What to do when designs get out from under you

What do you do when a design project you are working on starts to slip out from the cohesive vision you started with? How do you wrangle feature creep, client suggestions, making your innovative mechanism actually be functional/manufacturable all while maintaining design clarity as you move into the midpoint of a project?

My specific problem right now is in consumer product design project (for which I am engineer and product designer) that started out strong but as I tweak it to make the parts fit together, function and be manufacturable is turning uglier by the day. I figure this might be an issue across other disciplines as well so I’d love to hear general advice on how to manage feature creep or better prevent it from the beginning.

Thanks in advance!

Why was it “your” cohesive vision? Did the other shareholders have the same cohesive vision? When there was a change to the spec, did the other shareholders agree?

Also, a non-manufacturable pretty part is always going to be non-manufacturable. Parts need to fit together. Parts need to be functional. That is an ante up.

From customer feedback, the marketing end generates a required/desired document. Those are fulfilled by the technical end. Then we check our work with the customer and the whole cycle starts again.

When it comes to manufacturability, you have to ask the question was your design vision valid in the first place?

If you feel strongly that your concept vision was valid, then it’s a matter of pushing whatever engineering or vendors to try and reach that approach. In situations like this, especially if I am butting up an engineer who says “it can’t be done” I rely on previous examples, competitive product, or random samples where the technology/material/process was used.

If the initial concept didn’t have a valid consideration of DFM (design for manufacturability) then you’ll just have to work through the tradeoffs and see what you can do to bring it back online.

DFM is not the same as feature creep/scope creep. If you find out a part is impossible to injection mold and need to change the design to make it feasible (or improve yield, part strength, etc) it is not the same as someone from marketing coming out and saying “we need this to also work under water”.

Feature creep is just a matter of working with the product team to align on the vision and make sure you are doing what is right for the customer and agree on what tradeoffs need to be made. That’s just the art of being a designer on how you handle it. I’ve employed every approach from just giving in because it isn’t worth the fight to kicking, screaming and telling people if they f*** up my program that I’m going to quit. There are times when both methods are appropriate and have been successfully used.

Case 1: Small bumps need to be added to the back of a product late in development to avoid a static discharge failure. The bumps are not pretty, but they are small, don’t effect the design substantially and can be implemented quickly. So the bumps go on. A customer is not going to notice or not buy the product because of this.

Case 2: Team wants to gut a primary innovative design feature because of cost. They fail to understand the value of the feature and can’t quantify it because it is effectively an industry first. I respond by rendering the product without the feature, and in the process also remove any other innovative features until it looks like a piece of sh*t. The team finally figures out that design is important and agrees to leave the feature in.

I really mean my design of the aesthetic and functional components. I guess I used “vision” to open up the question a bit but I’ll speak to my specific problem instead .

I am a super green product designer (5 months into this job) and I know there are several problems with the way this product was developed- due to my own missteps (not requiring a detailed product requirement list from the get go) and that I was set up with this project in a half-baked prototype stage (developed by a intern) when it should have been almost fully refined for the production timeframe. I am not sure if anything like stakeholder research, pricing etc was done with this product - I don’t think I’ve seen any.

My problems now are due to trying to adapt and partially redesign the initial concept/design into something that actually meets the mechanical and manufacturing requirements. I’m hitting some issues with melding the new aspects of the design to the initial concept, revising/re-designing some of my mechanism concepts which theoretically worked but didn’t actually function as well once I put a high-fidelity prototype together and design revisions that move stuff around and make walls to thin or parts jam.

I’m a mech E and fabricator so my head is always in the DFM/functionality but when initially designing I didn’t include everything (like total thickness of the PCB components, screw boss for the battery cover now that it’s used with coin cells, oh I need a 2 more degrees of draft now so the round face of the part is angled, etc) that now I need to find a way to stuff into my design or design around.

We do a lot of pricing studies. We take the finished good to sites and try to get a PO. We are concerned with margin, not cost. We start with the minimum margin we require. If we get the PO, the next site we raise the margin and iterate this until we don’t get a PO. This is how we build the business case.

If by chance we don’t get a PO with the minimum margin, that is the only time to consider reducing costs. If we do remove that innovative design feature, we will redo the pricing study to confirm we will obtain that minimum margin. But we also consider ourselves an industry innovator/leader. We will not release a me-too product. So removing that innovative design feature may kill the project without the pricing study.

I’d sit down with your supervisor & CEO and show them the changes necessary to accommodate these functional aspects that were not considered when the first concept was generated.

In my experience you have two options. 1, stay the course and kluge something together. You have a higher risk of it looking like something that was kluged together. 2, scrap the concept and start from scratch. This is likely to increase the timeline but it is more likely to make a more successful product.

Hard to say what is more important. Sometimes it is getting to market first with good enough. Sometimes it is more important to get to market with the “right” thing. I think that decision is for your supervisor and or CEO.

Once a design leaves your head, it’s already compromised.

Good quote Ray. I’ll definitely be using that one!

p-degroot, These negotiations and adjustments are all “part of the dance” as I like to say. In time you learn not to be surprised by it, but instead to anticipate it, design proactively for it. You will never predict every challenge along the way, but instead of seeing those moments as compromise, see them as an opportunity to step back and rethink. Do’t see it as a battle to make the design worse, see it as an opportunity to make the design better. Honestly, this is what I love about being an in-house designer. All those little moments along the path to the end user are opportunities to educate people in development, sales, and retail about design as well as for you to learn about what they do and their concerns. I find no person ever really wants to make the product worse, they just have a different POV on what is critical to the product’s success… and sometimes they are right and we haven’t thought something. It is pretty fun.

I’ve never been a “throw it over the wall and hope for the best” kind of designer.

Thanks for all the replies. I’d love to hear more about experience in related situations. How do you decide whether to tack the new features on the existing design or just roll it back and re-design from scratch? What’s the craziest last minute design revision you had to make (or refuse)?

Because we work with ODM vendors, pricing becomes very subjective. The cost target is set, the margins are set, so you divide that to get the BOM cost.

The issue in the high tech world though is certain things are “required”. In this case the required electronic components needed to make it functional used up 90% of the BOM with very little left over for CMF, or differentiating features. In this case, marketing was slowly whittling down to the “me-too” standard which is where I had to show them what “me too” would actually look like since I refused to compromise.

Once a design leaves your head, it needs to be validated.

By the customer.
By the business case.
By the company culture.
By the market.

It’s too bad your marketing team has decided to be handcuffed to a BOM cost. Hopefully you showed them their shortsightedness.

To give a more complete answer, this is the biggest challenge that designers face. On one hand, great design often requires great clients. On the other hand, if you weren’t there, the company would still make the product, just without your input.

I’ve always viewed it as our professions highest calling is to be an advocate for good design and the consumer. I think it’s better to ride out a project with a client that doesn’t get it, even if your input makes the product 2% better.

However, that’s me. As Johnny Rotten said, “Go to where you’re not wanted first. There’s more to achieve.”