The Value of Fresh Perspective in Product Development

Albert Einstein is reported to have said that if he had one hour to solve a problem, he’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes crafting the solution.

I’ve always loved that quote because it underscores exactly what doesn’t happen in product design all too often.

Have you noticed that when people try to solve a problem, they usually begin by trying to define the problem in terms that seem familiar to them? It’s human nature to see today’s challenge as just another version of yesterday’s. You already have your roadmap to success; all you have to do is follow it.

But it’s easy to see the flaw in this way of thinking. It only works if today’s problem really is the same as yesterday’s. And in product design, that’s rarely true.

What’s usually needed to solve novel problems is fresh perspective – the ability to look at the issue from previously unconsidered angles. That’s one reason Key Tech seeks out projects specifically because they’re new to us.

How Fresh Perspective Works in Practice

Here’s an example of how fresh thinking has led to innovation: Canon U.S. Life Sciences had a device that used an automated pipettor to draw fluid up from a reservoir. The problem was the pipettor needed to draw the fluid through an opening that was too narrow for the system controller to align to repeatedly. So instead of focusing on improving the control performance of the pipette location system, we changed the well geometry so that it would offer up a bead of fluid that’s larger than the reservoir entry. Works like a charm.

Here’s another: A construction firm needed to add a feature to an existing product that would prevent competitors from copying it. The product mixes a high cost ingredient into a flowing stream of insulation chemicals prior to spraying the insulation into commercial building spaces. So we developed a sensor that measures the flowing ingredient’s color and prevents the delivery system from working with other products that aren’t the same color as the client’s.

How to Get a Fresh Perspective
Someone asked me recently about how we actually achieve that fresh perspective. And there are a few practical techniques that we use to help us get there. You can use them, too, no matter what field you’re in:

  • Look under the bed. If you have small children, you may be familiar with the bedtime ritual known as the Monster Check. Before the lights go out, you check the closet, you look under the bed, you open the toy chest. Only when you’ve confirmed that the bedroom is monster-free do you move on to the next step in the bedtime routine. The odd thing is that adults often take the opposite approach. They don’t want to look under the bed – that is, to examine the most difficult technical challenges – because they’re afraid of what they might discover. But at Key Tech, the first thing we do is ask the hard questions about what might prevent a product from working as conceived. Only when we’ve answered those hard questions do we move on to the next step in the design process.
  • Get outside your comfort zone. We’ll often bring our clients to our offices in Baltimore. We’ll have various working sessions while they’re here, but the main goal is to just let them spend time with us and soak up our process in our (pretty awesome) space. Once clients are here, they often start thinking of things they didn’t think of before. There’s just something about being somewhere new, among like-minded but different professionals, that has the effect of refocusing the mind and helping your creative juices to flow.
  • Find out who else has solved your problem. We look for novel technical challenges at Key Tech, but we’re not interested in reinventing the wheel. If someone in another industry has already solved a problem similar to the one we’re working on, we’re going to look hard at that solution. Great scientists build on the work of others.
  • Remember that a fresh perspective is always needed. You might believe that fresh thinking is something that has value only at the beginning of a project, or when you’re stuck. But it’s often when you think you have everything figured out that a new perspective is needed most. We urge companies to engage in design reviews at different stages of the development process, and with reviewers who aren’t too close to the project that they struggle to see it in new ways.

Of course, at Key Tech it also helps that we’re always looking for something new to work on. A lot of product design companies take the opposite path: They specialize in some particular area and don’t deviate from it, figuring that their experience in their niche is an advantage.

But being unafraid to seek out new types of technical challenges means our deepest experience is in defining the problem. And as Einstein noted, when you know the problem, the solution becomes clear.

For a conversation about how fresh thinking could benefit your project, feel free to reach out.

Andy Rogers


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