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Product Management. Hands On Consulting.

  • Writer's pictureYoel Frischoff

Product Managers in the Hardware industry

Updated: Mar 19


PM for the Physical World Series: Part IV


Important disclaimer:

All charts shown are for illustration purposes only, and do not represent factual data or research. They were generate via prompting GPT4.0 with the open questions in the titles, and were then developed via dialog with the LLM.


Product management for hardware is now a thing, too.

As we saw in the previous post, the importance of digital user experience and interfaces has risen dramatically, overshadowing other parameters, as shown for the example of the automotive industry:

  • Brand and design aesthetics?

  • Fuel efficiency? sustainability?

  • Other hard wired features?

It seems as if these are now commoditized, expected as a bare minimum as part of the emerging electric car trend.

The user interface is an increasingly important part of what makes a product useful, and this calls for software design and product management practices to build these features successfully. Product management for hardware is now a thing, too.

What's more, the relative effort and cost of interface design increases as its importance grow, and as it emerges as the most differentiating competitive factor.

Is it just a coincidence that companies such as Apple and Samsung contemplate entering the automotive market?

In a world where physical features are the base norm, it only makes sense.


Why should product managers care?

As digitization seep into the physical world, we see the shift in focus for hardware product departments, from design aesthetics, comfort and luxury towards (software driven) interface design.

As software processes enter the physical product world, the industry reacts by borrowing roles from pure software, leaving only a few hardware specific ones:

Contributing to this is the opportunity for maintaining a continuous relationship with customers, exchanging feedback with continuing revenue (all this by delivering continuous improvement).

Indeed, when products are - at least partially - connected and digitized, there is a lot that can be done after launch to improve usability, strengthen customer satisfaction, and reinforce brand loyalty.

Now look at the activities surviving launch:

  • Remote troubleshooting and support

  • Iterative design improvement (also firmware updates and maintenance)

  • Data collection and analysis

  • End of life management (this is hardware specific)

  • Warranty and support

Aren't these ringing a bell? Did I hear someone saying CI/CD?...

While many aspects of continuous development and integration are technical, this practice calls for involvement of product managers, that would collect and integrate user inputs into actionable roadmaps.

The long and short of this is: There are more challenges, more opportunities, and increasing demand for product management talent in the physical product space.


Validation - the most strategic task for physical products PMs

The most strategic role of product managers is - in physical products as well - deciding what products do we build. This role is divided into two sub tasks:

  1. Initiation: This is the part where market trends, competitive edge, and positioning combine to create an initial assumption of what the product would be. The most fundamental decisions: Materials, functionality, price points, and a myriad other characteristics are baked into a product that should deliver a unique selling point, matching the go to market and the positioning statement for this product, within the context of that particular firm.

  2. Validation: This is the tricky part, where you prefer to avoid the substantial commitments to production capacity and inventories just to prove a point (what is you are disproved?)

In an earlier post in this series I've reviewed Ford Edsel cautionary failure story.

The crux of that painful experience was that sometimes, even if you do everything right, the real world might not embrace your product, regardless of the focus groups, the alpha and beta testers, the design partners, and whatever you put into validation - even before the first specimen rolls off the production line.

Contrary to pure software products, there is much less room for pivots: You are saddled with those up-front investment, bound to turn into sunk costs and a hole in your financials.

The risks of physical production still linger today as well, but luckily, the all-important digital layer offers opportunities for improvement before and after launch.

Validation would then mean the following activities:

  • Market research, focusing on positioning and product features

  • Qualitative user research - How would, and this pertains both to b2c and b2b users, this product fit into the customers lives?

  • Quantitative, to the extent possible - measure usage, purchasing patterns, price sensitivity, support calls, maintenance...

  • Mockups, prototypes, proof of concepts: Test as many aspects of the product as possible: For example, I had the chance to use a demo console and infotainment unit by Ford mobility - physically emulating the steering wheel, screens, dials, and all controls to test applications built for its app-store.

  • Once the product is launched, and assuming a connected device, measure streams of data to validate the success of the user flows we had in mind.

  • Optimization and continuous improvement, through software updates, bug and security fixes


Validation. Yes, but how?

Hermeus is on an ambitious mission to develop a hypersonic (4 Mach) plane. It is a challenging exercise in validation, where physics, mechanics, fluid dynamics, avionics are stretched to new limits.

The first steps of validation are prototypes and proof of concept experiments, gradually testing system components and their integration. No users are to be seen, but test beds, wind tunnels, thermal and mechanical tests - everything needed to ensure this technological marvel takes off to the sky and returns in one piece.

The validation here is risk mitigation at the system-engineering level. This is pertinent to any hardware product facing real world mechanical challenges, even before full scale build and operation by humans.

The aviation industry is 120 years old, and many of the obstacles are known, but - as we've seen recently, with Boeing 737 Max debacle(s) - knowing about them and dealing with them are not synonymous.

Flight 1282: Safety is a product feature
Flight 1282: Safety is a product feature

Boeing obviously failed on the base of the pyramid - Safety. Apparently, with the notoriety Series 737MAX earned, there is a cultural problem with the company...

The requirement pyramid. Ashby, M., & Johnson, K. (2003)
The requirement pyramid. Ashby, M., & Johnson, K. (2003)

In the coming posts, I will focus on the higher echelons of this pyramid, and how they pertain to product management practices.



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