Change Makers: A Podcast from APH

How an APH Product is Created

May 13, 2021 American Printing House Episode 29
Change Makers: A Podcast from APH
How an APH Product is Created
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of Change Makers, we're celebrating National Inventors Month by learning how an APH product is created. From an idea to a physical product. We'll talk to product managers about the process and hear why partnerships are so important.

Podcast Participants (in order of appearance)

  • Sara Brown: APH Public Relations Manager
  • Mark Renfrow: APH Director of Educational Product Innovation
  • Greg Stilson: APH Head of Global Innovation
Speaker 1:

Welcome to change makers, a podcast from APH. We're talking to people from around the world who are creating positive change in the lives of people who are blind or visually impaired. Here's your host.

Sara:

Hello, and welcome to change makers. My name is Sara Brown and I'm APH is public relations manager today, or learning about product development and what it all involves. We're also going to learn about the importance of partnerships and a new dynamic, tactile device. That's in the works at APH. Now we're talking to APH is director of educational product innovation, Mark Renfrow. He knows everything about product development and what it all involves and is here to tell us more. Hello, Mark, and welcome to Change Makers.

Mark:

Oh, thank you so much for having me.

Sara:

So as a Director of Educational Product Innovation, can you tell us what it is that you do at APH?

Mark:

Well, I have the honor of overseeing all things related to the development and product management of educational products for the blind and visually impaired. We create a lot of different things, anything pretty much from , uh , computer applications to , um, very complex products.

Sara:

How long does the process for a new product to come to market?

Mark:

Excellent question. Actually it can be anywhere from about 18 months to sometimes over four years. And it totally depends on the complexity of the product and , uh, you know, whether or not it's , um, uh, an application or, you know, something that that's really involved with a lot of different pieces , uh, some products that say it's , uh , it's , it's a product that comes in as an idea, and it's pretty much already made and somebody just wants to sell their idea or to us, something like that is not going to take very long. We can, we can get that out and, you know , almost no time at all, but if we have an idea of come in and, you know, there's a lot of documented need for this idea and, you know, we know it's important, so we want to make it, but it's, you know, it's, it's just an idea and it's fairly complex. Uh , something like that can take, you know, from ideation all the way until product launch, that it can take four years of more. So we have , uh, right now we have about an average of two and a half years for products. And that, that takes into account some products that, you know, may only take a few months and some products that take years. And it totally depends on the products . Each one's very, very unique, which we're trying to get the overall average time down to about 18 months. And that's what we're striving for, but we want to make sure we maintain that quality. Uh, and then there we're building products that truly meet the needs of the blind and visually impaired

Sara:

When developing a product. What's the most important goal? Is it price, usability, the demographics? What is it?

Mark:

One of the most important things , um, in addition to quality and , and that's , that's something we strive for in each and every product that we produce, we want to make sure that it is of the highest quality and we run it through lots and lots of quality checks. And , and we , we have a process in a Stage-Gate process in place that we run everything through. And , uh , there are about six stages and Gates and , uh , theoretically we can kill the product. You know, let's say for instance, if we find something wrong that could be potentially dangerous to a student, now we can kill it at any time in any one of those Gates. Uh, so that , that's something that we build in to make sure that we are building , uh , the product that , that that's truly needed out there, a product that's safe and of the highest quality. So , um , as far as factors that are important, this really, truly depends on the type of product that it is. But , uh, just generally speaking, I think that universal design, you know, making sure that we we're , we're building products that can be used by, you know, more than just a very, very specific , um, uh, audience, but we w we build inclusivity into pretty much everything we do. We wanna make sure that kids aren't, you know, just ostracized and sent into the corner to work on something we want to , we want their classmates working on things to , with them, so that that's very important to us. So quality low cost . Uh , we want to make sure that quota dollars are being used wisely. So we, you know, we, we try to build what we can , um, with w you know , as much quality as possible with the lowest cost possible. And , and sometimes it's challenging, but , uh, that's what we do.

Sara:

What's it like to improve upon current products? I know last year, the LED Mini Light Box had just come out with some new changes. What does that process look like? Improving current products?

