Design in Focus: The Pivotal Design Process | Focal Upright

Design in Focus

Have you ever had an idea that wakes you up in the middle of the night?

The kind of idea that compels you to jot it down immediately so its brilliance doesn’t fade. What do you do with your nascent idea? Do you leave it scribbled on your notepad… or do you do something more?

Martin Keen, Focal’s founder and chief designer, knows you can do more.
(And wants to show you how!)

In this 5-week series, Martin will give you an intimate look into his product design process, showing you how he takes an idea and turns it into a product (and a pretty cool one at that). We dare you to follow us on this journey.

At the end, you’ll be in for a can’t-miss surprise.

From Idea to Launch

The Six Steps of the Product Design Process

Step 1: Ideation

Ideation Hands


I.D. the Need

Where do good ideas come from? Anywhere, really. A lyric you were singing in the shower, a billboard you saw on the way to work, even a vivid dream.

Where do good ideas that turn into great products come from? Problems.

For Martin Keen, good ideas are always born of need. All of Martin’s successful design projects begin with a tangible problem, a problem that Martin is intrinsically motivated to solve. When you remove your grandiose expectations for the ideation process and instead focus your approach on solving a problem that is personally relevant, you are much more likely to make things happen.

For the past few years, Martin has been concerned by the problems spawned from the modern workplace. He can’t stand the lethargic pace and sedentary structure of most offices. He refuses to sit still and be quiet about it; instead, he’s taking the future of office furniture into his own hands. By designing the furniture that he wants to use, Martin has created a radical product line that defies convention.

Take a look at any of Martin’s designs. You’ll immediately see that they are meant to move. But for his newest product, he wanted to create a seat that inspired even more activity. He felt a need to twist and turn, to swivel 360 degrees. From this need, an idea was born …

We challenge you to think about your own daily routines. What problems are causing you friction? Do you care enough to make a change? If so, your next big idea may be right around the corner.

Stay tuned for next week’s exploration of step 2 in Martin’s design process: Sketching + Prototyping.

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“If you have that instinct to build, to make;
get your hands dirty. Build. Make things.”

– Martin Keen

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Step 2: Sketching & Prototyping

Let’s Get Physical

You have zeroed in on the problem you want to solve. You have an idea for how you are going to solve it. It’s during this stage that many people contract a debilitating case of idea paralysis. Symptoms include: persistent self-doubt, chronic staring at blank screens, and rampant paper scrapping. What’s the antidote to this ailment? Move from the abstract to the physical, and do it fast.

Focal founder, Martin Keen, maintains his forward momentum by taking out his notebook and favorite blue carbon pencil and sketching. During the sketching process, his one objective is to get his idea on to paper. Sketches do not need to be works of art. He just needs to create a 2-dimensional representation of his idea so he has a rough visual roadmap of the product he wants to make.

From there, Martin and the team at Focal Upright conduct formal focus groups to test specific hypotheses about the product. According to Eric Ries, founder of the (industry essential!) Lean Startup method, product development should be guided by questioning: “One of the most important hypotheses always includes: What will the customer care about? How will they define [our product’s] quality?

“Sometimes you can have a great idea, make an incredible sketch but it doesn’t function well,” Martin explains. “As soon as I can, I want to get to the function, the actual use of the product, even if it’s just a rough prototype.”

How do you build a physical prototype? By getting resourceful.

“I use everything: Bondo, fiberglass, concrete, foam… I’ve taught myself to weld aluminum and steel. I’ve used carbon fiber, you name it; whatever makes the most sense to get a 3-dimensional product as quickly as possible,” Martin says.

Once he has his prototype, Martin solicits feedback from as many people as possible. Watching people engage with a prototype, even if it’s rather rough, can show Martin if he is on to something big. How do you know when you are ready to move forward in the design process? You don’t. You are designing for others, so you have to stay attuned to your audience. When you do, you’ll be ready for Step 3.

A Look Inside Martin’s Prototyping Toolbox

Clay(Super) model that clay. And don’t forget to smize for the camera.
FileFine tune your prototype.
KnifeDon’t be on edge. Your prototype looks on point.
ProtractorFor when you need to turn your idea around (literally).
ScissorsFor when your idea just isn’t cutting it.
StencilBecause anyone who tells you they can draw a perfect circle is lying.
Tape MeasureSee how your ideas measure up.
SandpaperYou’re sharp, but your prototype shouldn’t be.

