New product design – an example of the investment (Formway)

When an organisation identifies a market opportunity, it still takes time to release the completed offering in the market.  Just how long depends on the sector; software for example can be developed extremely quickley, while infrastructure projects in areas like energy take longer.

The lead time for product development was the topic of discussion recently when I met with Ed Burak of Formway Furniture.  The company makes some of the finest office chairs in the world – a fact recognised by companies like Herman Miller (who have licenced Formway worksystem designs)

The latest offering from Formway is called ‘Hum‘ – furniture specifically designed to maximise collaboration in corporate environments.  It’s been met with rave reviews and awards around the world.  Ed was the lead designer on the project.

What’s interesting is that it took a long time to develop – almost five years.  That’s a serious investment by the company, and is food for thought for businesses looking at embarking on a similar journey.  In this current economic climate it’s tempting to cut back on innovation and design, but the Formway example illustrates that development times can span economic cycles.

I asked Ed some questions about the development journey:

1. What was the spark that started Formway down the path to design the Hum range?

We started with the question – does the world need another desk?

We began to explore this by removing the desk and trying to understand what’s left – the artefacts, the communication, the tasks and the human and how these elements are both supported & suppressed by conventional/current workspace design.
We were also aware that we have witnessed a significant shift in the purpose of coming to a place of work. By this I mean that in the past, we came to work to read and write and do ‘other stuff.’

Now things are different – the reading and writing can occur almost anywhere now, at home, on the kitchen bench, in the corridor or even a park. We are gathering together at this place we call work more and more for this ‘other stuff’ – the meeting of minds – to problem solve, socialise, share and collaborate.

Three significant research themes emerged from our early investigation into what goes on at your desk in the workplace – attentiveness, interaction and cognition – in other words focused or individual work, collaborative and making sense of the information and space around us.

2. What was the duration of the project from the start to product launch, and how long did each of the phases take?

The entire project has taken four and a half years.

The process is incredibly fluid so its difficult to tie down discreet phases but we typically spend one third of product development time at the ‘fuzzy front end’ investigating the opportunity, writing the brief and ensuring we are asking the right questions. Following this it’s:

  • about two years researching the opportunities, increasing our knowledge and developing up concepts,
  • hundreds of prototypes and various levels of user testing
  • finally about one year from final design to production (specifying and tooling)

3. What processes did you employ to gather the insights that would guide the design process?

Voice of the Customer interviews in USA, Australasia and Asia, data mining the transcripts to identify latent needs, patterns and behaviours.

We identified and bought into the team experts in fields outside of our core strengths such as psychology, cognitive ergonomics, conflict resolution, change management. We basically went back to university for several months and were lectured on topics such as cognition, attentiveness and perception.

Inviting market influencers early on and throughout the project to ensure we were staying on task and remaining relevant to our target customer groups.

An ongoing ‘Living Lab’ philosophy here at the Formway Design Studio is a critical learning tool, spending less time sketching ideas, more time making ultra fast full scale prototypes that we can interact with, and observe others using.

Independently conducted user trialling of early prototypes to ensure usability, interface design & product semantics are relevant & user focussed.

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