Product improvement is one of the buzzwords of the twenty-first-century business. Henry Ford’s Model T Ford, the first mass-produced automobile marketed to the middle class, remained in production from 1908 to 1927 – almost twenty years – with only minor changes to its design (Wikipedia, n.d.). Today, it is almost impossible to imagine any product having such longevity.
At the rapid pace of today’s manufacturing – not to mention the lightning speed with which new apps and other digital products appear on the market – it is no longer possible for any company to keep producing the same product without improvement, year after year – at least if it expects to keep afloat.
What is product improvement? Product improvement is the process of increasing the value or quality of a product available on the market. Product improvement is driven by market research, customer feedback, and an evolving competitive landscape.
But where to start in a world saturated with consumer products, many of them short-lived gimmicks? And how do you find a profitable space in a massive global market full of designers, marketers, and salespeople all desperate to grab their share of consumers’ attention and money? Read on to find out everything you need to know about product improvement.
The word product can be used very broadly to mean anything from a physical item – as simple as a toothbrush or as complex as a smartphone – to a digital product such as an app, or even a brand. Many companies and individuals see themselves as products they are selling to the public and undergo a process of product improvement to enhance their public image or increase their profits.
Product improvement sounds similar to product development, and the two processes do have some things in common. Product development even includes some elements of product improvement, as a new invention is tested and tweaked. In both cases, you need to understand what your customer wants and how to get it to them.
But product development usually refers to the process of inventing a product from scratch, testing and marketing it, whereas product improvement comes further down the line and involves redesigning and refining an existing invention.
In general, product improvement is undertaken by the company that designed and sells the original invention, although some products are developed and marketed by competing companies. The process of improving a product usually involves upgrading its existing features and/or supplementing them with new features.
On the shoulders of giants – Examples of Products that Have Been Improved
When you fancy yourself as an inventor, what probably comes to mind is an image of yourself in a lab or garage, tinkering with components until one day genius strikes and you bring the world its first time machine. But the truth is, no invention springs fully formed from the inventor’s mind.
Thomas Edison was by no means the first person to generate electric light; in fact, designs for the lightbulb date back as far as 1840. However, Edison made improvements to the practicality and efficiency of the design and, perhaps more importantly, patented the design and marketed it effectively (Magdalia, 2018).
History also tells us that when inventors have “aha moments,” it is often by accident. Alexander Fleming discovered the antibacterial properties of penicillin when a petri dish in his laboratory was accidentally contaminated with penicillium mold (Science History Institute, 2017).
The truth is, all great inventions go through generations of testing, iteration, and redesign. It’s a less romantic view of invention, but don’t let it discourage you. After all, you can’t manufacture a happy accident like the one that helped Fleming to discover penicillin, and sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike won’t get you very far either.
The good news is that you don’t have to be a genius to make valuable improvements to a product, and you don’t have to win the race to that mythical aha moment. All you need to bring to the process is a methodical, well-informed approach, determination, and a little strategy.
What are the advantages of product improvement?
The advantages of product improvement include competitive advantage, cost-effectiveness, and increasing market share.
If you are the original inventor of a product, you have already invested significantly in the costs of research, development, testing, and marketing. Generally speaking, tweaking an original design is cheaper than starting from scratch, and it’s probably well worth your while to invest a little more in improving your product and maximizing your return on that initial investment.
What’s more, as the product developer with a foothold in the market, you may already have an advantage over competitors who are trying to enter that market. By continually improving your product design, you can maintain your competitive edge.
Product improvement is also a great way to expand your existing market share, however small it may be. New customers may be freshly motivated to buy your product, and existing customers might be persuaded to upgrade if the new version is enough of an improvement on the old one.
If you aren’t the product inventor, there is still potential for you in its improvement – as long as you stay on the right side of patent law, that is. Remember Thomas Edison, who made a fortune by improving on existing designs for the lightbulb? If you can provide the unique solutions consumers are looking for, improving an existing design is a great chance to get yourself into the market and make your mark. Sometimes the final iteration is the one that makes the name and the money!
How to tell if a product needs improvement
Use the global laboratory. A lot of the initial testing and redesign of a new product happens in the lab before a company releases its invention to the public. Following the release, further improvement might take place with the feedback of small consumer focus groups in a formal testing and feedback process organized by the company.
But in an increasingly globalized market, where your product can reach millions of people in dozens of countries, you have access to a bigger focus group than the generations of inventors that came before you. Social media and online reviews mean that suggestions for improvements on every existing product are only a click away.
People using a product in real life are its best critics, and the millions of experiments that take place around the world as consumers use the product – often in ways that the inventors didn’t foresee – are your best source of information on how well it works and what can be improved. So take a look around you. What are the reviews telling you? Are consumers making suggestions you think you can implement?
Take a closer look at the items you use in your own everyday life. Have you ever been irked by a flaw in the way a gadget is designed? Have you ever thought you could do it better? Take note of these thoughts – whether it’s in the shower, in the kitchen, or at your desk in the office – and use them to assess which products might make a good candidate for improvement. Remember that newer products to the market have had less time to be reviewed and, thus, have more room for improvement.