Product Launch by the Numbers

Sometimes the number of prototypes and sketches seems to crawl into the hundreds (or maybe millions!) But how much does it really take to find the perfect prototype? Martin and the Focal Design Team break it down:


SketchesThink you’re done? Keep sketching! Sketching helps you visualize what you’re working to create. But don’t get too caught up in making them perfect! Think of sketches as loose guidelines.


PrototypesThis physical number may strike you as a low number, but if you counted the small tweaks on each prototype, that number would be in the thousands.


Buckets of BondoThis autobody filler is the perfect prototyping tool. So perfect, in fact, that Martin couldn’t get enough of it! He went through at least 2 buckets of it throughout the process.


Thinking FedoraEver heard of a thinking cap? In Martin’s studio, it’s a thinking Fedora. Product development has never looked so suave.

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The Fiskars logo and orange handle scissors are trademark of Fiskars.
The General logo is trademark of General Tools Manufacturing Company, Inc.

Step 3: Testing + Iteration

Learn, baby, learn

You have your prototype(s). Now what? As the 70’s funk band The Trammps would say, it’s time to Learn, baby, learn (disco inferno) with some serious testing and iteration.

Martin has dedicated his career to designing products that work for the human body. So, it follows that he wants as much human feedback as possible before he puts a design into production. This means getting butts in his new prototype seat, a lot of butts.

Initially, Martin observes how people interact with the product on their own without any instructions. Often times, people are unable to articulate exactly what they like or dislike about a product, but watching them proves an educational exercise. Do the users automatically make adjustments to the seat or do they use it as is? Do they move around or stay still? Is their posture aligned or slumped? All of these questions can be answered through observation.

From there, Martin and the team at Focal Upright conduct more formal focus groups to test specific hypothesis about the product. As stated by Eric Ries, the founder of lean startup methodology, “one of the most important … hypotheses is always: what will the customer care about? How will they define quality?” The team here tries to answer these tough questions by asking a series of open-ended questions (keep reading to get our complete focus group survey).

Martin uses all of these answers to iterate on his prototype, to make calculated changes based upon user feedback. Then, it’s back to testing.

All together, the testing and iteration process takes about six months. It is, without a doubt, the most essential stage of the product design process. Why? As stated by Ries, “the question is not ‘Can this product be built?’ Instead, [the questions is] ‘Should this product be built?'”

It’s during the testing and iteration stage that you answer that critical question.

Focus on Focus Groups

Focal’s focus group had three purposes. First, we wanted to understand how users experienced the product’s design. Second, we wanted to determine how users valued the product. Lastly, we wanted to observe how users responded to different brand messages.

To make this happen, we divided the focus group session into five parts:

  1. Introduction and cheese eating to set expectations for the event and get everyone acquainted (because nothing brings a group together like cheddar).
  2. Open dialogue on the good, the bad, and the ugly of office environments to get the participants talking freely.
  3. The big event: trying out the product for the first time.
  4. Open dialogue on their experience of using the product.
  5. Closing brand survey to test different brand messages it turns out our participants had quite the sense of humor. Check out one of our favorite responses on the left.

The 60 minute exercise proved to be invaluable to the product design and marketing process, because it gave us rare access into the minds people who (we hope) will become our customers.

For a limited time, you can download our exit survey to see exactly what we asked our participants. Our favorite participant idea for a product name? “The Ralph.” (Sadly, we went in another direction…)

Get Your Free Focus Group Survey

It Takes A Village

As the old adage goes, it takes a village to build a product. Ok ok… we’ve taken creative license here, but for good reason. When creating a product, the best designers don’t go at it alone. Instead, they get the entire team involved (regardless of seniority) and collaborate. Why? Because people with different backgrounds and experiences approach problems differently and are likely to bring new perspectives to the proverbial table.

Take, for example, what we like to call the Wu-Hoo Epiphany. Jason Wu, a project engineer fresh out of college, was invited to the design meetings for the new product. He realized that he didn’t feel in balance when using the prototype.

So, he suggested that we move the seat pan forward relative to the seat leg so that the user would be encouraged to lean onto the seat instead of sitting down. This seemingly small suggestion from a junior engineer transformed the product’s design. The new, pitched-forward seat pan compels the user to activate their leg muscles for even more engagement and stability. It’s so good, you’ll be saying “Wu-Hoo” (get it?).

