On Physical Product Design

Over the last few years, we’ve been designing a carry-on bag in our heads, and on scraps of paper.

Since early December, we’ve been actively prototyping and testing that bag – first in New Zealand, then Vietnam, and now the US.

We’re about to launch it on Kickstarter. Regardless of how well the Kickstarter campaign goes – and I wanted to write this before I know how well it goes, in case judgement gets clouded by smugness and confirmation bias / injustice and blind rage – I think the following process, or lessons learned, are fairly solid guidelines on how to increase your chances of creating a useful, popular physical product.

These processes were partially discussed in the recent podcast interview I did with Terry Lin, who does an excellent job interviewing people in this area.

None of the following is ground-breaking, but it ties together a few different schools of thought that have helped us along the way, and may help you structure your product roadmap if you’re just starting out.

On Physical Product Design

1. Experience

You’ll have a huge advantage if you live a lifestyle that keeps you thinking about your product. All those stories about people having a flash of inspiration when they encountered a problem in their daily life– that’s what you should be trying to capture. It’s possible without that experience, but you’re playing catch-up.

For us, constantly travelling and trying to live out of carry-on bags was a huge motivator, and provided insight into what was wrong with the current bag options, and potential ways we could change them.

An alternative view to this is choosing to rip, pivot and jam something you don’t know intimately, but has a proven track record in the market. You’re then leveraging other people’s vast experience in making and selling things, and overlaying your creativity.

2. Survey

Talk, talk, talk. Ask people how they use the existing products, what they like, what they hate, what they think they want.

3. Observe

Forget (temporarily) what everyone just told you. It could all be false.Or misleading, at least.

Go out and look around. We hung out in airports, at bus stations,anywhere people were transiting, and watched how they really interacted with their bags. That helped refine the way we thought about needs, and what people had told us was important, vs how people actually use bags.

(Tip 1: everyone forgets that they put stuff in the secret pocket. Tip 2: everyone forgets where the secret pocket is.).

4. Embrace your ignorance

At the start of this process, all we knew was that backpacks went on your back, and that some were good, but most were bad, and none were perfect for our lifestyle.

It was sweet!

This ignorance allowed us to be extremely aggressive with our product concept, and aim way out, with no knowledge of why we couldn’t or shouldn’t do things.

Once we encountered real pros, we got dragged back towards the middle ground. That was lucky, because otherwise we could’ve ended up with the Homer Car. However,a bunch of our early, ignorance-fuelled innovations remain in the final model, either wholly or as a refined feature, and that feels pretty cool.

5. Go to the action

This is where you try to blunt your ignorance with experience.

Where are you planning on making your product? If it’s not where you are, GO THERE. 

I could write for hours on this, but you will learn more from a well-planned 2-week visit to factories in China, Vietnam or New Jersey than you will from reading a million blog articles.

You need to know how things work before you can make them work for you.

Next Level Productivity Cave

6. Head into your cave

There’s a great Derek Sivers piece that describes inspiration as breathing in. But to have a real effect on the world with your product, eventually you need to exhale; that is, work.

For a (hopefully short) period of time, you need to take all the inspiration you’ve inhaled, then hide away and figure out which problems you’re going to solve, what you want to make that’ll address those problems, and how exactly you’re going to do it (of course, this will change later).

With all the focus on lean startups and ‘ship early, ship often’ thisstage is easy to forget. With physical products, it’s tougher toupdate your output, so each stage needs to be considered morecarefully.

7. Throw to the lions

Take that beautiful baby product outside your cave and sacrifice it tothe ravenous masses.

Ideally find a mix of people inside and outside your target market. Mixup how you present it to them – do some demos, give some people theproduct and say simply: ‘use this’.

Provoke, encourage, question… reject nothing.Note everything.Take it away with you.

8. Throw away advice

Angry Lion is Angry

Remember why you started this process in the first place. What problem are you wanting to solve? What community are you wanting to build? What are your values, and your mission?

For us, every feature had to fit inside the ethos:

Making gear that gets people to their destination faster, happier and more productive.

If there was feedback that we felt didn’t match that, we ejected it. This is where intuition comes in.

One example would be wheels. A significant minority of people wanted usto put wheels on the backpack, make it a hybrid. You could make the argument that in some situations, wheels could help you move faster. But since we felt strongly that it was a waste to use up half your carry-on weight allowance with wheels, you were simply sacrificing the benefits of the backpack – leaving you less happy and less productive – for the pleasure of people who would probably choose wheeled hard case carry-ons anyway.

The other thing is to look for underlying needs that are represented bya single complaint. People told us they hated drink holders on bags. Ifwe stopped questioning there, we probably would’ve removed our (totallyawesome) drink holder. Digging deeper, it turned out people didn’t like how their neoprene drink holders failed after a year; or how the mesh fell apart; or that they couldn’t fit different-sized bottles in there.

So we designed a bottle holder that solved those problems; a better version of the same thing.

9. Work to a deadline

It really helps. Just don’t beat yourself up when you miss it.

And if all else fails? You at least have a very expensive product made exclusively for your pleasure. Boom!

You can hear more about our product design philosophy by listening to these podcast interviews:

Foolish Adventure with Tim Conley

Build My Online Store with Terry Lin

Entrepreneur on Fire with John Lee Dumas

Keep moving,


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