Mark:

Improving a current product is , is very satisfying. Uh, it, you know, it would be easy to sort of get hung up on, Hey, we missed this the first go around, but sometimes things change , uh, and sometimes user needs change , uh , and this and that necessitates redoing the product or making it better, or, you know, making some specific tweak , uh, so that it can be more usable. Uh, you know , you know, maybe the first go around. We didn't, it wasn't quite as inclusive as it could have been. You know, that that's something that we can go back and take a look at and what we try to do with each. And every product that we put out there is we try to get a user feedback as much as possible. And we are also trying to get the user involved , uh , as much as we can throughout the entire process, because we want to make sure that we get it as right as possible. Right out of the gate. We want to make sure that this, this is the most inclusive , um, you know , uh , full featured product that , that we can make. Uh, so what we do is, as far as modifications is we take that user feedback , uh, and it might be a survey, you know , it might just be a direct call that somebody has made. Uh, and we, we document that we , um, and , and , you know, say the product's been out there for a couple of years and maybe, you know, maybe it's time to redo that particular product. We've made sure that we incorporate those suggestions into that product. And of course we, we test and we test and we test some more, we work, we're constantly testing our products and we're constantly getting user feedback and incorporating that into the final product. So , um, as with pretty much everything in product development, it really, truly depends on the type of product that it is now, if it's a , it's an app , uh, that that's something that we can fix pretty easily, you know, we can, you know , we can get that , uh , pretty much done on the flat , uh , and , and get it back out there to be used. But if it's a more complex product, a more tangible product, that is something that would need to go back through the process. And then it's a little bit more involved, but , uh, you know, we're able to do that. And, you know, it , it , it would probably take a few months longer, but we get it out there and it just depends on the product. Uh, but we, we move as fast as we can. Uh, and we're, we're getting better and better at it all the time.

Sara:

What would you want people to know when it comes to product development ?

Mark:

One thing I would like people to know is it's not...don't have a sort a process that happens behind closed doors. It's not a , it's not a very private thing. It's something that we would like to have as many people involved in as we possibly can. We want the field's input , uh , throughout the entire process. And also of course, when the, when , when the products out there, we welcome that feedback. We, we truly want to work with the field and we are looking constantly for new ways to work with the field. And we would like to , you know, the field to be involved in the product from ideation all the way to launch and beyond , uh, we , we are , we're constantly looking for that input. So I think that's the most important thing , uh , that we can have is we want to , we want to be sure that we're building the right products , uh, very early on and throughout the process.

Sara:

And the last question, is there anything else you'd like to mention?

Mark:

Well , uh, I , I truly love my job and , uh, I have the honor of working with some very dedicated people. Uh, pretty much everybody I've encountered at APH has just been unbelievably dedicated. And that's the one thing on my team. Um, I worked with a bunch of smart people, and I'm very fortunate in that regard, but , uh , beyond, beyond that genius that they put into product development. They're, they're truly dedicated, you know, these, these are people that, you know , I , I wouldn't trade for the world. These are, these are people that I know are going to get the job done in the , in the best way possible. So that's very comforting to me, and it should be very comforting to the field as well.

Sara:

Okay. Thank you so much, Mark, for joining us today on Change Makers.

Mark:

Thank you so much for having me

Sara:

Up next. We're going to learn the importance of partnerships when it comes to product development. If you've been listening to Change Makers for awhile , this next guest is someone who's a regular, and he is so knowledgeable, and we love having him on just to tell us what's in the pipeline at APH. We have Head of Global Innovation at APH Greg Stilson. Hello, Greg. And welcome back to Change Makers. Hey, Sara.

Greg:

Thanks for having me.

Sara:

So we've learned how a product comes to be at APH, but what can you tell us about any products that are in the works right now?

