specify and not the designer because you know how the product will be used better than the designer, or at least you should. Next is the processing performance requirements. If your product is going to be processing a lot of video data, for instance, and you’re doing machine vision, then that requires a lot higher processing capabilities than your transmitting temperature reading through Bluetooth low energy. You really need to specify as much as possible what type of processing requirements are required.

First of all, you need to specify it to a level so that you can differentiate whether you’ll need a microprocessor or a microcontroller. Microprocessor has a lot faster processing capabilities, you can think of it as a computer or your cell phone processor capabilities, so that’s going to be a lot higher than a microcontroller as far performance.

It’s also a lot more complicated and a lot more expensive. If you can get by with a microcontroller, and keep in mind, there are some very powerful microcontrollers out there, but if you can get by with a microcontroller versus a microprocessor, then it will just make development and everything that much smoother.

Just be sure to determine upfront whether, at the very least, if you need a microprocessor which has an operating system like Linux or Android or Windows versus a microcontroller.

Typically, won’t have an operating system, they can, but typically, they won’t have an operating system. Most of the components are embedded, like the ram memory is embedded versus microprocessor, it’s going to be external, which complicates the PCB design. You want to specify upfront the processing requirements for your product.

If your product has a display, then you’re going to want to specify the requirements for that display. How big of a display do you want? How many colors does it need? What’s the resolution of it? Are you using it to play video or is this just plain text data?

Obviously, there’s a huge variety of different types of displays, everything for simple seven-segment LED displays that can only display alphanumeric versus full-color LCD, LED screens, so there’s a huge variety in displays.

You need to, first of all, find out what type of display your product needs for your requirements, and I’ve got a really good blog on that called Selecting the Display for your Product that you can find on the Predictable Designs blog.

That’s going to really help you fine-tune what type of display that you need, but then once you’ve selected the display technology, then you’ll also need to further specify that into the size, the resolution, the colors.

Keep in mind that a display, especially a complex display, will be one of the main drivers of cost and power consumption. This is really critical to specify and do not over design. If you need to display some character text, then you don’t need a full-color LCD screen, so just be sure you don’t overdesign in this case because you’ll pay the price in unit cost and power consumption.

If your product has wireless capabilities, then you’re going to want to specify the wireless range. This can be either specified as line of sight, which means there’s no obstacles between the receiver and the transmitter, just think outside straight line distance between the two, or you can specify more real-world conditions that you want it to operate in a house through five walls, that type of thing.

You want to specify that upfront. That’s going to help determine the type of wireless functionality that you need. Obviously, you need to transmit miles, that’s going to be a totally different solution than you need to transmit just a few feet, so that needs to be known upfront.

Then also within each type of wireless protocol, you can increase the distance or the range through different design solutions. For instance, Bluetooth Low Energy, or just Bluetooth in general, you think of maybe 50 to 100 feet operating range, but there are long-range Bluetooth solutions that have a line of sight range up to a kilometer, so don’t always use the operating range to select your wireless technology. Some different technologies have different range capabilities depending on the specific solution.

Keep in mind, once again, that range is going to tie directly into battery capacity, which can tie into product size. If you need a higher operating range and you need a higher transmission rate, then that’s going to take a lot of power, which is going to mean a bigger battery, which means a bigger product, so just keep that in mind. Also, you want to specify the number of discrete devices in your product.

For instance, if your product has two devices, one is a transmitter device, say it sends your data and it transmits it to another device that you have is a receiver device. Now you have two separate products. This is in many ways like developing two separate products, so do keep this in mind. Although you may sell this as one product and you think of it as one product from a development standpoint, if your product really is made up of two discrete devices, each with their own enclosure that are completely separated from each other, then that’s like developing two separate products.

If possible, I always recommend that you try to minimize the number of separate product devices required for your product. For instance, instead of having a receiver device can that just instead be someone’s smartphone or tablet. Then that allows you to eliminate one of the devices and essentially cut your development cost and your time to market and everything in half by getting rid of one of the devices.

