Product planning and development is the critical journey a product takes from conception through to sales. While product planning and development is an integral part of any successful product’s launch and lifespan, there are no guarantees on the road to success. And yet, this phase can’t be rushed, or consequences can be severe.

Product Planning and Development Definition 

Product planning and development begins, like the Big Bang, as an inkling in the void. It’s a concept for a product that can meet a need, deliver a service or solve a problem. From aerosol cheese to the remote control, everything once began as just an idea.

From there, planning for a new product is much like crafting a good story – it needs the what, where, why, when, who and how. Once the development team has the answers, they begin understanding what the product is and what its potential could be – plus the costs, risks and challenges along the way.

Some questions a good product planning team need to solve include:

  • What is the product?
  • Why is it needed?
  • Why is your team the best suited to bring it to life?
  • When can it be launched?
  • When and where would it be used?
  • Where could it be sold?
  • Who would buy the product?
  • Who cares?
  • Who’s the competition, and what do they offer?
  • What’s the available market share?
  • What kind of market growth is possible, and for how long?
  • What is the profit margin?
  • How could the product be manufactured and distributed?
  • How could it be marketed?

Planning and development are about answering these questions and more. It involves a discovery phase focusing on public needs and demand, then developing a prototype, testing it, planning the launch and eventually seeing it sold to market.

Beyond that, though, it’s about solving problems before they can derail the project.

The stronger the planning and development phase is, the more likely a company has a successful launch. But, like all things in business, there’s no guarantee someone else won’t build a better mousetrap first. Therein lies the challenge: Thorough product planning and development can be the key to success – but it can also cripple the project if it takes too long and the competition gets there first.

Product Planning and Development Examples

Every company's product planning and development experience is different because no two product demographics are identical. They need to understand their audience, from what the customers want through how much they can afford to spend to get it. This phase is discovery, which comes after the product concept is born. So, what’s the product, and who’s it for?

Knowing the rough answers takes the team to the next phase: Screening ideas, which is basic brainstorming, but with editing included. What’s a non-starter? Can the product be made with a feasible budget?

Next, a prototype is designed, followed by rigorous testing. Do testers like the product? What are their complaints? What can be improved? How's the budget looking?

When the design is finalized, a launch date looms and the marketing team starts on branding, messaging and packaging. As this happens, channels of distribution are arranged and the launch is good to go.

A Case Study: Apple and iPod

A great example of a product plan and development that changed the world is the iPod. Steve Jobs and Apple saw a problem: People loved music, but compact disc players were an inherently flawed portable music solution. Jogging with a portable CD player was a no-go. Every step could skip the disc. Music had been converted to digital media files for years already, and portable players existed, but how could they be captured in a product that was easy to use and fun to own?

But Apple’s iPod solution came from an outside source, a man named Tony Fadell who brought the concept to Microsoft and was turned away. Apple liked the idea and soon its legendary Industrial Design Studio had an iPod concept. Development teams were tasked with solving functionality so digital music could appeal to the masses. Apple always holds Monday product meetings, where everything in development is discussed. Where’s it at? What needs solving? What’s next? A product never goes more than two weeks without a Monday review.

In those reviews, the iPod team solved the product. They created a durable design that could handle client lifestyles from sports to travel. The appearance was sleek, clean and could fit in but also stand out everywhere. Battery life was long. It held over 1,000 songs, more than competitors. It was easy to operate. But, most importantly, it was better in every way than anything else that was on the market – because the Apple team did not define itself by what currently existed, but instead focused on what was possible.

From there, the engineering program manager had free rein on solving the logistics of function and production. They oversaw manufacturing and testing in China. After that, they packaged the product, and since then, packaging has become a key part of the excitement in the Apple purchase experience. Thanks to gorgeous cardboard boxes with sleek imaging, the customer was teased from the moment they held the iPod box in their hands. Opening it felt like opening a gift. Apple made owning an iPod feel like a luxury and, even as it became the fastest selling, most widespread music-playing product in history, that feeling of an iPod being a luxurious, elite product never faded.

A Case Study: McDonald’s

A company that consistently excels at product planning is McDonald’s. They’re motivated by the “Five P’s” – People, Product, Promotion, Place and Price. Travel the world, and you’ll find McDonald’s is different in nearly every country. They have some core products, but they understand that, for instance, Turkey is a Muslim country and pork doesn’t sell there. Breakfast offerings there include a platter that has cucumbers, olives, cheese and bread, which is a very traditional Turkish day-starter. Whereas in Portugal, they don’t even open for breakfast. Both of these are thanks to their research on "people" and "place."

