MX: Technology, Start Your Engine

Leveraging technology in the right way is critical to making progress in product development.

Ed Geiselhart

February 21, 2012

12 Min Read
MX: Technology, Start Your Engine

The fate of any product development effort is intertwined with technology. Technology can be a powerful engine that can drive an idea to great success. Conversely, it can guzzle valuable time, money, and resources to no fruitful end. The line between the two outcomes can be a fine one, and many developers often find themselves questioning which side they are on and how to move forward.

Knowing how to leverage technology in the right way and at the right time is critical to making progress in any development effort. Technology-related concerns raise many questions, but two fundamental ones stand out:

•    What can a company do with its technology?
•    How can a company use technology to make its idea real?

Knowing which question to answer is important because the steps needed to find the right responses to each question vary. Each question carries with it a set of presumptions and associated unknown factors that require different activities, skill sets, and outputs. Therefore, a deep look at each reveals the differences between them and the best path forward to successful product development.

Value Proposition, Customer Needs

Asking what a company can do with its technology presumes that the technology is proven and worth developing. The company may have a novel technology and a hunch for how it might be useful. Or it may have a technology engine already serving the needs of one market but thinks the technology may be valuable for another. In either case, big questions about value proposition, customer needs, and organizational competencies need to be answered in order to understand how best to scale a technology.

The open-ended nature of this question presents a great opportunity to those asking it, but it can be discouraging to face because of its expansive scope. But developers need not run from the question if they have a sound process in place to answer it. A good starting point is to take an objective look at the technology, abstract it from existing embodiments and specifications, and consider it in terms of its principles. Doing this enables developers to survey opportunities—both within markets already engaged and possible new ones—and to find potential areas where similar principles are relevant but where needs may not be currently addressed.

The second question—that of how technology can be used in order to make its idea a reality—assumes that the company has identified a market, a user need, and a value proposition but has not yet determined its technical feasibility and embodiment. In this situation, follow-up questions about requirements and enabling technologies are immediately relevant.

Prototyping-To-Learn

Once a company has identified an opportunity, it must then gather more information to truly understand whether the opportunity is actual or simply presumed. However, short of investing a great deal of money, time, and resources in prototyping and commercializing a technology, how can a company know that an opportunity is a good one? Like many developmental challenges in the medical device industry, efforts can be scaled to mitigate the risk of investing heavily in a path that results in a dead end. “Prototyping-to-learn” is a valuable method to employ in this situation. This method allows a company to explore the technology’s capacity to suit new markets only to the point where it has:

•    A clearly defined value proposition that potential customers can understand and legitimately evaluate.
•    Simple collateral showing a possible use for the technology that would appeal to potential customers. These customers often have difficulty imagining new and innovative solutions without something to react to. Skillfully composed illustrations or simple models often serve this function well.

Although prototyping-to-learn is a simple concept, it requires skill and knowledge to execute effectively. Companies must make the effort to understand the markets, users, and cases to be investigated in order to generate compelling and meaningful value propositions. This is best done by conducting investigational research to better define stakeholders and to understand both the workflow as well as the requirements for these new market opportunities.

When developing stimuli for presenting potential applications to users, care must be taken to envision them appropriately. If depicted too vaguely, potential users will not be able to comprehend the offering and will likely respond ambiguously. If depicted in too much detail, conversations can stray from value assessments toward criticisms of the technology’s embodiment. Neither provides sufficient data that an organization can use to effectively gauge the viability of a need-based opportunity.

Organizational Competencies

After it determines that an opportunity is legitimate, an organization must then evaluate its competencies to determine whether the opportunity is viable. Will there be unfamiliar regulatory issues that need to be addressed? Will the organization be able to meet the demands of the new market in terms of quantity, quality, or price? Does the organization have the sales and marketing capabilities to penetrate accounts and support the offering? Are there competitive solutions, either existing or on the horizon, that might undermine the technology?

A variety of strategic planning tools exists to enable a company to take a hard look at whether an opportunity is right for them. One classic approach is to employ a “SWOT” analysis. This tool compares factors internal to a company (its strengths and weaknesses) with external factors (its opportunities and threats).

Take, for example, a SWOT analysis of a company specializing incompact CT scanning. Its primary product was a diagnostic instrument enabling in-office CT imaging for ear, nose, and throat clinics. The value proposition for physicians and practices was obvious—point-of-care imaging that provided faster outputs to provide better patient experiences and kept scanning reimbursement within the clinic. This company leveraged the principles of this technology’s embodiment—namely, miniaturized low-radiation imaging—into a new application based around an unmet need for imaging in conjunction with ENT surgery. Since ENT surgeons relied solely on post-operative imaging to completely assess the outcome of surgical intervention, patients often required additional procedures in instances where desired results were not achieved. Intraoperative imaging could create significant cost savings for hospitals and elevate the standard of care to patients.

This particular company leveraged strengths in its core technology and knowledge of ENT needs. However, it had poor understanding of hospital workflows and lacked the electromechanical competency to manufacture a solution. Partnering with external consultants enabled the company to fill these gaps by leveraging its expertise to support the technology with a mobile device and to research use-case and environmental influencers that informed the design of both the hardware and software solutions. The resulting device was brought to market successfully in a little over two years and has since received industry acclaim.

Making It Real

Let’s consider the second question: How can a company use technology to make its idea a reality? For organizations that have identified an opportunity based on unmet market needs, challenges often arise in manufacturing an appropriate device that can get to market in a timely manner and at a cost where the company can make a profit. In many cases, the company has a subset of the technology necessary to capitalize on the opportunity and a strong value proposition but is missing important pieces of the puzzle relative to a complete and manufacturable solution.