You’ll also want to specify product appearance. You can obviously, if you have sketches or any other specifications that you want to specify in regards to the appearance, that’s going to be really helpful. Also, you want to prioritize the appearance. How important is the appearance for your product? Just to help you estimate the cost to develop the enclosure.

If appearance is really critical, then enclosure design tends to take a long time and be expensive because there’s so much back and forth required between you and your designer when it’s qualitative things like the appearance of the product. That’s difficult for the designer to necessarily judge to the same level that you do.

Just keep that in mind versus things that are more concrete. I want Bluetooth and I want it to communicate with a range of 100 meters, that’s much more concrete and something that can be specified versus appearance is very qualitative and tends to add a lot of time. Just be sure that you specify upfront how critical the appearance is for your product.

Then does your product have any mobile app requirements? A big percentage of the products that I see obviously have some type of wireless communication that communicate with the smartphone. What are your requirements for the app? Once again, is appearance for the app essential?

Are you really concerned about the aesthetics of the app and having lots of pretty colorful graphics and such? All that just adds a lot of time and effort to the design, so you want to know that upfront and be able to rank how important the appearance of your mobile app is or how complicated that you think it is.

Then, obviously, you need to, with all software, you’re going to need to specify as much as you can about what you want the app to do. What screens do you want it to have? What functions do you want it to have? You want to be sure that list those out, but obviously, keep that separate. Mobile app requirements, keep that separate from your hardware requirements or the firmware requirements.

Next, we’re going to look at the packaging specifications for your product. Don’t forget, especially if you’re going to be selling this in a retail environment, that your retail package is supercritical. It’s critical in a lot of situations. It’s critical as the product itself because this is what in a retail environment is what has to convince the customer to buy your product, assuming they not known about it ahead of time and seeing your website and such. The retail package is extremely critical.

You need to determine, what kind of package do you want? Do you want just a clamshell or do you want a box? If you want a box, then do you want a full-color box with a plastic insert? Just keep in mind that a full-color, really fancy retail box with plastic insert, they are extremely expensive and they will add a lot of cost to your product.

It’s generally not something I recommend that you start with doing that type of package. There’s just so much money involved in it and complexity. You don’t really know yet what characteristics of your products are going to entice customers the most.

You’re messaging still needs to work, so you don’t want to nail down your final, final, final package quite yet because odds are you’re going to want to change that once you get some market feedback. You need to specify upfront what type of packaging you want because that’s going to impact the cost and the development. It’s never as complicated as developing a product itself obviously, but don’t underestimate the complexity involved in designing a fancy package. Next, I suggest that you identify similar products.

I always find it really helpful when someone presents a new product to me, especially if it’s not one that’s immediately obvious, the function. It’s really helpful if you have an example or reference of a product that’s similar. This can be really beneficial just understanding the product but also can be helpful for shortcutting components selection.

A lot of times you can get a teardown on the other product, a similar competing product, find out what solutions they used and then take that and build on that. It can be really beneficial to have reference products to look at.

You’ll also want to specify the target country where this is going to be sold. If multiple countries, then be sure to specify that. This becomes especially critical in regards to power.

Obviously, some places uses 50 Hz Ac power, some places uses 60 Hz, perhaps different voltages, so you need to know that up front. In most cases, you can design it so that your product can work at both 50 or 60 Hz or the different voltage levels. That’s going to vary from country to country, so you need to make sure that you specify that upfront.

Same is true with wireless. Different countries have different requirements on wireless and what certifications are required and what frequency bands are permitted, so you want to be sure to specify that upfront based on the country. In some places, that’s going to drive this solution that your designer ends up selecting because certain solutions just aren’t viable in certain locations.

Then finally, most of the products I see here are typically electronically complex and mechanically quite simple, which tends to be an enclosure without any physical moving parts except maybe a motor spinning or a fan, but if your product does require any complex mechanical aspects, levers, or different moving parts, or it folds up, then you need to specify that upfront, and that’s most likely going to mean that you need to bring on a mechanical engineer to help with those aspects.

That is everything for step two, defining your product. Next in step three, we’re going to be looking at estimating all the cost to develop, scale, and manufacture your product.

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