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Special thanks to Octo Product Development for the user testing video.

Step 4: Sourcing

You Can’t Get this on Amazon

At first blush, sourcing seems seductively simple. You determine what materials you need to make your product. You find the vendors that make what you need. You pay money to those vendors. A few months later the heavens open and a beautiful, under-budget, defect-free product is born.

Sorry to break it to you, but the real sourcing process is nothing like this fanciful narrative. Sourcing requires sustained planning, relationship building, analysis, and ethical decision making.

In this stage, we’ll show you how Focal Upright navigates the challenges of sourcing to create ethical products that maximize quality and minimize cost.

The Sourcing Journey

Step 1. ID attributes

To kick off the sourcing process, you need to finalize how you want the end product to look and feel. Did you just have a mini panic attack? Breathe in, breathe out, you’ve got this. You can break down this daunting task by brainstorming all of the attributes that you want your product to have and prioritizing them. For Martin’s newest design, those attributes were: 1. Comfort 2. Movement 3. Adjustability 4. Grip and Safety 5. Lightweight 5. Durability.

Step 2. Matching Materials

Now that you have your attributes, it’s time to ask yourself, “What materials, parts, and processes will give me each of the attributes I prioritized?”

Think of this challenge as massive product design scavenger hunt. You have to be relentlessly creative in your approach to find the best materials and parts. Martin rarely chooses from the traditional canon of materials that the furniture industry relies on. Instead, he seeks inspiration elsewhere. Take for example the seat cushion. As mentioned above, he needed a cushion that was supremely comfortable. So, he contemplated other products that prioritize comfort. He came to the unexpected realization that he could use EVA – a firm, yet comfortable material often found in mid-sole of running shoes.

Step 3. Vendor evaluation

Once you’ve determined what parts you need to build your product, it’s time to evaluate which vendors can make it happen. Focal Upright has built relationships with 12 vendors in the United States, Germany, Canada, and China, so our vendor search starts there. We send out preliminary quote packages, which outline the project’s requirements, to all of our existing vendors and see if they are interested in taking it on. New product often require specialty parts so we have to seek out specialty vendors at vendor fairs or through word-of-mouth referrals. In this case, we always make the trip to visit the prospective new vendor to check out their quality of work firsthand.

Step 4. Vendor decision making

A vendor relationship is much like a serious romantic relationship. Think of this step as Product Design Bachelor. You have a group of interested vendors. You have only a few roses (purchase orders) to give. You want to be sure that you give roses (purchase orders) to vendors that you trust and respect. You don’t want to automatically select the vendor that comes back with the cheapest final quote. You have to factor in history, capacity, and quality before the rose ceremony.

Step 5. Tooling

It’s tool(ing) time (shout out to Home Improvement)! Now that you’ve selected your vendors, it’s time to set up all of the equipment, molds, and machinery you need to build, assemble, and pack your product. Be aware: tooling ain’t cheap. You want to make sure your designs are exactly the way you want them before you start the tooling process. Otherwise, you run the risk of wasting a massive amount of money. We suggest using a CNC machine to generate a pre-production model of your product so you can identify and fix any issues before spending all your dolla dolla bills.

Step 6. Testing and validation

Once tooling is complete, it’s time to do a limited run of pre-production product to make sure that everything is working properly and all of the parts fit together properly. Then, we test. We conduct drop tests. We conduct function tests. We conduct durability tests. We conduct multiple choice tests and true false tests. If the product passes all of the tests with flying colors, it’s time to ramp up production.

Step 7. Production

The parts are built, assembled, packaged, and shipped out the door!

The Myth of the Gnome

During the sourcing stage, Focal’s product design team was working to find just the right material to fill the Pivot seat base. This material needed to be heavy enough to keep the seat stable when you lean against it, but not so heavy that the seat was a pain to pick up. They knew they’d also need to find a vendor who was was familiar with this heavy type of material and had experience creating similarly durable products. As the team brainstormed, one idea kept coming up: garden gnomes.

Most garden gnomes are made of fired terracotta slip clay, which can be cast thin enough to create a delicate, yet sturdy outer shell so they can maintain their charm all four seasons. The talent and precision behind creating this type of tooling made these gnome vendors highly attractive to the design team.

News quickly spread around the office that “crushed garden gnomes*” would be the material of choice for the Pivot seat base. Many jokes, garden gnome pictures, and some very confusing conversations later, the garden gnome has cemented its status as an office legend.

