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Set Up Your Product Development Project in 5 Easy Steps

how to set up your product development project

Once you have selected a product development company, you may be asking yourself what is the next step in the new product development process. While each company approaches product design differently, there are some universal standards to follow when you set up your product development project. The first, and most important, is defining the desired project outcome. This step seems obvious, but in the rush to “make it”, and with the organic nature of development, this critical step can often be pushed to the side.  In our experience, the project plan should include a clear definition of what work is to be done, by whom, and what the goal will be. Here are the five steps you need to take when setting up your product development project. 


  1. Non-Disclosure Agreement

Any product development company “worth their salt” will ensure that you have some form of a non-disclosure agreement in place. Irrespective of the language contained in the document the spirit of it should be to protect what you will share with the company and what they share with you. A two-way agreement, one in which either party can transfer shared information, ensures that you can speak freely about all propriety material, processes, or findings that occur during the opening stages of the project as well as what occurs during said project. While this article does not substitute sound legal counsel, you need to protect your proprietary knowledge and you should expect any engineering company to want the same protections.


  1. Proposal For Work

The next step will be to create a formal proposal of work. This process typically starts with several meetings; whether face to face, online, or through conference calls, with the goal of getting a clear and mutual understanding of what you are trying to accomplish from a technical perspective and where the project is relative to your business goals. The more detail you can share the better. Not only does this include any information collected during your initial conceptualization (testing, prototypes, sketches, etc.), but it also includes market or consumer research, clinical work if a medical device, white papers, intellectual property, and customer input/voice of customer work. Given all of this information the product design company should generate a written proposal for a scope of work containing the following:

  • Language that lets you know they understand your idea
  • Specific list and description of deliverables
  • Timeline of when the work will be accomplished
  • Actual or estimated cost of the work.

In our experience, it is not uncommon for it to take several iterations of a proposal to arrive at something that is mutually understood and agreed upon. Do not be afraid to ask questions or raise concerns. Feedback is a gift and any company that sends you signals otherwise may be problematic. A company that is too loose or too rigid at this stage may be setting the project up for failure. Are they flexible and knowledgeable? Those are the hallmarks of success for the proposal process.


  1. Contract

Directly following the acceptance of the proposal is a contract. Generally based upon the proposal the contract lays out payment terms, milestones, indemnifications, terms and conditions, what happens if the project is terminated early, and any other stipulations to define a business agreement between the two parties.


  1. Design History Files

Next, a design history file (DHF) will be created. A DHF is the documentation that tracks what decisions were made by the product development team, when they were made, and why they were made. It documents all the supporting information to show how the product design moved from beginning to end. The DHF is critical once you get to the NPI process of product development, as it stores all the quality documentation, test results, and protocols that are created during that phase. Synectic maintains our design history files electronically in a vault type database. This is compliant with good design processes and keeps the documents that drive development objectives controlled and always available to the team. Doing this from the beginning ensures that good design practices are followed and supports regulatory submissions later.


  1. Product Development Specification

The next activity necessary for the design process is to create a Product Development Specification (also referred to as a product design specification or PDS). It is the least glamorous but most powerful aspect of this phase.  A PDS is a description of your product and what it needs to do. The specification is generated by interviewing customers, testing competitive designs, and researching and checking standards to define unknowns. While you may not be able to define everything at this time, it is important to input as much as you can know at the present. It is generally based on combined knowledge, experience, and research. Important research asks the following:

  • What are the current practices around your invention?
  • Where and how will it be sold?
  • What user inputs need to be considered?
  • What regulatory knowledge is needed to pass any regulatory bodies like the FDA, UL, or CE?
  • What market information needs to be defined?
  • What competitive products are in the mix?
  • What price and how many units need to be sold to make it profitable?
  • What kinds/types of specialized staffing will we need to solve the challenges?
  • How does the marketed product’s patent landscape or intellectual property position inform what we are doing?

Once all the information has been gathered, a PDS can be constructed. The document can be written in many ways and is generally broken into two main categories: user requirements and functional requirements. The user requirements describe what the product needs to do to satisfy what the user needs. To conceptualize this idea, let's say we are designing a coffee cup. In this example, the PDS would include statements such as “hold coffee, be cleanable in a dishwasher”. The functional requirements are what the invention must do to satisfy the user requirements. For example, if the user wants the mug to hold coffee, the functional requirement might be “hold 12 fluid ounces of coffee at 110 degrees F”. To be dishwasher safe some of the functional requirements would be that the cup needs to be made from materials that can withstand the cleaning environments (125 degrees F for 2 hours and cleaners like non-ionic surfactants and alkaline salts). This document can be updated at each subsequent development gate as well as at any point new salient information occurs. In our experience, if a project goes off the rails it usually is due to incorrect or lacking definition of the problem. For an in-depth look at writing a product specification, read our post on How to Write a Product Design Specification (PDS).


After the PDS is complete, deliverables are reviewed with the client, and feedback on the process is elicited. At the end of this phase the objective, knowledge about the project, and a plan of attack are clear. The market needs, distilling the many inputs into concrete design objectives, focusing the development effort, defining the technical challenges, and bringing alignment between the client and the development team have all occurred or been established. Regardless of how you execute setting up your project, it should include, getting any legal documents in order, reviewing the requirements, and agreeing on a way forward. Without these parameters in place, the project cannot move forward in a clear and concise manner. From here the project can progress to the next phase: concept development.


If you have not chosen a design house or don't know where to begin, read our Practical Guide For Choosing A Design Firm for tips, resources, and everything you need to get started.

Read our other invention help articles