Greg:

Yeah, I'm sure that some of you have kind of already heard me talking about the work we're doing on the dynamic tactical device. Um, this is a massive undertaking. Probably one of the biggest that we're going to be involved in, in decades, I would say, but it's a , the goal of this product or project is to create sort of a tactal e-reader , for blind and low-vision kids and , and people in general, quite honestly , the primary goal of this is to create a, a piece of technology that can produce tactical graphics and braille on the same tactile surface. Um, the number one goal here is to be able to create a, essentially like a Kindle type product for , uh, for blind people to be able to read books on, right? So to wirelessly be able to download the book, be able to access it , um, in braille, in the same fashion that they would essentially read a book on hard copy braille. Um, but our goal is to, to take it a lot further than that, to be able to enable this thing, to be connected to other devices, to show graphical content and really focus on the impromptu learning , uh, aspect that a lot of our students don't get access to, because let's just say that a classroom teacher forgets to make , uh , an image accessible or provide, you know, information ahead of time to get transcribed into braille. Um, something like this could really enhance that, that impromptu learning experience

Sara:

Partnerships are vital in any industry. Can you talk about the importance of partnerships to make a product successful?

Greg:

Yeah, absolutely. So APH, we we've been around a long, long time and we've, we've kind of gone through different methods of product creation. Um, and there's been a time when APH would , would basically build everything from the ground up from the product ideation process to, you know, building prototypes, to building the hardware all internally here. Um, and then we, we we've pivoted, I would say over the last 10 years to really focusing on a partnership model where we involve partners from the assistive technology industry, from the mainstream industry , um, to really help us build the ideal products. Um, and APH has really changed its role from manufacturer to really product. I would say, you know, product concept, creator, customer experience, creator , um, we've really focused on the user experience and the specifications of the product, but we've turned the manufacturing and things like that over to those who really have that expertise , um, in, in high-tech manufacturing. Um, and , and in many cases also software development. We do have software developers here at APH, but we can't do it all. So we partner with other companies to help us, you know, collaborate on software and creation like that as well, with something as big as the dynamic tackle device , um, partnership is going to be even more crucial than, than it normally is. And that's because, you know, the part of the product , um, you know, the technology piece is going to be developed with a partner. Um, but then we also have to have the , uh , creation of an entirely new braille standard for braille textbooks that can be consumed in a , in a dynamic tactal , um, you know, electronic reading form. Um, and that just really doesn't exist today. The , the most common standard that we have today is the BRF standard that's created that was created to , to create impossible content on embossers, right. But, but today students are going to be able to need to jump to chapters. They're going to need to need to jump to sections of a book, to jump to tables and graphics and all that kind of stuff that, you know, a sighted kid can do just by flipping the pages. Um, but with an , uh, an eText reader, you don't, you don't have that flexibility. So a new standards going to have to be created, and that's going to require partnerships from all over the world. Um, because our hope here is that this standard and this, this type of product is going to be the next way that people really interact with braille and tactile content. And so , um, partnership, understanding how different languages utilize braille , how , um, what , what type of tactal , um, you know, tactile activities people are doing in different countries. Um, and most importantly, I would say evangelization and , and championing this new standard around the world so that it gains traction, because if it doesn't gain traction, then the standard doesn't really become a standard. So , um, so that's a really long answer.

Sara:

Oh , that's, that's so cool that you all are creating you almost like you're creating the playbook. That's huge.

Greg:

Yeah. And like I said, we can't create it alone. This is, this is one of those things where partnership is, is really the foundation of what has, when you look at products. You know, one good example is , the Mantis and Chameleon , products that we co-developed with HumanWare. Um, those, those were products that, that APH really created the specification, the vision for , um, but we worked with , with our partner HumanWare to create the hardware and, and basically use the , or work with their software engineers and our software engineers to bring that sort of customer experience to life. Um, so you know, that, that product , um, some other partnership products that we were coming out with shortly, the Juno FRA , uh , is a partnership with the Sparrow, the same type of experience, right? We we've sort of had the vision of what this product would do from a software experience perspective. Um, the Sparrow really is the hardware expertise. They, they, they have that hardware expertise and we collaborated with their software team to sort of bring that customer vision to life

Sara:

As head of global innovation. I'm sure you've seen plenty of products that have come to market and some that just never materialized . What can you tell us about that whole process?

