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When developing products for critical environments, product managers have a lot to balance: building a reliable solution and ensuring the safety of those affected by it, meeting the need to differentiate the product in the market, and meeting the demands of certifications and regulations. The “life or death” situations in the defense and medical industries, for example, present additional pressures that can end up driving many decisions.

Because we’ve worked within myriad industries, we understand the distinctive challenges that each present and are in a unique position to offer some recommendations to follow during the process.

Jump into the Trenches
It seems obvious, the need to know the person who will be using the product and the particular pressures under which they will be operating; however, it is a step often skipped or partially executed. Your thinking should be system/solution oriented rather than just focused on the product—holistic rather than finite. We call this “Voice of Community” research, as it involves unearthing the desires of the entire ecosystem of people that will be evaluating and/or will be affected by your offering.

Yes, end user research is critical to uncover the true user needs, pressures and preferences of those using your product in often chaotic or demanding situations. But there are other people in the chain from product to end-user who also have a touch point with the product—as well as a different perspective from which they evaluate your product. For example, if the end-user of a product, say an infusion pump, is a nurse, other stakeholders might include the doctor, the hospital purchasing director, the patient and the distributor who sells competitor pumps. What is important to them? How can you best balance all of their needs? How do you prioritize them? If you’re not in the trenches with them to find the answers, you’re missing opportunities.

We also often uncover opportunities for paired services for the products when spending time in the environment with users. Service offerings for everything from launch to setup, training, and servicing of products can offer additional revenue streams, opportunities for product line expansion and building brand loyalty. This is a smart way to develop beyond the basic product mindset to create a more holistic company offering.

Develop an Information Hierarchy
Another vital step when developing products used in critical situations is developing a hierarchy of needs and firm understanding of what the user needs to grasp quickly so he or she can take the next step. This is another reason investing in upfront user research is worth its weight in gold; without a solid understanding of how a product is actually used, it is difficult to isolate the most important functions to bring to the forefront. And within the realm of critical environments, considering this is – well – critical.

In the heat of the moment, the user should not have to sort through non-critical information or choices to take next steps. The adage that “less is more” is often true, and as possibilities and technologies become more complex, it becomes even more important to simplify the interaction with the machine. More features, functions, and information should not be assumed to be better—especially when it clouds the hierarchy of what is truly important. Developing an informed information hierarchy is something that should be top-of-mind for anyone developing for critical environments.

Look Outside Your Industry
Another strategy that pays dividends is one that is often overlooked: looking outside your industry for inspiration and solutions. While it’s natural and necessary to look at what your competitors are doing in the same product space, the reality is that in many cases, other markets, products and applications can serve as launch points for true innovation and differentiation.

To do this, we must uproot ourselves from “the way things have always been done” and leave behind the baggage that prevents us from creating true paradigm-shifting products. Consider, for example, that the best portable radio interfaces used in defense applications are light years behind the new Moto X smart phone and are pretty similar to cell phone interfaces from about 2003. If you look to the consumer electronics industry, you may take away the effectiveness of partnerships in this space. A partnership with, say, Google or Microsoft could leverage the strengths of the different players, and help ease some of the most expensive and time consuming development (such as in code writing and software development), making it possible to speed up the process and deliver a more technologically current solution.

Be Aware of Human Factors
Finally, human factors, while sometimes difficult to quantify, help the best to sell their devices on a platform of not only safety, but also user satisfaction and simplicity of training. The narrow focus on safety and reliability for certification often puts human factors on the back burner, when in fact they actually are closely tied to safety, and make products intuitive to learn and use. Human factors and intuitiveness is a driving force that separates the weak from the strong.

Digging deep in myriad forms can pay huge dividends in finding the best solutions. So stop looking only to your competitors and your end-user research for differentiation. Expand your view and look far and wide. You might just find the golden solution to your product’s greatest challenge where you least expected to—under a stone you weren’t even planning to turn over.

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