Building any tech product is no simple task, but it’s especially tough for startups on a tight budget. From start to shelf, you could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars.

On one hand, you want to create the best product possible for your target customers. But on the other, you have to keep your costs in check. How can you create a product with great design that  won’t break the bank?

While it’s not easy, it’s possible. Use these seven tips to cost-effectively design something your customers will love:

1. Start with your user

Plan, plan, plan: The most expensive design mistake you can make is not planning your product around your user’s needs.

Before writing a single line of code, think through your user’s needs and circumstances. Outline:

  • Your user’s problem
  • Your user’s demographics and psychographics
  • Your user’s other potential solutions
  • Your user’s budget
  • Your user’s feature, function, and size preferences

Through this process, you’ll start to see key product design constraints. You can’t have it all, so you’re going to have to sacrifice bells and whistles for what matters most to your user.

For example, if you’re developing a kids phone, it has to be durable and inexpensive. Therefore, you should probably skip the state-of-the-art screen. Consider thicker bezels to reduce the risk of the screen breaking.

Of course, you may not be able to give your user everything he or she wants. A feature-packed smartphone simply can’t be built for $10, no matter how much your user would like it. Particularly when you’re on a budget, prepare to compromise.

2. Hire an electrical engineer

An electrical engineer is an absolutely essential hire for a tech startup. Without one, you won’t be able to go from your paper sketch to a physical product.

The role of an electrical engineer is to select and combine all the components based on your specifications. They’ll tell you if something simply isn’t feasible, like whether your device needs to be thicker to accommodate its camera. Here, you can discover additional details about recruiting software development engineers, which may be beneficial:

Once they’ve chosen components like microchips, displays, and sensors, they’ll connect everything in a blueprint-like diagram. Throughout the development process, they’ll provide construction and trouble-shooting support.

Beware that this engineer will be one of your most expensive hires. You may need to offer something else of value, like equity in your company, if you can’t afford a competitive salary.

3. Create a low-cost prototype

Once you’ve sketched out your product’s design, it’s time to actually bring it to life. One option is to send your design files to a prototype shop, which will create a couple of units.

When you’re on a budget, though, you have to get creative. Materials from the hardware store or a 3-D printer can be used to prototype hardware. For software, a low-fidelity wireframing app like Balsamiq may be all you need.

Prototyping is critical to the design process because it allows you to test your assumptions. Who knows whether users will actually be able to navigate the interface you had in mind. Your device may not be quite as comfortable to hold as you think.

4. Start small and iterate

Once you develop your product’s prototype, it’s time to iterate. Get a group of target users together to test out your product.

At this stage, don’t try to bite off more than you can chew. Ask users to focus on a single key feature or function. While they’re actually holding and using the product, ask for feedback.

Never judge product testers or dispute their comments. Even if you disagree with them, thank them for their feedback.

Remember, perfection isn’t the goal. You’re trying to build a minimum viable product, which means it should be sellable but have room to improve. Once you actually have something to release, you can worry about rooting out every bug.

5. Remember the packaging

The casing your product comes in is almost as important as the product itself. If you don’t have good packaging, your product won’t sell.

Both to save money and to create a more consistent user experience, design the packaging alongside the product itself. The box should feel solid but not cheap. Plastic wraps and ties should be easily cut. Find an experienced full-service packaging solutions company like Zenpack to manage everything from design and structural engineering to fulfillment.

If it’s in your budget, consider hiring an industrial designer. Have him or her work alongside the electrical engineer to make your product’s materials inexpensive, durable, and eye-catching.

6. Don’t spend money on marketing

As a tech startup, marketing isn’t nearly as important as product development. If you build something stellar, brand awareness will follow.

Any money you’d allocated to marketing should be spent improving your packaging and website. If your investors are adamant that you need to make a name for yourself, stick to free channels.

Email, social media, and word-of-mouth marketing can get your name out there without costly billboards or paid ads. Another option is a partnership: If you can get another brand to do your marketing for you, why not?

7. Take notes on your release

After you’re convinced of an iteration’s market potential, it’s time to plan for the big day: your product release date.

Your release is cause for celebration, but it’s also a critical point for design feedback. Chances are good that you’re going to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly from customers. As is true of the iteration stage, just listen; don’t judge or disagree with their comments.

Keep your eye on social media. Record meaningful feedback for future iterations. If you’re selling your product in store, ask the retailer’s permission to chat with customers as they purchase your product.

If you have an email newsletter, use it to encourage customers to reach out with feedback. And before your next iteration, convene real-world customers for a focus group.

Designing a tech product is no walk in the park. But as long as you know what your users want, keep production costs low, and don’t get distracted by marketing, you’ll be just fine. You might even have enough money leftover to celebrate.


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