What Is the Product Development Process?
The product development process encompasses all steps needed to take a product from concept to market availability. This includes identifying a market need, researching the competitive landscape, conceptualizing a solution, developing a product roadmap, building a minimum viable product, etc.
Who Is Involved in the Process?
Because they are ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the company’s products, product managers typically drive the product development process from a strategic standpoint. But this process is not strictly a product management function. Product development requires the work and input of many teams across a business, including:
Product managers act as the strategic directors of the development process. They pull together the cross-functional team, communicate the big-picture goals and plans for the product (via the product roadmap), and oversee the team’s progress.
Common Flows of the Product Development Process
There are several popular systems for new product development. Below are a couple of examples of frameworks that suggest specific product development process steps.
The Design Thinking Approach
Design thinking is a framework for developing new products based on first identifying a problem or need from the user’s perspective. The steps involved in the design thinking process are:
Step 1: Empathize with users
Step 2: Define the problem
Step 3: Brainstorm potential solutions
Step 4: Build a prototype
Step 5: Test your solution
For a more detailed discussion of each of these steps, see our page on design thinking.
The New Product Development (NPD) Framework
This is a standard, composite approach that businesses often use to develop physical products — as opposed to digital products like software. There are many variations to the NPD framework. Some organizations use a five-step approach, while others break it into as many as eight stages. Here is a common approach that divides the process into six steps:
Step 1: Ideate
Brainstorming, sometimes called the Fuzzy Front-End step, where the team shares all of its innovative ideas.
Step 2: Research
Validating your idea with potential users, and reviewing competitive offerings.
Step 3: Plan
Sourcing suppliers, estimating the production budget, determining how to price your product, etc.
Step 4: Prototype
Developing a sample of your finished product to share with key stakeholders. Note: this is different from the minimum viable product, which is for early adopters.
Step 5: Source
Putting together a plan for vendors, materials, and other resources needed to turn the successful prototype into a mass-market product.
Step 6: Cost
Documenting all of the costs required to bring the product to market. This should include line items for manufacturing, materials, setup costs, storage and shipping, taxes, etc.
Another approach to the product development process is rational product management. Based on the rational development process used by the software industry, this approach offers a framework to strategically plan, iteratively develop, continuously verify quality, and control changes.
Best Practices for Your Product Development Process
Although their specific approaches vary, most companies that repeatedly deliver successful products to market share certain strategies. Below are some of these best practices for new product development:
- Start with your users’ needs and frustrations in mind.
- Use market research and your own users’ feedback. (Don’t innovate in a vacuum.)
- Communicate regularly across your company. Share knowledge and insights.
- Use one of the many available frameworks for your product development process. (Don’t try to develop without a system in place first.)
- Validate your product concepts as soon in the process as possible. For some products, this might include a “soft launch” in which you test the product with a small group of early adopters, before a full-scale market release.
- Invite your cross-functional team into the ideation and brainstorming stages. (Great insights about your market can come from everywhere.)
- Set realistic development timelines.
- Focus only on ideas your organization has both the resources and the expertise to execute on.
Two Real-World Examples of Product Development Processes: One Successful, the Other Not
The founders of Airbnb had neither a business nor funding, but they intuitively understood one of the most important elements of successful product development: validate your product concept before you begin production.
They tested their idea for peer-to-peer rental housing online by posting the details of their own apartment and offering it as a short-term rental. When several users signed up to stay in the founders’ home, they knew they had a viable product idea.
PepsiCo made a critical mistake when they introduced Crystal Pepsi — the new soda they marketed as healthier than their other soft drinks. The company failed to validate their concept before its market launch. Because they didn’t gather enough early feedback from their target customers, or use a soft launch to validate the product with early adopters, Pepsi’s management was blindsided when their full-scale release of Crystal Pepsi proved a failure.
One Key Difference Between Developing Products at a Startup vs. a Large Business
These examples highlight one of the differences between the product development process in a startup vs. developing a new product within an established company. Because the Airbnb founders did not have funding, a large team, or any track record, they had no choice but to validate their idea with real-world users before spending any time or money on development.
PepsiCo, by contrast, could afford to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into its Crystal Pepsi launch (which they did, including Super Bowl ads) without first investigating whether or not the clear-colored soft drink would resonate with customers. In other words, they had the means and a corporate culture that allowed them to skip the research, validation, MVP, and user testing stages of the product development process. As it turned out, though, this was a mistake.
This is one example of why in some cases it can be easier to develop new products for a startup than within a large, well-funded organization. The smaller, newer business doesn’t have the resources that give it the luxury of developing a product without first checking with that product’s intended customers. It also doesn’t have the bias, based on its previous successes, that could lead its product managers to assume they had a viable idea when in reality their customers would reject their new project.
One key takeaway, then, is to develop new products as though you were working for a startup — even if you are a product manager within a big company. Treat every product concept as though it needs market validation before proceeding with development.