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Observations and Recommendations: Product Development During a Crisis

This past March I found myself on the receiving end of a few social media notifications from people aware of my background in aerospace engineering, industrial design and product development. They sent messages with links to some of the COVID-19 online groups that have sprung up in the wake of ventilator and PPE shortages; groups mostly comprised of 3D printer owners and design enthusiasts attempting to fill the void during the early days of this ongoing crisis.

Needless to say, I was prepared to jump in with both feet.

I joined groups.

I surfed through dedicated websites.

I read through a disorganized mess of Facebook posts.

I scanned Google doc supplier lists and watched videos of Frankenstein mock-ups.

I read Twitter threads calling out the poor design of 3D printed folding face masks (and associated conspiracy theories related to same).

I spent so much more time trying to navigate an information superhighway pile-up than thinking about the best approach to solving the problem that I quickly became discouraged.

Because as I began to formally put on my product developer’s hat, I came to the realization that what these Maker efforts seemed to need most wasn’t yet another individual posting ideas into the maelstrom.


What these people needed, from what I’d experienced, was a platform – a tool or set of tools – that facilitated meaningful participation and feedback. Even more importantly, it was apparent to me that what the well-meaning people on these coronavirus response groups really needed was a more professional-level understanding of the product development process; why it’s so meticulous and why it’s so genuinely important.

The latter – educating the general populace on what it is we do at IPS and at other product design consulting firms – deserves more time and attention than I can give it in one blog post. It also deserves the effort of a chorus; not a soloist. Thus, I’ll leave that important endeavor to one of my compatriots at IPS, who is assembling a blog series with input from various members of the IPS product development team. I hope you take the time to read their posts in the coming days.

As to the former, I will offer this, based not just on what I’m seeing now with the COVID-19 online groups but on previous professional experience as a member of geographically dispersed product development groups as well as working with a think tank specifically studying, among other things, how people might form the same kinds of groups under the same kinds of crisis conditions:  I don’t believe there’s necessarily only one approach to efficiently managing online product development efforts – especially hardware projects intended to go to retail outlets for broad distribution; arguably the only way such products can have any true impact or be of genuine help to the general population during a crisis. Not everyone is a Maker, and not every Maker is sufficiently skilled to successfully construct a tangible product they might need.

Different efforts require different tools. This is as true of organizing an online-only product development effort as it is of the development effort itself.

That said, I can tell you what I believe is clearly not the answer: trying to use popular social media platforms – which I’d submit are generally unsuitable to the tasks at hand – to effectively manage a fluid and diverse group of hardware and/or software developers toward successful completion of a project. For the most part, social media outlets are likely not going to be the right organizational tools. And just as in professional product development, using the right tool for the job matters.

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