We’ve all got used to an abundance of all sorts of gadgets and gizmos in our everyday life.
Indeed, corporations spend billions of dollars each year to satisfy the needs of ever-fastidious consumers by designing, developing and launching hundreds of brand-new products that assist, entertain, clean, inform, and monitor. But how does this process work for independent development studios?
To find this out, I talked to Stan Bakaliar, the CEO of Woodenshark, a product design and development company with over 70 projects in its portfolio.
What products is Woodenshark behind? Tell us about your most outstanding projects.
There are some which make our engineering hearts proud. For example, we have developed a lightpack which uses high-resolution video as an input, analyzes color at every part of the screen edge and sends color commands to RGB LEDs all over the screen to light in matching colors.
The main challenge here is the calculation speed—you have to change LED commands very quickly, or else the user will notice the delay and, instead of relaxation or excitement, the product will only bring irritation.
We’ve also helped the WowCube team with their product, a 3-dimensional console and a gaming platform, which, too, involved plenty of engineering challenges. How to ensure the smooth rotation of all the modules and make the design reliable, so that the device doesn’t fall into pieces in the user's hands?
How to arrange data and charge sharing among all the modules? How to charge eight modules at once? How to fit all the necessary functions, three screens and a battery into a size of 3x3x3 cm and keep production costs moderate? It’s been a pleasure for us to solve these problems.
Our partner, Moeco, has also brought in some interesting enterprise IoT projects, which require rigorous analysis of the whole logistics and manufacturing processes as well as the users and their goals, and the development of user scenarios in the first place.
This project has shifted our perspective a bit, because we had to keep in mind that our mistakes could make the work with the devices uncomfortable, and, given the huge volumes, it could result in immense extra labor time and labor costs, which could eventually become much higher than the production costs.
How do you accept an application to work on a project, and how does work begin? How do you design your products? What processes do you provide to your customers?
We always start with the problem research to find out what result should be achieved to meet the needs of the customer and their users.
If the customer already has a solution idea, we look into it and try to suggest better options—that’s our job as engineers. We can refuse the project if the customer doesn't have any specific clear goals for the product, or if the project is too complex for us.
Next, we develop a list of technical requirements and success criteria and approve it with the customer. Usually, we provide them with a guesstimation—a project timeline and budget with ±100% accuracy, which can be used to estimate the amount of future funds and time needed.
Then we develop a product description, with all the details about interfaces, indication, structure, architecture and so on and send it to the customer for approval again.
From this point, we are ready to provide an accurate timeline and a budget, based on the decomposed features of the future product. We can also prepare a quality assurance plan to include it in the development tasks.
First, we design all the main functions as prototypes. After the approval, we put more bones to this skeleton, adding other features to it. Finally, the EVT (engineering verification test) takes place.
We are used to working in one-month sprints, keeping in mind the 1-1,5 timelines and the customer’s goals—it gives us enough flexibility to make short planning sessions once a month and get approvals for our work results periodically.
You have been involved in more than 70 hardware startups, including your own projects. What principles do you adhere to when it comes to product design? How do you define the success of this process?
Usually, there are two basic principles: there should be a business sense in launching the project, and the idea should have a considerably higher value for the user than the existing products.
We always try not to invent anything complex if there is a simple existing solution on the market—because if we do, we will repeat their mistakes and waste the customer’s budget with poorer results.
Also, many product teams do not realize the amount of capital required to launch a hardware startup, so we help them to develop an approximate financial model of their future business to see if it’s possible to build a viable company with their current business ideas.
Speaking about added value, it requires the analysis of the product users, their problems and their experience with the problem.
There are some nice frameworks in customer development that can help with it. For instance, we like to use corridor tests and problem interviews, and we also use JTBD as the main method to describe our product success.
So, if your customer sees a value in solving their problem with the new device, is willing to pay for it, and it’s enough for a product team to be sustainable—that’s the definition of product success for us.
There are other success criteria, such as finishing the project within the timeline, within the budget, with the required quality, but all these are standard for service companies.
Yes, a lot. We’ve learned that if you have an engineering team that develops hardware, instead of making an internal product, always strive to start a new company that will own the intellectual property and will manage all the manufacturing, marketing, sales, and support operations.
Also, we’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to postpone the development until the customer has a clear understanding of what they want to achieve and how they want to make a profit from the product. And never start a project unless you describe when it will end.
We’ve learned a lot about ourselves—how far our estimates can be from reality and how different the estimates can be even within one and the same team, so you need to archive data about your projects to improve estimates in the future.
We also have a list of bad engineering decisions—decisions that can cause you a lot of pain during testing/manufacturing/using/utilization, though they can seem valid at first glance.
Also, we’ve had some problems with the gap between what customers would like to see and what our engineering team is actually developing, so we started to use more of the Behavior Driven Development approach, and it fits well in our team.
The most serious problem concerns not so much professional challenge, but an unfathomable disaster that hit us recently. An essential part of our team was in Ukraine when the war began. Our colleagues had to leave their homes and offices in Kharkiv and move to less dangerous regions of Western Ukraine.
They work facing a stressful reality every day. Our colleagues from Russia also had to relocate to other countries because they could not feel safe. Considering the circumstances, we now have to build new logistics chains and communication for distributed teams.
Despite all the difficulties, we support our entire international team in such devastating times.
What specialists work in your company and which of them usually work on the product? How do you organize the work on a product within a team?
We are a service company, and our team members have various specializations, like PCB design, Mechanical design, Industrial design, Project management, Supply chain management, Firmware and Software development. Together we can solve a wide range of tasks.
But we don’t have any dedicated product teams, because, usually, each of our team members is involved in two or three projects, and it is much more efficient in the case of outsourced development than a dedicated development team.
There is a lot of talk about generative design these days. Do you use it at work? What perspectives do you see for this approach?
We don’t use generative design because it’s too chaotic as of now.
It can be used to fill an inspiration board or generate a huge number of concepts, but all subsequent tasks should be addressed by a specialist who understands user scenarios and experience and knows how different ideas can change the product price and complexity.
For now, generative design can’t evaluate those factors and can’t make a product optimized for mass production.
What products will be in demand in 5 and 10 years? What niches for business development and product development would you recommend considering?
There is always a lag between the moment you hear about new technology and the moment you can actually find it commonly used. So, in 5 years, you will find many already existing technologies which will leave the stage of limited testing and go fully into the market. And more than that, there are limitless ideas to combine existing technologies.
There are technologies that are already in our world but aren’t fully integrated.For example, 5G. It will take around 5 years to grow a market of 5G devices, so the whole 5G infrastructure will develop for sure.
Ecology-related projects will continue to grow since there are too many problems that still require solutions. There are still no good replacements for oil and gas energy, and even coal is still used in huge volumes. So, there should be a lot of projects aimed at using renewable energy sources with higher efficiency and making them easier to manufacture and use.
There is also a search for alternatives to lithium to replace it in our batteries. When we have one—be sure, there will be a lot of projects based on it. Some countries can probably develop atomic energy programs as an alternative to the current energy challenges.
Probably, in 10 years, neural interfaces will become a common thing for a number of devices—they can enhance the gaming experience, recovery processes, and manipulate other objects.
There is a limitless number of ideas that can be developed, but the important thing is: in the last couple of years, the world has been shocked by crises that couldn’t have been predicted. So let’s just dream about a bright future and be ready for new challenges.