Before you buy: how Apple hardware is born

MF: How long overall can you expect a project to take, and how quickly can you react to change in the market caused by, say, Apple introducing a new feature or hardware revision?

TC: Again, there really is no "normal" development cycle length that applies to all of our product lines. We've taken some products from concept to production in as little as two or three months, while others have taken over a year. Generally, though, we've become quite adept at anticipating and responding to market forces that shape our products. Apple producing new hardware is a great example, and we've been fortunate that it has maintained a consistent pattern recently when it comes to introducing new iPod and iPhone models. Naturally, retail channels want to have compatible accessories on their shelves the same day that new devices arrive. This isn't always realistic, but now that we've been around that block a few times we've learned how to lay the groundwork in the days leading up to a new hardware drop so that we can respond immediately and deliver products to our retail partners with remarkable speed.

GC: Projects have different timelines based on the difficulty and involvement of the product. In a general sense, protective cases (especially soft cases) operate on a faster timeline than our electronics. We make a strong effort to respond quickly to Apple hardware changes, and also regularly discuss the latest rumours about expected changes. Our reaction time will vary based on many factors, but we recognise that speed-to-market is critical to allowing timely product placement and success.

WW: It depends.Some projects germinate for 18 months on their way from a scribble on a whiteboard to a shipping product. Others need to ship almost immediately after Apple announces a new iPod, or a new firmware updates gets pushed.

In most cases, we take our timing cues and direction from Product Development.

JG: AirCurve was an anomaly of the standard product development process, which gives it such an interesting background story.

MF: If you can, please share some ideas of the cost of developing a product. It could be overall, big-picture costs, or some specific examples, such as the cost of creating a high-quality icon or physical prototype.

TC: Early in the process, hard development costs are minimal – mostly time and personnel bandwidth overhead. However, once we get into prototyping and begin to prepare for production, the costs begin to add up. Tooling is typically the first step in the process to require a major outlay of funds, so we try to make sure that we're fully committed to a product – and, ideally, that we have a committed distribution channel – before we make that investment. Tooling costs vary widely based on the complexity of the product's physical design, the materials being used (plastic, aluminum, rubber, etc.), the desired finish and several other factors. They can range from a few thousand dollars to upwards of a hundred thousand.

TC: More and more often we're creating a series of samples and prototypes in-house at successive stages of product development. These start with relatively rough, non-functional 3D models and, over time, evolve to fully functional, show-ready samples that are virtually indistinguishable from production units. Though making these units can be costly, both in terms of materials and time, the return that we get in terms of refining designs and being able to communicate products both internally and externally is huge.

WW: Physical costs? Minimal really: paper, markers, some software maybe. Where the real cost lies is in the bandwidth consumed by the writers, photographers, artists and designers. Naming, positioning and successfully launching some products occupy us for months straight. Others happen quickly,it all depends.

JG: I think it cost a few thousand dollars to have the first AirCurve samples made.

MF: How do you test your products? What typical – or specific – outcomes does this process generate?

TC: Testing is constant throughout the design and production process. We start by testing a new product concept internally, with our channel partners and with end users. The development cycle involves a number of fixed go/no-go decision points, at any of which the product can be approved, sent back for additional work, or stopped altogether. If we've done our jobs right, by the time a product makes it to the shelf, we've tried every way we can think of to kill it, and failed.

TC: During the active design phase each product goes through an iterative review and testing process as each team interacts with it: design, engineering, packaging, etc. Testing begins at the component level and becomes more rigorous as the pieces come together and approach production.

TC: Once in production, every product is subject to extensive inspection and testing to ensure that it meets every applicable specification before it leaves the factory. Our in-house Quality Assurance team then pulls units out of inventory and signs off on them before they're cleared to ship to stores.

WW: As we move toward a product launch, names, positions, and packaging might all be put in front of focus groups for feedback. Ideally, the feedback we get is positive.

JG: We tested AirCurve in different noise settings and environments with different kinds of music.

MF: How often do ideas run almost to completion, just to be axed at the last minute? What decisions factor in this?

TC: Hopefully, this scenario is extremely rare, but it's important to have a process that ensures that we can, and will, pull the plug on a non-viable product whenever it becomes necessary – even if it's at the very last minute. The later in the cycle that a no-go decision is made, the more costly that decision becomes, so the approval process is front-loaded with numerous reviews and checkpoints. These early gates focus on things that are more easily quantified and controlled: design viability, costs, consumer need, etc. However, occasionally we run into situations that are beyond our control, like a retail partner pulling out of a commitment to carry a product. This forces us to re-assess a product and, occasionally, to put the brakes on.

