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A90 - Product Architecture in The Digital Age

Machine Design, Penton Publishing, Cleveland, Ohio, USA
June 12, 2014

Description:  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, industry aggressively sought to understand the correlation between product requirements and product outcomes. A number of benchmark articles hypothesized that requirements preceded architecture and were even more important. HP, IBM, Corning, Northern Telecom, Motorola, Analog Devices, and a few others led a multi-faceted, multi-year campaign to examine the relationship. An article by Ashok Gupta in California Management Review’s Winter 1990 issue best captured the findings. In short, 71% of what goes wrong in product development can be traced to missing or incomplete or inaccurate requirements. In 1994, “Voice of the Customer” was coined by Abbie Griffin in the Journal of Marketing Science as a culminating event.

During these years, product definition began migrating to marketing and product management organizations, except for mission critical and complex systems requiring zero-defect or fail-safe outcomes, Product champions became the stars and the number of technical professionals involved in requirements definition gradually declined, as did their architectures. Strong practices remained until the recession of the early 2000s. Many of those in management who had enforced integration took advantage of the last great period of retirement packages. Requirements had had its day. However, there are still plenty of mistakes being made while developing new products.

Think about that 71% figure. It implies three out of four errors in product development are at least partially avoidable by up-front planning and analysis. Younger readers may say, “looks like some old fogie is writing the article.” But even if only half of those 71% of failures are due to incorrect or incomplete requirements, that would translate to 35%, which is still significant.

Things are different now, younger professional might say. “We can be agile, rational, scrum, and sprint! And software is easier to modify, more flexible, and better all around.”

That’s all well and good, but the number of designs that are “spaghetti-like” in their architecture has been increasing. Sure the wizards get the rabbit out of the hat and make the product work, somewhat. But are we giving our companies and customers a “best-in-class product”? Missed, incomplete, and misinterpreted requirements are the ingredients that go into spaghetti architectures.

We should learn from the recent past and ensure technical professionals are heavily involved in the requirements definition and management process. We should also go back to formally integrating relationships between product architecture, systems, and technical professionals, and the product or marketing organization responsible for requirements.

Product Architecture In The Digital Age discusses the gradual shift of product requirements away from the powerful Systems Engineering disciplines of the prior century, and how this shift has contributed to increasingly less robust product architectures.

This article is an ongoing column in Penton Publishing's Machine Design magazine entitled "Goldense On R&D-Product Development."

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