At this juncture, a deep understanding of the stakeholders, environments, and workflows associated with the market opportunity is critical. In this context, the research helps the development team achieve a better understanding of the functional and user requirements necessary to inform an appropriate solution. Are the intended users highly skilled or minimally trained? Will the solution be effective as installed equipment or does it need to be portable? Does it need to perform its functions rapidly, or are there other workflow factors that make speed negligibly important? Answering questions like these guides development out of the gate toward solutions that align with market realities and highlight potential solutions that address the unique constraints that surround a company’s core technology.

The notion of having these “smart requirements” extends beyond simply generating them in order to gain interpretive insights. A requirement alone is no guarantee that the resulting design will be the right one. For example, consider the development of a device programmer, a diagnostic instrument used to wirelessly communicate with an implanted arrhythmia device like a pacemaker or ICD. These devices are used in different locations within a healthcare setting, including the catheterization lab, post-surgical ward, and clinic for routine follow-ups. Because they are expensive, healthcare facilities will often transport them from one place to another.

A reasonable requirement for developing a new programmer is that it be easily transported. A common approach used in the design of portable devices is to develop them as cart-based solutions. On paper, such an approach seems entirely reasonable. However, conducting research about the work environments for the device raises serious concerns about a cart solution. Implanting physicians mitigate the risk of recall (and explanting all their device patients) by distributing their business across several device manufacturers, and each manufacturer’s devices work exclusively with that company’s programmer. As a result, clinics are often heavily congested with many of these instruments. Accordingly, the clinics adopt different means for organizing all this equipment, ranging from elaborate shelving systems, benchtop arrays, and multipurpose carts. A new programmer that is produced as a cart will not integrate very well in many of these environments and instead create disruptions in workflow and space management. Appreciation of this contextual factor is important in enabling development teams to properly interpret how a requirement should be translated into a viable product.

A robust set of requirements enables an organization to work more efficiently and effectively by answering some very big questions based on tactfully conducted research, instead of learning exclusively through advanced prototypes or production-level devices. Certainly, iterative development and prototyping are critical in any development process, but doing so by leveraging well-considered inputs allows a company to proceed with focus and greater predictability. Strong requirements enable an organized approach to define initial system solutions and identify key subsystem elements; these, in turn, can be used to outline a prioritized plan of action that focuses on solving gating factors first.

Explore The ‘Technology Landscape’

Breaking a huge and complex challenge into smaller and more manageable ones is a crucial component for leveraging technology. Creativity in adopting approaches for solving technical challenges propels a development team toward innovative and achievable solutions. Distilling complexities into basic principles enables designers to approach problems with fresh perspectives. By tapping their experiences with previous development efforts, exposure to technology from other industries and knowledge of prior art, designers can productively and efficiently engage technology landscaping activities to successful ends.

Many times, exploring the technology landscape can expedite development efforts because it helps to leverage already proven technology. Developing a motor-driven surgical device that responds in a highly precise way to specific commands or to achieve specific functional states does not necessarily require the creation of enabling sensor technology from the ground up. Rather, working from the principles described above, teams can survey the technology landscape knowing the attributes they are seeking. Cognizant of system-level considerations, they can leverage the best technologies that embody these attributes in order to create a system solution. Taking this approach demands creativity; mining this landscape successfully requires divergent thought and a systematic approach for navigating an immense range of technologies.

One example of leveraging technology landscape activities is the development of a portable blood apheresis device. The instrument is used to draw blood from patients, separate desired components from those not needed, and return the rest to patients. The value proposition for this technology is that it enables greater yields of important blood components from donors at blood drives and donation centers. Use of centrifugal force to separate blood components was a critical enabling element of the solution, but the developer had to tackle one big challenge: How was it possible to mechanically incorporate this capability in a miniaturized way that would support a hard connection to a static filtration cartridge and still result in a lightweight portable design?

To solve part of this problem, the team re-characterized the challenge as a principle; namely, how to enable the tethered connection between a rotating and fixed object. The technology landscape search leveraged an expired patent from the 1950s for antenna radar dishes used on Navy ships. In those days, dishes were tethered instead of utilizing brush rings; the patent provided a means of allowing a cable to loop back on itself, so that it wound with half a revolution and unwound with another. This was leveraged to create a subsystem design for the device’s centrifuge that achieved a minimal volume and enabled a small footprint. Similar stories play out that repurpose an old technology that was shelved or never commercialized or that leverages technologies that previously had been exclusive to other industries or applications.

Good At Both, Better At All

Even though the two questions at the beginning of this article are different, taking a closer look at each of them reveals similarities and synergies. Considering this, it becomes obvious that they are inextricably connected. Answers to “What can a company do with its technology” start to inform how technology can be used to make the resulting idea real. Answers to “How can a company use technology to make its idea real” need to leverage collected information that defined and legitimized the idea in the first place.

Additionally, answering both questions leverages similar philosophies. Efforts required to understand the viability of an opportunity naturally yield information that can be used to inform inputs and requirements. Abstracting specific embodiments into baseline principles provides greater clarity in identifying opportunities, defining problems, and inspiring solutions. Both seek to solve problems by breaking complexity down into more focused challenges so that they can be solved with efficiency and greater certainty. In considering these factors, a third question arises: Does being good at answering one question contribute to being good at answering the other? The answer? Absolutely.

ed_geiselhart_web.jpgEd Geiselhart is director of product development and planning for Insight Product Development (Chicago). He can be reached at [email protected].

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