JC: Like all things, some ideas are just too awful to escape. Not too often we'll find that a sort of group delusion will enable us to take a product up to the point of manufacturing before stopping it. It's a bit like pulling the brake on a train... everyone tumbles, grumbles then realises we wake from the nightmare. Those products we keep on a high shelf in jars filled with shame just to remind us the next time.

JF: Griffin strives to bring viable products to market that are relevant and benefit the user. Unfortunately, there are times when we realise that a developing product should be 'put out of its misery', for costing reasons, market changes, etc. We learn from each and every product that is a 'no go'.

GC: Our process has made the last minute cancellation of projects less common, but there are always the exceptions. Factors like market changes, iPod/iPhone spec changes, or more recently economic and retail changes have made some products fall off the list of what gets done. We try, though, to kill ideas earlier – thus avoiding spending a lot of energy and effort on something that bears no fruit. Thankfully, this is becoming better and better as we grow. The trick is to balance what the data says and what the gut tells you. This takes some mastery...

WW: Less frequently than you'd think.In most cases, products that get pulled or postponed at the last minute give signs that this is a possibility in the month or two prior to launch. And in these cases, we're usually able to shelve the work that we've done and re-use it or put it into action when the project finally does become unstuck.

JG: There were many attempts to kill AirCurve, but luckily we persevered!

READY FOR RETAIL: The finished product

MF: Working in a market dominated by a single company, to what extent do you feel inspired or hidebound by Apple's design aesthetic?

TC: We're fortunate to have a healthy working relationship with Apple, and in many ways our values when it comes to things like design philosophy and commitment to end-user experience are on a very similar wavelength. At the same time, there's value in diversification, whether you're planning an investment portfolio or creating products. That's why you're seeing Griffin translate the knowledge and experience that it acquired in building iPod and iPhone accessories to create product solutions in similar, compatible consumer spaces.

GC: Apple's industrial design is recognised as world class, so pairing our product to Apple's does require a lot of design savvy. Griffin's earlier products mimicked Apple's ID so much that people thought our first iTrip was an Apple product! In the past few years, we have developed our own visual design language or "design DNA" that, while complementing the Apple or other "host" product, is clearly a Griffin industrial design. At the same time, as Apple changes its hardware designs, we also seek to evolve our own aesthetic in a complementary way.

WW: Apple sets a high bar for us, but then again, Apple sets a high bar for anyone in the marketing/branding business. You're talking about the company that aired a TV commercial once more than 20 years ago that's still taught in every ad and copywriting class in the US. It's the company that used images of people like Bob Dylan, Pablo Picasso and Twyla Tharpe in a non-exploitative way to brand their company with the "Think Different" campaign. Inspired, driven, whatever you choose to call it, Apple's a pretty high mark to reach. Keeps things fun.

MF: Talk us through the process of creating retail packaging, brands and online presence.

TC: The challenge of packaging design is achieving balance. Balance between highlighting your brand and showcasing your product. Balance between your own design aesthetic and the requirements of the retailer's planogram. Balance between communicating your product's features and benefits and maintaining a clean, user-friendly look. We face similar challenges in the online space. However, we're fortunate to have an extremely talented multidisciplinary creative team that combines exceptional artistic skill with a keen understanding of branding and packaging philosophy. They constantly amaze us with their ability to present our products in the best possible light and have become an invaluable resource.

TC: One of the keys to our success in this area has been getting the Packaging and Copywriting team involved in the product development process as soon as possible. While we're still in the concept phase, we're discussing packaging and positioning – asking questions earlier in the process and taking into consideration issues that these functions are uniquely able to bring to light. The end result is better integration of product and presentation, less rework and shorter timelines.

JC: Luckily we've been at this process long enough to have very strong relationships with our retail partners. We've worked with them to deliver packaging appropriate to not only the product but to their different retail needs. In the end it's all about the customer. We want our products to not only be useful and easy to use but to look great on the shelf.

GC: Our marketing and packaging teams work hard to help take the innovative products we create and make them shine on the shelf at retail. We know that if the package doesn't help sell the product, no one will experience the great technology that our engineers and designers worked so hard to develop. Much like the rest of Griffin's inner workings, the development of the product packaging is often a team effort – industrial designers and engineers talking with packaging designers and copywriters to help find the right solution to best represent the Griffin brand to the customer at point of sale. We also work hard to develop our brand, messaging and collateral. We have a great story to tell, and a great team to tell it.