Greg:

Sure. Um, so, you know, part of in, in innovation I've , I've had mentors and , and even my current boss has told me, you know, it's okay to fail as long as you fail quickly and move on to something else, right? Say you just don't want to , you don't want to get hung up on something. That's going to be a failure. And then , uh , you know , invest tons of resources and time into it , um, you know, fail fast and move on. Um, and I would say that here at APH, our product development process is, is really thorough. Um, and one, one example of a way that, you know, an idea on surface may sound really, really good. Um, but because of our processes, it gets sort of filtered out due to us needing to do a needs assessment. So part of what we need to ensure that we're doing , um, because of the federal quota system is we need to ensure before we invest resources into a product, that there is a need in the field for that product. And so, you know, we get hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of product ideas submitted to APH. Some of them are really awesome and then some of them are kind of off the wall, right. And , um, but we look at each and every one of them and we run through our filtering process , uh, that we do. But one of the things that is involved if it gets to this stage is what's called a needs assessment. And what that is is oftentimes a survey. I'm sure many of you have received a survey request from APH. Um, and the reason you get these surveys oftentimes is for a needs assessment of whether there is a need in the field for an idea that we're considering. Right. And so we may think , uh, and I, you know, I'm a blind person myself. I've seen these ideas right, where I'm like, man, that would be really cool. Right. But then after we get a survey of, let's say 500 to a thousand people that respond , um, maybe that, that survey, the data shows us that actually the field isn't looking for something like this, there are our assumptions of what is happening in the classroom or in the market may not be exactly right. And so for us, I think that that's probably the most common place that you will see an idea , um, you know, dissolve at that point and we'll move on to another project. And I think that that's a really good way for us to ensure that we're devoting our resources, the right things. Um, so I would say that's a great spot in our process where, where we're ensuring that we're, we're putting our resources in the right places.

Sara:

Wow. That's really interesting. And I mean, that's, I mean, that makes sense. There's no need to reinvent the wheel in no need to spend all that time and energy effort and money when there's not a market out there, or, you know, it's not going to be well-received

Greg:

Right. And I, and I think that, you know, we, we only have so many resources , um, and we only have so many, so many developers and product managers and things like that here that can, can be devoted to something. Right. And so , um, ensuring that what we're doing actually has a need in the market is, is part of really APH is lifeblood. Um, oftentimes I'll come to a meeting and I'll be like, guys, what do you think of this idea? And like, everybody's like, Oh, that's a great idea. That's awesome. And then we'll do a needs assessment or we'll do a survey and, and, you know, my assumptions aren't aren't right. And , and I think that that's part of , um, as, as I've grown, as being a product manager, but also being a blind individual myself, right. Is I'm not building products for Greg I'm building products for the field and for people who are blind or low vision, and everybody has different needs, everybody has different requirements. And so part of, I think, where this is really valuable, right, is it kind of takes your internal bias out of it. And now you're using data , uh , which really never lies to, to make your decisions.

Sara:

Wow. That's true. The data , the data never lies. Okay. So the last question I have for you, is there anything else you want to talk about or mention when it comes to product development?

Greg:

I, I think that, as I mentioned, those surveys that we send out, I know that we, we probably can ping you guys with a lot of surveys. Um, and you get a lot of requests and things like that. I hope that this sort of needs assessment , um, explanation and things like that , um, make sense, and that you have a little bit more understanding of why you're getting those surveys , um, because those surveys , uh, do determine what, you know, what things will move forward. It really does , um, make an impact and what products we spend time on and what products could, could come to market. So , um, I just, I wanna say thank you in advance for the time that you invest into those surveys. Um, we do read every single one of those. We look at every data point , um, to determine really what we're going to be doing. So , um, just in advance, thank you for taking the time to do those surveys, to be looking at those needs assessments that we're working on. Um, and giving you honest feedback because , um, it, it is really what makes or breaks a product from happening.

Sara:

That's very true. All right, Greg, thank you so much for joining us today on Change Makers. Thanks so much for having me. We hope you have today's podcast. Be sure to look for ways you can be a change maker this week.