To identify the best features to target, ask yourself:
- Are there features of this product that existing users are not using?
- Are there features that customers are using, but they are being hampered by their flaws?
- Are any features missing from the product that could be added to attract people who aren’t using the product?
How to tell if a product doesn’t need more improvement
In a digital world, most inventions go through multiple iterations almost as they hit the shelves. But some inventions haven’t changed since their inception: think of Lego, scissors, or the paperclip: the ones in your desk drawer are probably identical to the Gem design introduced in 1892 (Bellis, 2006).
What makes a design immortal? Simplicity, fitness for purpose, and ease of use are three characteristics of enduring inventions. Don’t go reinventing every product you see but consider whether it would really benefit from interference.
What skills do I need to succeed in product improvement?
The skills you need to make it in product development and improvement include creativity, great organizational skills, and attention to detail. There are no hard and fast rules for the qualifications you need to work in this field, but a few years’ experience in a design, engineering, or marketing field will stand you in good stead.
In addition, this field lends itself well to flexible, adaptable people who thrive in a fast-paced environment. This is people-centered work, and it’s essential to empathize and communicate effectively with your market. Knowledge of finance or law can also be an advantage.
Product improvement do’s and don’ts
DO persevere. As the cliché goes, success is only 1% inspiration – the other 99% is perspiration. You may have identified what you think is the perfect product improvement, but you’re unlikely to attain perfection overnight. Adjust, test, and retest and persist patiently through the process until you’ve created something that will bring significant value to your customers. Educate yourself about the various design processes and decide what works best for you.
DON’T design for fads. Or if you do, understand that your invention will have a finite lifespan. There are plenty of inventions that made their inventors a good buck in their day and are now almost forgotten (think about the Segway – not quite the travel revolution it was cracked up to be). There’s nothing wrong with riding the wave of fashion but think twice before you throw yourself into a passing fad.
DO your best to future-proof your design if you want to be in it for the long game. Think big and address the major concerns driving your consumers’ lives, from economic stress to concern about the environment.
Consumer priorities change; for example, surveys of motorists between 1970 and 1980 showed that their focus shifted from style to fuel efficiency and finally to fuel efficiency (Takeuchi and Quelch, 1983). So keep your finger on the pulse of what your market wants and respond to its demands.
DON’T reinvent the wheel. It’s not necessary or desirable to redesign an entire product; customers will be unwilling to pay the premium you’ll have to charge if you do. You need to sell your customers not only the technical changes to the product but the idea that their lives will be improved as a result of adopting the improved product (Yeh, 2013).
Consumers rate the value of one product in relation to another, not in isolation (Takeuchi and Quelch, 1983), so you don’t need to achieve perfection. Instead, identify the gaps and fill them in to make your product significantly better than the competition.
DO get familiar with design principles. Celebrated German industrial designer Dieter Rams laid down ten principles for good design, including elements like innovation, usefulness, honesty, durability, thoroughness, and minimalism (Domingo, 2019). There’s no need to become a disciple of any particular philosophy, but it’s a good idea to set yourself some guidelines for what your product improvement will achieve and how.
DON’T be afraid to collaborate. Product improvement is essentially invention by teamwork over successive generations of a product’s life.
The first steps in making product improvements
When making product improvements, there are certain steps you should follow to improve your chances for success:
Step 1: Do a cost-benefit analysis
Research and development cost money. Although improving an existing product may be cheaper than developing one from scratch, you will still need to fund the process. Before you invest, consider whether altering this product will significantly improve the user’s experience and increase sales enough to offset your costs.
You must be able to offer your improved product at a reasonable price. Consumers are reluctant to spend money on an upgrade unless they feel it is worth the cost and will choose a cheaper, inferior product over a slightly more expensive one that has a slight advantage in design.
Step 2: Do a Google search
The downside of the global market is that thousands of would-be inventors like you are out there making improvements to products and trying to sell them. A quick Google search is a great – and free – way to see whether someone else has already come up with the same idea. A couple of hours spent online costs far less than researching and testing a revamped product only to find it’s been done before.
Step 3: Run a patent search
If an online search convinces you that your idea is the first of its kind, and you think it’s profitable enough to run with, invest a little more time and money in a patent search. Even if a previous inventor has not gone public with a design, he may still have put his stamp of ownership on it.
Patent law varies from country to country: educate yourself on patent law and discover the limits of what you can claim as your own. The United States Patent and Trademark Office provides detailed instructions on how to search existing US patents from 1790 to the present (United States Patent and Trademark Office, n.d.).
Step 4: Do your market research
Again, listen to the consumer. What are they telling you they need from this product? How can you give it to them? You don’t need to pay for expensive surveys – use the crowdfunding power of social media to your advantage.
There is a lot more to product improvement than can be learned in one short article. It’s a competitive field where the risks are almost as great as the rewards. But in a rapidly changing world of new technologies and ever greater access to consumers, there is a greater opportunity than ever for budding inventors to make their mark.
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