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How to Design Physical Products That Customers Love

6 phases that will take your startup to market.


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Blake Lazur

3 years ago | 5 min read

When it comes to your startup creating a physical product, looks matter. And in a big way. The visual style you and your team develop allows your startup’s identity and personality to shine through.

Marketing, signs, logos, buildings, product designs, and packaging all help create your startup’s identity.

In product-heavy companies like Apple, identity plays a vital role in shaping the perception of your company.

When your startup’s products follow a consistent and easily recognizable appearance (style, color, form, or even its features), visual congruency is created which is precious when it comes to building a positive reputation.

Product startups must consistently push innovation through aesthetics and ergonomics to create this visual congruency. Product innovation can be created through 6 phases in your startup.

  • Investigation of customer needs
  • Conceptualization
  • Preliminary refinement
  • Further refinement and final concept selection
  • Control drawings and models
  • Coordination with engineering, manufacturing, and external vendors

Let's explore these 6 phases in more detail.

1. Investigation of Customer Needs

Your product development team will naturally begin by documenting existing customer needs and then branch out into researching new ones. In the medical field, for example, your team will survey operating rooms, interview physicians, and speak with medical staff.

This allows your design team to gain intimate insights into how your consumers interact with products. This shines a light on current customer needs.

New lean startup techniques involve you working directly with consumers to develop new products. The downfall to this is that product information spreads to your competitors. Finding a balance between market research and secrecy is critical.

2. Conceptualization

Once the customer needs and constraints are understood, the industrial designers help the team conceptualize the product. This is the stage when your engineers focus their attention on finding solutions to the technical subfunctions of the product.

This involves thumbnail sketches to show product form and user interfaces. Once all ideas are sketched, your startup can present the proposed concepts to the decision-making team.

This is a crucial step because the more intricate your design becomes, the likelier your costs will go up. Designers and engineers must work closely to solve issues that induce low manufacturing costs, especially in the early stages of your business.

3. Preliminary Refinement

This phase will help your startup’s product come to life. Your designers will create what’s called soft models, which are full-scale models made of foam or foam-core board. Models will give your team a 3-D look into your best concepts.

Models help your engineers make modifications to the size, shape, and proportion of your product. If you are running a lean startup, this is the phase when you work with consumers to gain real-time feedback on the design process.

Consumer feedback and cost projections will lead you to make final decisions on the full capacity of your concept.

4. Further Refinement and Final Conception Selection

During this step, your startup will switch from soft models to hard models. This involves creating prototypes of your final concept designs. It allows your engineers and designers to see the product and its features as a consumer would.

Your prototype will be almost identical to the alpha prototype. This step allows you to critique the color, material, density, size, and feel of your product.

These hard models are what you typically see at trade shows and snippet videos online. Companies will show this patented technology to the world to get consumers involved in their company’s hype.

Your hard model will be used to refine the specifications of your product further before you reach the manufacturing phase.

5. Control Drawings and Models

Your startup’s design team will complete the development process by creating control drawings or control models of the final concept. These drawings document functionality, features, sizes, colors, surface finishes, and critical dimensions. These get passed to the engineering team to create CAD drawings that are used for manufacturing.

6. Coordination with Engineering, Manufacturing, and External Vendors

By now, your startup team should have already found multiple manufacturers that produce your type of product. You must consult with each of them with your engineer drawings to find out the cost to build your concept.

It is essential to negotiate the lowest price possible, which can involve economies of scale. Producing at a smaller scale will drive up your costs per item.

These 6 steps are what Apple, BMW, Motorola, and many other companies use to create beautifully designed products. These steps will be an ongoing process as you consistently generate new ideas.

When the world sees your product, make sure they know who made it.

Here are some of my favorite companies that have effectively used industrial design to establish substantial visual equity and corporate identity.

Apple Inc. The original Macintosh had a tiny, upright shape and good buff coloring. The purpose of this design was to give the product a calm, and user-friendly look that has transpired into all of Apple products. Apple has since ventured into remarkable lines and innovative styling with the use of silver, black, gold, and rose gold finishes.

Rolex Watch Co. Every Rolex watch has maintained a classic, durable finish that exemplifies the quality and prestige of its products. A solid look and feel have built a long-lasting watch dynasty.

Bang & Olufsen. B&O consumer electronics are devised to have sleek lining and crystal visual displays. This high-tech appearance gives off an image of technological innovation. If you own an HP computer, you’ve fallen in love with a B&O touch screen.

BMW AG. BMW has always been known for its luxury automobile features and driver-focused performance. Getting your audience focused on the inside of your car starts with the exterior design. Their slowly evolving exterior features have allowed BMW to rank among the top of luxury brands consistently.

Motorola Inc. Motorola started its flip-phone innovation through its MicroTAC and StarTAC cell phones. These were known as the most innovative flip-phones on the market. With a rapidly evolving phone industry, Motorola pushed to create the RAZR model. The RAZR used a folding clamshell concept with a much thinner form factor emphasizing their leadership in a sleek design.

Your startup must be recognizable through its products. If consumers cannot tell the visual difference between you and the competition, you’ve effectively created a commodity. A beautifully designed product such as Apple’s MacBooks, iPhones, and Airpods, can be noticed afar from any consumer.

Building that visual gap between the competition and your startup will create a “Purple Cow” in the industry.

Take the new iPhone 11, for example. With Motorola phones becoming almost identically shaped to the rest, Apple had to create a design more distinct. With the addition of 3 cameras, it creates a visual brand for consumers.

You immediately know it’s an Apple phone because of its design. Apple could have easily stuck with one camera and combined all the features, but that would entail copying the design of every smartphone on the market.

So when it comes to designing a product, remember the 6 phases of designing your product and steal a line from Apple and focus on making your product as visually appealing as you can. Your customers will love you for it.

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Blake Lazur


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