Then there’s "price," and no one goes to McDonald’s looking to spend what a meal would cost elsewhere, so that forms parameters under which they can offer their products. It’s got to be a bargain.

As for "promotion," McDonald’s has mastered that the world over for more than five decades now. They make their products fun, accessible, affordable and convenient.

By combining the five P’s, they solve the big “P” – product. It’s why Australia has a sandwich the U.S. doesn’t, the Big Brekkie Burger, which includes bacon, a round hash brown, a burger patty, egg and cheese, all between two buns, and it's a favorite Down Under.

There’s arguably no company on the planet that better understands how to offer a product based on audience, place and time like McDonald’s does, and that’s due to their product planning and development phase. They do their homework on every level, in every country.

Why You Use Product Planning and Development

You wouldn’t climb a mountain without a least taking the right gear, understanding the risks or knowing a promising route to get to the top. For the same reasons, companies don’t launch a product without a good understanding of how they'll get it into the hands of consumers, and hopefully, win a good share of the market. Product planning and development is how that’s achieved.

Product planning and development is a long-form dive into SWOT analysis, which includes identifying Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats in any potential product. SWOT analysis gives an idea of why the company’s product is suited to compete with others on the market, and why others may not be competitive.

Concept development and testing are when an idea goes from the page into existence and then is tested thoroughly. This phase is when any problems are identified and repaired. There can be nothing more detrimental to a brand than releasing a product and having a serious flaw. Samsung is lucky that its exploding battery in the Galaxy Note 7 didn’t bring the company down. Airlines around the world created safety measures to avoid having their jets explode mid-flight and potentially causing crashes. That’s the sort of problem that should be discovered in a thorough product planning and development phase, but Samsung's wasn't.

Rushing the testing can mean catastrophic outcomes if things are overlooked. Not just for the customers, but for the future of the company.

Take the Barnes & Noble e-reader Nook as an example. What problem were they trying to solve when launching it against the Amazon Kindle in 2009? Where was the Kindle failing as an e-reader? The problem was, the Kindle wasn’t failing. It was a game-changer eroding the book-buying market and transforming the industry. The problem Barnes & Noble wanted to solve was their ever-falling stock price and not a problem suffered by their customers.

In 2006, B&N shares were sitting at over $30 each. In November 2007, the Kindle launched. Within a year, B&N had lost 65 percent off their 2006 peak price. So, they announced they were getting into the e-book business, too. But it was a bust. The first-gen Nook had glitches and performance issues they couldn’t iron-out before a scheduled Christmas release. Worse, it was designed to borrow from the Kindle, which illustrated how great the Kindle was in the first place. Any innovations Nook promised didn’t pan out. When rushed to market just ahead of Christmas 2009, the company had been sitting around $15 a share. Within 16 months, they’d fall to $5.82 a share.

Today, the company hovers around the $5-to-$6 per share mark and uses Samsung e-book products under their Nook banner. In the UK in 2016, the Nook Store was closed, and the future looks shaky for Nook overall. Recently, they laid off 1,500 U.S. employees. Who knows where Barnes & Noble would be today had they slowed their roll and delivered a product that innovated the e-reader? Or better yet, if they had preserved development funds and instead partnered with someone tech savvy like Samsung in the first place.

The objective of product planning and development is to get products out in a timely fashion, but there’s no sense in being fast to market if it means imploding on arrival. History is littered with failures that could have been avoided with more time spent planning and researching the concept.

How to Improve Product Planning and Development

It’s important to believe in your product – that it belongs in the world and can be a success. But that belief has no place in the product planning and development phase. Instead, the goal should be proving that the product can be a winner. To do that, take the approach of "why does the world need this product?" Why is your product so much better than others? Why will people spend their money on your product? How much potential market share exists, and what kind of future market growth is possible? Is this a fleeting trend, or is there long-term appeal with a concept to build upon in coming years?

You should approach product planning and development from the perspective of a doubter, and build a case that turns you into a believer. Consider everything from how to market the product through to how you’ll keep customers remaining fans of it long after they’ve been introduced.

You have all the time in the world to cheer-lead your product after you’ve proven it's bankable. This product is your time to climb a mountain. Through the planning and development phase, you can map a route, use strategy, confront the risks then reach the summit.