The success of each and every company is measured by its capability to introduce new products to the marketplace or to develop existing ones. Intended to reduce the possibility of companies introducing unsuccessful new products or product enhancements, the fuzzy front end (FFE) is a method which enables companies to scrutinize their ideas pipeline before they invest heavily in producing them.

Introduction and Background

The fuzzy front-end is the first and most tedious stage of product development. It is full of uncertainty and complexity. It is a phase during which the development team members deal with many variables and unknowns. They lack the much needed customer reactions and feedback that would otherwise guide them in their development process. The uncertainties that the team faces include but are not limited to the following (Jetter, 2003):

  • Market uncertainty. The market is moving; customer needs are changing and so are competitor products. These factors constitute a potential risk on the product under development.
  • Technological uncertainty. The team may plan to use a technology that is under development or has not been thought of yet.
  • Resource allocation uncertainty. The engineering field is a dynamic environment where team members tend to move from one company to another or from one division, in the same company, to another. Moreover, the price of material used in the product is also fluctuating, and there is no guarantee of its full availability throughout the production period.
  • Environmental uncertainty. The product under development is hostage to many external factors. For instance, an economic downturn could limit customer capability to pay $1,400 to buy the next generation of MacBook Pro. In addition, the new product could potentially suffered from new laws regulations.

Fuzzy Front-end Sub-stages

Fuzzy front-end is a holistic system view that embodies idea generation, idea screening and concept development. These early sub-stages are critical because they lay down the foundation on which the overall new project development will be based. The idea generation sub-stage relies on gathering sets of ideas from internal sources (employees) or externally (lead groups and costumer feedback). All of these ideas are centered around customer needs. Idea generation identifies these needs through a direct interaction with customers. This interaction could take many forms (Cooper & Edgett, 2008):

  • Customer visits with in-depth interviews, during which the team meets face-to-face visitation and conducts well targeted interviews
  • “Camping out” or ethnography, which involves a deep observation of customers’ behaviors dealing with different devices in their daily life
  • Lead user analysis, which is a great opportunity to get the advice or ideas from the first people who would potentially use the product under development.
  • Focus group problem detection session, which offers the chance to listen to people from different backgrounds expressing their needs and articulating their problems
  • Brainstorming group events with customers, a free way to get a stream of ideas and opinions from customers. These sessions can be in person or online through forums.

A successful and detailed study of the targeted customer would deeply impact the performance of the new product down the road (Kahn, 2005). Once these ideas have been generated, their refinement comes into play; a multidisciplinary team of experts in different fields would focus on each and every idea individually and then choose the most promising ones.  Their decision is based on a deep technical assessment, market research, risk analysis, productivity projection, and detailed financial analysis.

Importance of the Fuzzy Front-end

The fuzzy front-end stage is the most important step of the development process because it prevents companies from mis-allocating their resources in developing a failing product that not only costs the company a lot of time and money, but also harms its reputation against its competitors’ and derails its development process (Kutvonen & Torkkeli, 2009). As a result, the fuzzy front end is the best checking point where any “low grade” new products should be eliminated before they lead to significant investments of time, resources and money.

The fuzzy front-end phase helps the senior management team screen potential product ideas and develop only the most promising ones. This phase concludes with a business plan that contains the project specifications, financial analysis and detailed project management plans that constitute the road map of the company throughout the next couple of months or years. This process is iterative and as such, the company will make changes to its plan as needed to guarantee a smooth and effective progress toward its overall development plan.

Case Study

The Yellow Team’s Senior Project involves the design of a Digital Tonographer, a device is used by ophthalmologists to measure eye pressure over time. Most of the fuzzy front-end steps mentioned above take place in the team’s design process.

Before landing on this project, a study of the market was conducted to identify the unmet needs of the customers (ophthalmologists in this case). This study showed that there was a substantial need for a digital tonographer. It would be the only one in the market that performs, digitally, this functionality. The closest commercially available product to the tonographer is called a tonometer.  This device determines the patient’s intraocular pressure (IOP) by measuring the static pressure (a snapshot) and does not allow the ophthalmologists to track this pressure over time. Making accurate measurement over time is extremely useful as it allows doctors to prescribe the right treatment to Glaucoma patients. On the other hand, the 1970 version of the tonographer is invasive, and outdated as it uses vacuum tube technology and delivers information through a needle that draws a graph on a roll of paper. The ophthalmologist has to perform some hand calculations in order for him/her to get useable information out of the graph.

To move forward in this project, the team members decided to conduct an in depth study of the people who had used the outdated version of the tonographer, get their insight and incorporate their feedback into the new device. In addition, brainstorming events with customers and focus groups were performed to get a clearer image about every aspect of the project.

The fuzzy front-end is the most critical step in the development process. Although it takes a long time and a lot of effort to gather all the information relevant to the project in hand, it saves time and money in the long run if done properly

Application to Senior Project

Members of the Senior Project Yellow Team met with two professional designers to brainstorm ideas for the design of this device. In this meeting, group members, with the help of both Dr. Lasser and designers, went through different design parameters of this product. This was done by imagining a scenario during which a potential Glaucoma patient came to the ophthalmologist’s office for an eye pressure measurement. Throughout this process, team members identified the variables of this device. The brainstorming session was an occasion when everyone had a chance to ask questions and discuss answers about different aspects of the product:

  • Do we want the entire process to be automatic, or do we want to still keep the human intervention part?
  • What kind of sensor should we use?
  • Do we want to use one probe or two?
  • Do we want the probe to adjust itself automatically on the patient’s eye, or would the technician do that?

At the end of the brainstorming session, many questions went unanswered. That is when customer insight steps came into play. The team members went to see, in site, what are the requirements and preferences of ophthalmologists, technicians and patients. The visit to the ophthalmologist’s office clarified many aspects of the project and allowed team members to have a precise vision of what the device will look like. They were able to determine the project scope and narrow down the steps needed to be taken.

Fuzzy front end is a pre-development activity that may or may not lead to a product. It is essentially based on guess followed by a substantial study of the market to find out if specific ideas are worth being pursued by the senior management team or if they should be terminated in their early stages. This early termination results in huge cost savings because of the relatively low cost of generating ideas and testing their feasibility compared to the high cost of allocating more and more resources toward the advanced phase of the product.

Cited References

  • Cooper, R. G., & Edgett, S. J. (2008). Maximizing productivity in product innovation. Research-Technology Management, 51(2), 47-58. Retrieved from ProQuest Database. Retrieved from http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/iri/rtm/2008/00000051/00000002/art00009
  • Jetter, A. J. M. (2003). Educating the guess: Strategies, concepts and tools for the fuzzy front end of product development. Portland International Conference on Technology Management for Reshaping the World (PICMET ’03), 261-273. DOI: 10.1109/PICMET.2003.1222803
  • Kahn, K. B. PDMA handbook of new product development(2nd edition). Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons. OCLC WorldCat Permalink: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/54365528
  • Kutvonen, A., & Torkkeli, M. T. (2009). Opening the fuzzy front end: A synthesis of two theories. Portland International Conference on Technology Management for Reshaping the World (PICMET ’09), 2029-2036. DOI: 10.1109/PICMET.2009.5261941