WW: Branding in general, and packaging in particular, are the place where all of the company's disciplines really come together. Our graphic and structural designers work within and establish the architecture of packaging formats, using the mix of design and materials that will do the best job of selling the product and protecting it in transit. And it has to hit the business plan, of course. As far as the process of "creating brands," I think it's important to remember that a true brand is a collaborative thing ... a combination of what we say we are and what our consumer says we are. So we spend a lot of time and energy balancing both to articulate who we are.

MF: Tell us about how you support a product after it's on sale, and what factors in your decisions about when to revise or discontinue a product line.

TC: Some types of product support are obvious, must-have things, like offering top-notch Tech Support. However, we're doing a lot of things to go the extra mile in support of both our customers and our retail distribution channels – and even our own sales team. We're producing instructional videos and podcasts; some for our customers, others for the front-line workers on the retail floors who answer customers' questions about our products. Our website also plays an important role in providing product information and support, but like many companies, we realise that we need to go beyond online support and ensure that our product support is readily available at the precise moment that the customer needs it and in whatever format is most convenient for them. This is a constant challenge, but we have more tools and technologies at our disposal than ever before and we're using them to our customers' maximum benefit.

TC: Product line management is an interesting prospect when you create accessories for other products. To some extent, our update and life cycle timelines are dictated by those of the devices that we support. However, we often find ourselves eager to release new products simply because we've figured out an exciting new way to make an existing product even better or discovered a better approach to solving a user need. In these instances, the question often becomes how quickly we can have a new product ready to ship or when we'll have the next opportunity to introduce it into one of our distribution channels.

GC: Griffin's in-house technical support team handles customer questions and concerns on a daily basis, offering help in real time – this is another unique service that we offer our customers. As for product lifecycle decisions, factors include successful sales interests, hardware changes from the first party "host" products, and market changes. Market trending is always evaluated – how are we selling? what's gaining or losing momentum? And the strength of our sub-brands is also a factor in our continuing product evolution. Our iTrip line is synonymous with "FM transmitter." We've got sub-brands that are the "Kleenex" and "Xerox" of our industry, so we have to manage those lines with special care.

WW: No one in the sector does a better job of supporting product after the sale, and that's been the case from when we first opened the door in 1992. It's actually a crucial piece of the Griffin brand. Users would call us for support on our products and on other's as well.

JF: Griffin does a stellar job of supporting products after the sale. Don't believe me?, call our support team. Not only are our support technicians friendly, they know our products inside and out, upside and down. In fact, a good many people at Griffin began their career in technical support and moved into Sales, Marketing, Product Development, Quality Assurance, and so on. Aside from top-notch phone support, Griffin also does a good job of using our website to help customers. We have support articles, support videos, and product manuals all available at the click of a mouse.

MF: Please do share any specific stories or information that you think are relevant or entertaining!

JF: Nothing could say more about a company than its people. I absolutely LOVE going to work everyday. For the Segway speeding down the hallway, for the raging video game battle in the lounge, for the random Yammer comment or Tweet, for the Free Lunch Friday, for the collaborative spirit and passion we share to bring great products – to people just like us.

WW: Best product-naming session ever. A small group of us put in an intense 20 minutes that yielded a pretty rich field of contenders for a product name. A consumer focus group that evening, after playing with samples of the product to be named, was asked for name suggestions for the product. The first name they called out, unaided or prompted, was the top contender from the list produced earlier that afternoon. For one precious moment, consumer, marketer and product were in perfect blessed alignment. That's a good day.

GC: For me, Griffin's culture is what makes it most unique. We have an incredibly talented and eclectic team of very creative people. If you come through our offices, you would see things like a giant bunny piñata wearing a Stormtrooper mask; product managers shooting Nerf guns from cube to cube; one or more of our company pets (Violet and the other pup); employees' children visiting during lunch and jumping on giant beanbag chairs; parking lot Segway races (and explosions); the engineering group's DIY electric car; or just a bunch of people sitting on the deck talking about the latest gadgets or iPhone apps. Oh, and if you come, come for Free lunch Friday – it's when we all get together like family and talk.

JG: AirCurve was initially called "Dream Dock" in house because I always thought it went best on a bedside table. I use my iPhone as an alarm clock in the morning and it works great for that. Ironically I don't have one there now because my wife liked it so much that I let her have the one I had at home! I guess I need to get another one.