November 12, 2019

By Steve Myers, a managing director with Accenture’s Industry X.0 practice, Communications, Media and Technology group

For most businesses, the approach to developing a connected device runs something like this: development engineers are given a detailed spec sheet for the new product and then over a period of 9-12 months they put something together which, after delays, is eventually shipped. This is called a ‘waterfall’ approach.

That method was fine in the past when things moved slowly. But in the modern world, characterized by customer-centricity and rapid innovation, 12 months is far too long. What’s more, a myopic focus on the spec sheet means teams miss out on shifting customer demands and market signals, often causing products to fail.

The solution to this problem is agile development. Years ago, software developers abandoned the waterfall approach in favor of this methodology. With agile, speed is everything. Short sprints of 6-12 weeks, coupled with even more frequent check-ins, are used to build a basic prototype and put it in the hands of customers to test and provide feedback – the feedback is then used to build a new, improved iteration – and so on until the product is perfected.

The beauty of it? Agile is now a tried and tested practice – whose potential for the development of products that fuse software and hardware has yet to be tapped. Applied to connected devices, this approach will help the market thrive. This involves three key steps:

  • Identify the most important aspects of your product
  • Build prototypes and incorporate feedback on cycles spanning one to a few weeks
  • Establish feedback loops between your customers, engineering, business, and design

Building hardware in this way will have every bit as transformative an effect on physical devices as agile development has had on software.

Take how Adobe developed Adobe Ink, a drawing stylus for Apple’s iPad, in 2014. The process started with identifying user needs and then describing a minimal set of features needed to meet them. The developers then prioritized the most important features and immediately created a rough prototype for testing. Thanks to that early test phase, the team were able to quickly iron-out difficulties and could thereby make course corrections before dedicating too much time and budget.

In 2020, I believe the use of agile will begin to transform the connected devices market.

Thanks to the falling price points of 3D Printing and the faster, cheaper fabrication of printed circuit boards, even the smallest of businesses can now afford to make prototypes, something that once would have required huge resources. Many startups in this market understand the need for speed and customer relevance and will be using agile methods themselves. If incumbents want to keep up, they have no option but to adopt agile development techniques themselves.

As a result, we can expect to see two key operational changes:

  • Businesses will externalize development capabilities. Doing so will overturn the traditional approach, where all physical development was carried out in-house, but it will be more aligned with other areas of the business. After all, wherever else specialist expertise is required, such as in law or accounting, businesses turn to external experts, so why not for product development? This externalization of talent will help businesses solve development problems, accelerate time-to-market and improve the quality of their products.
  • Agile will stimulate competition in the connected devices market. Companies that are not currently in the connected devices market will find it easier to make the move. Since agile allows developers to rapidly prove the feasibility and marketability of a product, and at a low cost, it makes it exponentially easier for teams to build business cases for new ideas.

These two operational changes will, I believe, help drive two immediate market opportunities:

  • The market for voice-activated devices will thrive. Companies that have been putting off developing their own hardware because of the risk of failure and are unwilling to partner with existing manufacturers, will be able to use agile methods to test their concepts at low cost and with minimal risk.
  • Agile will enable 5G development. Traditionally, the main challenge with a new technology like 5G is that it was impossible to know how customers would react to associated applications. Agile solves this problem by plugging customers into the development process. Companies that use agile for their 5G development will remove much of the risk that comes with product development for a new standard and will also be able to create products that chime perfectly with market demand.

The way we develop hardware is, therefore, undergoing a transformation. Due to the costs involved in hardware manufacture this transformation has been harder won that the comparative transformation of software development. As a result, its benefits will be all the greater. Connected device companies that embrace agile methods will find that they are faster, better tuned to customer needs, less exposed to risk and better able to innovate in new technology areas. The rest will quickly fall behind.

Steve Myers Accenture, Industry Today
Steve Myers

Steve Myers is a managing director with Accenture’s Industry X.0 practice, Communications, Media and Technology group.

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