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Building Your Product Development Toolbox

When it comes to identifying product development problems early on, a first step can often be as simple as examining the tools with which you’re working.

As a Systems Engineer who recently underwent a home renovation, I was able to draw parallels between the product development work I do, and that arduous task.

In that spirit, to be successful with any project, you need to know what to do, how to do it and have the right tools for the job. Systems Engineering (SE) provides precisely those tools for product developments. SE is a collection of processes, activities, tools, and techniques that are complementary to traditional engineering and project management disciplines, and explicitly designed to make product developments successful.


The process provides a roadmap for success. When it came to my floors, the process was to pull up carpet, remove tacks, sand, fill cracks, and refinish. Adhering to this roadmap was critical to ensure my floors looked brand new. The process is even more essential for product developments where so much is on the line. Systems Engineering includes processes for every part of the development lifecycle – from defining the market need to verifying the product meets the requirement. However, while the process tells you what to do, it doesn’t tell you how to do it.

Activities & Techniques

Knowing that you should seal your bathroom isn’t the same as knowing how to do it the right way. Product developments are no different. Most organizations already have processes well defined, yet they still struggle. SE offers specific activities that can be completed to get the most out of your development processes. It also saves time and improves quality by defining the proper techniques for performing those SE activities, and for using SE tools (see below).


There’s nothing more frustrating than knowing what to do and how to do it, but not having the right tools for the job. Without the right tools, quality suffers, and the job takes longer to complete. In product developments, this translates into defects, cost/schedule overruns, and unhappy customers. Systems Engineering provides the tools needed to ensure high quality and efficient product development.

The SE Toolbox

For an example of what the “SE Tool Box” actually looks like, let’s look at two overly simplified, yet realistic, scenarios.

The Idea on a Napkin

You work for a product development firm, and a customer comes to you with an “idea on a napkin.” Before selecting a concept, you decide it’s prudent first to consider what problem the product must solve and to define the key capabilities and characteristics the solution must have. But how?

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Systems Engineering is your roadmap. That roadmap starts with understanding who will interact with the product and influence its design or use in some way. You reach into your SE Toolbox and decide that stakeholder analysis is the right activity for gaining this knowledge. SE offers some techniques to make this activity more successful. For example, a stakeholder can be classified as “active” (those directly interacting with the product – users, maintainers, the environment, attackers) or “passive” (the influencers – customers, regulatory bodies, etc.). This differentiation is important because active stakeholders tend to drive a product’s capabilities (e.g., features, inputs/outputs, functions), while passive stakeholder tends to drive its characteristics (e.g., safety, security, cost, reliability). This context is important for what’s next. The next step in the SE process is to learn more about these stakeholders’ wants, needs, preferences, pains, aversions, etc. You go back to your SE toolbox and decide that a Voice of the Customer (VoC) Interview is the right tool for getting feedback from customers and end users, while a survey is the right tool for learning more from maintainers. Like doing drywall, a VoC interview is more successful when the proper techniques are used. SE offers techniques for asking the right questions, knowing what to look for in the responses, what to ask next, and how to extract what’s needed from the transcripts.

This brief example shows how the Systems Engineering can help you move efficiently from an immature idea to a well-defined statement of the market need and core set of product capabilities and characteristics, which is the foundation of every successful product development. The team now has with it needs to move forward with concept selection.

From Concept to Design

In this next example, let’s assume a concept has been selected and we need to transition into high-level design. Again, Systems Engineering provides the roadmap to get us there.

The first step in this SE process is to understand how the concept will be used. Creating use case scenarios is one activity that does just that. There are techniques that help keep use cases focused on what the interactions look like, independent of how they occur (thus preventing unnecessary design constraints). Every “active” stakeholder interacts with the system and therefore has at least one use case. A stick figure diagram is a tool we can use to tie stakeholders to use cases. This helps identify missing use cases, and to surface previously unknown active stakeholders. The next step in the SE process is to translate these interactions into design terms. A useful activity is to go through and represent each use case graphically. Sequence Diagrams and Activity Diagrams are two excellent tools (there are many others) because they represent each use case regarding inputs, outputs, functions, and decisions. Once we’ve diagramed all use cases, we can use another tool – the context diagram – to define our system boundary (our technical scope) and summarize all external I/O that cross that boundary.

This brief example shows how Systems Engineering can help us understand how our concept will be used, define our system boundary and technical scope, identify required inputs/output, and define functions needed to turn the inputs into outputs. This is how you move seamlessly from high-level concept into detailed design, with full traceability and focus on what’s important.

The above examples are only the tip of the iceberg.


Whether you are remodeling your home, introducing a disruptive product to market, or improving an existing design, it’s important that you understand what to do, how to do it, and have the right tools for the job. When it comes to product developments, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. You can leverage the scalable, adaptable, and available product development toolbox that’s made for the job- Systems Engineering.

As we’ll see in the next part in this series, companies that successfully integrate Systems Engineering into their product developments see a significant return on their investment. Interested?

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