Challenge Accelerator workshop: Product development requires constant re-examination of ideas

Design prototyping and product development

Published in Climate Action by

Product development is a continuous process of making choices and reconsidering your initial ideas. This was the main lesson the winners of the WDCD Climate Action Challenge learned in a working session on product development and prototyping.

‘Sometimes you have so many things you want to solve on your list, that you don’t know where to start. If that’s the case, you need to take a step back and consider which elements are in the way of getting you further and could be taken out. Solving all the problems you encounter doesn’t necessarily get you the best possible product.’

In his contribution to the Climate Action Challenge Accelerator design researcher Jens Gijbels aimed to help the participating teams get their projects off the ground. The founder of the Fundamentals Academy that bridges the gap between design education and professional practice was asked for an introduction into prototyping and product development. Together with Pim van Lotringen, an engineer working for superyacht tender company Xtenders, Gijbels showed the many options in product development and the importance of making choices.

Van Lotringen underlined this by saying that skipping elements from your initial design should never be seen as failure. Taking out a feature that is holding back the development of your project actually brings you closer to your final goal. Don’t make your design more difficult than necessary, was the message Gijbels and Van Lotringen wanted to share.

Serviceability is important

Taking an example from his daily practice, Van Lotringen discussed the different phases in product development. For Xtenders he worked on a sun roof for a byboat that needed to go up and down. After choosing between electric, hydraulic or manual operation of the device, a prototype was made, as a proof of concept. ‘A prototype helps you to test aspects of functionality, usability, manufacturability and serviceability,’ Van Lotringen told. ‘You need to know if the product actually does what you want it to do, that it is used easily enough, that it can be made properly and that it can be easily repaired when necessary. Serviceability is especially important. You can lose a lot of money on that. We designed the sun roof so that clients can replace spare parts themselves, avoiding the need to send an expensive mechanic in the event that something breaks.’

Production cost

Next step is to consider production costs. This starts with an initial estimation of the manufacturing costs of your design. From there you can begin finding opportunities for cost reduction in the components used and the assembly. The outcome helps you to recalculate the manufacturing costs.

‘In this phase it is always good to talk to your manufacturer and ask his advice,’ Van Lotringen said. ‘He has all the knowledge about materials and how things are made more easily. Also take into account that manufacturers can make everything you can imagine, so you have to make sure that you don’t get what you don’t need.’

Also, Gijbels added, ‘it can be useful to know that there are huge databases of already existing parts online, that can be ordered from the shelve, adding to cost reduction.

Get your questions right

Although there is less of a manufacturing component in services, the development of services follows pretty much the same steps as for a product, Jens Gijbels continued. ‘In both cases good thinking is required,’ he stated. ‘It’s important to ask the right questions. Making a prototype often demands considerable investments, so you have to make sure that you’re on the right track.’

For this, Gijbels proposed to follow these steps:

1. What do I already know?

2. What are my assumptions?

3. What is my knowledge gap?

4. Zoom out, refocus.

Jens Gijbels presenting the workshop

Context mapping

Gijbels: ‘Often you think you know certain things, but after renewed consideration they may appear to be based on assumptions we have. Context mapping is important here. You have to find out how different people use your product and under what circumstances.’

This means that you have to provoke reactions on your design from people. One tool that Gijbels recommended for this is to have what is called a rich design research space. One or more walls covered with as many design ideas can provoke useful reactions from any passer-by.


A prototype can be helpful as well, and Gijbels showed that these come in many varieties. These include a 3D sketch, a visual model, a mock-up, a proof of concept, a wizard of Oz (a prototype that fakes the final functionality), a paper prototype, wire frames or a story board. But the list is endless and the trick is to choose the right type for the job.

The choice for a prototype also depends on the way one decides to do user research, Gijbels showed by discussing different approaches. It can be desirable to simplify things to get basic feedback. It can also work to go out and just propose an idea to the public. Or it might be useful to confront people to provoke feedback.

Provoke feedback

In one case, Gijbels told, a navigating device for older people had to be designed. Knowing that the older generation is not used to giving feedback, they were given a model that intentionally was rather heavy and big. This helped the test panel to get used to the fact that their feedback (too heavy, too big) was greeted as useful, encouraging them to give more feedback in consecutive phases.

Sometimes it is enough to just show your design. If you’re designing an app you can easily make an image in Powerpoint and send that to your phone, Gijbels said. The visual will immediately make things clear.

Four Levels of Listening

In all cases, Gijbels stated, ‘you don’t make a prototype for confirmation, but to learn what you need to improve.’ Which requires that you really listen to what people have to tell you. For that, it helps to be aware of the Four Levels of Listening as discerned by M.I.T. lecturer Otto Scharmer:

1. Downloading
Listening from the assumption that you already know what is being said, therefore you listen only to confirm habitual judgments (confirm yourself, politeness).

2. Factual
Factual listening is when you pay attention to what is different, novel, or disquieting from what you already know (acknowledge, debate).

3. Empathic
Empathic listening is when the listener pays attention to the feelings of the speaker. It opens the listener and allows an experience of “standing in the other’s shoes” to take place.  Attention shifts from the listener to the speaker, allowing for deep connection on multiple levels (understand, dialogue).

4. Generative
This deeper level of listening is difficult to express in linear language. It is a state of being in which everything slows down and inner wisdom is accessed. In group dynamics, it is called synergy. In interpersonal communication, it is described as oneness and flow (build understanding together, collective creativity).


Concluding, product development and prototyping is a continuous process of making choices, testing, analysing the results, refocusing and daring to re-examine your own convictions and starting points.

More information

New Product Development
New Product Development on Wikipedia
Product development on TechTarget
New Product Development, in: D.N.P. Murthy a.o., Product Reliability, Specification and Performance, 2008.

The Rich Design Research Space

Context mapping

Otto Scharmer on the four levels of listening


Jens Gijbels advising on the Evocco project.



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