Ultimately, the product design team determined the material wasn’t quite durable enough for the Pivot and went in another direction, but the myth of the gnome lives on.

Note: *No gnomes were injured in the making of this product.

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Step 5: Design the Experience

Putting it All Together

We certainly have come a long way on this product design journey, but we’re not done yet! When we left off last week, the Pivot Seats had made it to the production line, but they are not ready for the mass market quite yet.

Think of the Pivot Seat as a cake hot from the oven. It may function flawlessly (taste deliciously), but it needs a little more TLC before it makes its way to customers.

Now, back to that cake… Would you rather take a bite out of a slice of cake that’s been artfully frosted and dotted with fresh raspberries or a plain piece with nothing on it at all? Unless you are an irksome* purist, you go for the fancifully frosted confection.

In this final phase, we’ll give you a behind-the-scenes look at how we put the finishing touches on the Pivot to make it even more enticing. We’ll walk through the importance of designing an unexpected unboxing experience. We’ll give you behind-the-scenes access to Pivot’s first close up. And, we’ll even let you in on one last surprise… (seriously, keep scrolling).

*Sorry purists. Your preference for simple sweets foils our metaphor; thus, you are temporarily irksome.

Tie it with a Bow

These days, packaging is more than just a means to an end. Packaging is the customer’s first physical brand interaction with your company, and it can make or break your relationship with a customer.

Take, for example, a video game or toy from your childhood. Remember those frustrating experiences on Christmas morning trying to get a vacuum packed plastic package open? How you’d come away with nicked fingers from sharp plastic edges? A poor packaging experience like this one can can seriously damage a customer’s impression of your brand.

On the other end of the spectrum, think of Apple’s packaging. If you’ve ever gotten a new iPhone or iPad, you know that Apple’s packaging is aces. When you open your sleek Apple box, you know that every component inside has been carefully considered. Think of the iPhone headphones – are they wrapped in a bit of tape and thrown in the bottom of the box? Nope. They’re carefully sheathed in a sleek, clear case. And the manual fits perfectly into an inset in the box. (Fans of “things fitting perfectly into other things” rejoice).

We may not be able to create custom plastic headphone packaging like Apple. But here at Focal, we wanted to create our own gratifying unboxing experience. We carefully considered each step in the unboxing process – how do we build that 7-year-old-on-Christmas-morning anticipation? How can we harness the power of play throughout the unboxing process? And – most importantly – how do we ensure that the product remains safe and secure when shipped?

A lot of thought and several prototypes (yep, we even prototyped the box!) later, we present to you the Pivot unboxing experience – in 8 seconds!

Strike a Pose

With some products, you can get a pretty good mental picture with a description alone. Other products just don’t fit with existing cognitive schemas, making it a serious challenge to conjure any mental picture at all with a description.

Focal’s products belong in the latter category. So, we were sure to set up a photo shoot with our favorite photographer Ian Travis Barnard to get some glamour shots of our newest product. Our friends at Jackrabbit Design let us take advantage of their stunning space to really show of the new seat. We’d say the Pivot was a natural model, confident and poised.

Write the Story

Before you finally release your product into the world, you have to be able to tell its unique story. This requires a lot of creative thinking and a little marketing magic. The Focal marketing team takes on this task by thinking about each new product as a person.

We attribute human characteristics and attitudes to the product to build out its full personality. Let us introduce you to Pivot.

  • Pivot is unabashedly playful, it works hard and plays harder.
  • Pivot is radically active, it can’t abide sitting still.
  • Pivot is bold, it isn’t concerned with expectations of what a seat “should” be.

In three sentences, you get a sense of the product’s essence. From there, we then turn our attention to features, identifying the product’s most defining characteristics, so you can quickly learn about what makes the product different.

  1. Tri-Flex Seat Cushion has built-in sitz bone contours for plush support and a waterfall edge to to reduce pressure on the upper legs and promote healthy circulation
  2. Seat pan is cantilevered forward to promote the optimal open hip angle
  3. Easy-adjust piston-release handles lift and lower the seat, encouraging a range of postures from active sitting to leaning
  4. Pivoting seat leg empowers you to move 360 degrees
  5. The weighted base leverages your center of gravity to support various degrees of use, so you can rock (and not roll)
  6. Rubber Octogrip Overmold enables you to enjoy a full range of motion while maintaining control