Podcast: Product design lessons for insights teams with Ethan Kellough of Highlight
Ethan Kellough, Co-Founder and Chief Product Technology Officer at Highlight, discusses the lessons that the software and digital product industry has taught us about developing and optimizing physical products.
On our podcast, we were joined by Ethan Kellough, Co-Founder and Chief Product Technology Officer at Highlight, an Agile In-Home Usage Testing Platform that is making it fast and easy to conduct research with physical products. Ethan was a mechanical engineer and physical product designer who made the switch to starting a software company that helps physical product people, like his former self, iterate and improve on their products through user-centered in-home research.
We discussed how the pace of innovation in the software industry has quickly outpaced the physical product industry, how the physical product industry is full of waste and is ripe for optimization, and how the lessons that the software industry has learned over the past 20 years can be directly applied to physical product research. We also looked at the future of the physical product research industry.
“The digital product industry has grown up really, really quickly,” says Ethan, “it has really dominated our cultural discussion and the way we interact with the world.” Because the software and digital product industry has developed so quickly, it has outpaced the innovation that goes into the physical product industry. “The physical product industry is still ripe for innovation.”
The lessons that the software industry has learned over the past 20 years can be directly applied to physical product research. The first lesson Ethan shares is that “the best data is the data that most closely reflects reality.” He elaborates by saying, “In the digital world, it’s really easy to test new ideas and collect behavioral data - it’s not so easy in the physical world. The more closely that we reflect reality in the physical world, the more operationally difficult the task tends to become. We’ve come up with some “good enough” approximations that are a good balance between the operational difficulty and the approximation error.” He continues by suggesting that “we can have low approximation error and low overhead.”
The second lesson that Ethan offers is “invalidate, don’t validate.” He shares the story of a client who had prepared two different versions of a physical product. Through product testing, they were looking to invalidate one of them. This can be a helpful framing that is common among digital product design, but less so in the physical due to the challenges it can present.
The third lesson Ethan discusses is to “size research effort proportional to the risk of being wrong.” He recommends that you “reduce the effort required in research, so that you can do more testing when it should be done.”
When asked how he thought the physical product research industry is going to change in the next decade or so, Ethan said that his top recommendation is increased agility. The physical product research industry is getting better at being consumer-centric, but there is still a lot of work to be done on the agility side of things. “Because the value chain of physical products is so long and there’s so many players, I think there's an opportunity to imbue agility at almost every stage of the process. If we do want to, as an industry, become this beacon of agility that we hope for, we will need to start to tackle those problems.”