As Oculus Technologies gets ready to launch a brand-new guest information solution at this year’s Monaco Yacht Show, the company’s co-founders, Kim Jansen and Stefan van Cleef, explain the reality behind the creative process of turning a concept in to a viable solution for the yachting industry.
Oculus Technologies is renowned for its product innovation and the yachting industry has a reputation for very high expectations. Just how difficult is it to create a new product that truly is innovative and yet useful / purposeful?
Stefan (Creative Director): Whatever the target market, whatever the level of expectation, a product always has one goal. It needs to be a standardised (and widely available) solution to a problem, market need or requirement. The fact that our target market sets out such high expectations means that any product creation process has to remain incredibly dynamic and involves more in-depth measures when it comes to really trying to understand the exact needs of the end user. Products may need to have a generic application but still have to be able to evoke a feel of exclusivity and engage on a personal level whilst embracing innovation and the latest technology.
Kim (Technical Director): All product innovation is the result of an initial idea, whether client or supplier driven, that undergoes numerous revisions until it is refined for use and practical application. Creating a new product for the yachting industry brings about its own unique set of additional challenges. Market research and client feedback is often impossible to truly achieve so getting to understand the actual demands of the end user can be a very slow process. Balancing that with innovation, technical development, engineering and financial calculations is a complex journey.
So how exactly do you start this whole process? How did the idea for this new product come about?
Stefan: About a year ago, myself and Peter, CEO Oculus Technologies, were driving through the Southern English countryside visiting clients, discussing how our current product YachtEye solves a problem. How YachtEye, via the means of onboard TV screens or touch-screens, makes yacht and journey related information accessible to guests and owners on board of superyachts. The fact that it makes life easier for crew and enhances the overall hospitality experience. We then started to talk about what we could add or change to YachtEye so as to further increase the level of wellbeing for everyone on board and whether or not we could make YachtEye itself more accessible to all yachts and not just the largest. Before we even really realised it ourselves, we were starting to create a completely new product. Not just an extension of YachtEye but a brand-new solution which could solve various problems for both crew and guests in their quest for excellent service and assured security. The more we talked about the concept, the better we came to understand that the problems came down to sharing information. In other words, communication. And that is how our latest product was born.
Kim: The big difference with how this new product came to be is that this one is born from our own idea based on experiences and better understanding of how our existing products have provided a solution to meet onboard requirements. YachtEye originally derived from a client request to create a solution to a specific requirement. A solution which met an outlined set of parameters and that we worked on to make it in to a marketable and saleable product. This new product on the other hand stems purely from our own recognition of an industry need to be able to do something better and more effectively.
What was the next step?
Stefan: Before we could even contemplate the end product we needed to make sure that the right strategy was in place. Making and selling a new product requires successful execution at every stage of the development. Central to this is having the right team involved at each stage. Talented people brought together to form a team that works well and allows each individual to excel in their own skill set. This meant disappointment for some. There were those who wanted to be part of the product creation process but I had to make a tough decision on who was truly most suited to the job. If I did not feel their involvement would work to the group’s advantage then they were not assigned to the new product team. It was essential that the group could focus 100% on the task in hand.
Kim: To develop the idea into a product, we were very focused on ensuring we had the right people working on the product development. The new innovation has a lot of technical challenges. We wanted to play to all the strengths we had at our disposal, not just from within Oculus Technologies but also from third parties to ensure that we had the very best skill set to work with as well as insights from other industries.
How did you then take it from concept to product development?
Stefan: Our initial meetings were quite simply brainstorming sessions. Lots of throwing around of ideas most of which were big, bold and, what we like to aim for, beautiful. We were drafting a product that could do anything, was visually stunning and would solve every issue we threw at it. We soon came to realize that many of the features we were trying to incorporate would only be relevant or understood by a limited number of people. We were concerned this may alienate users who could feel uncomfortable using a product they did not fully understand and it may detract from the parts that they did want to use. Furthermore, it would take too long to get to market, show limited return on investment and potentially encounter technical issues to solve.
Kim: For me it felt like a very natural process. It was a new product but in some ways, it did not really feel like a new concept. I felt that we had been discussing the value of sharing information through the means of smart communication on and off for years. The idea of ‘how can we support the owner or guest to be more connected?’. Not only to the yacht but more importantly with its crew, fellow guests and all those specifics relating to the very trip they are undertaking. From the technical side, it was how do we make the concept physically bridge the gaps between marine technology, hospitality services, local information, safety and ultimately the overall satisfaction of the luxury travel guest. This key user focus became integral to my part in the development and ensuring the concept remained focused.
How did you decide what ideas and features to or not to incorporate?
Stefan: This is where we are reliant on user and market analysis. We had to make decisions based on what we knew our target market was looking for in terms of solutions, problems to solve, budgets etc. and what they would embrace. One major issue for us was that despite all efforts, we simply did not have enough user and market analysis available to make what we felt were face based decisions. The yachting industry itself does not have a lot of market data available in comparison to other markets and the target groups have not been subject to extensive research, especially not when it comes to creating new products.
Kim: We also had to consider the technical and engineering side. Could we turn our concept in to a reality? We still needed a baseline to ensure we were continuously working towards a saleable and useful product. We had neither the time nor budget to delve deeper in to research. The only thing we could really rely on was our own gut feeling and experience, which in all honesty is just not enough. Our reference is only limited and, as humans naturally are, we are of course blind to certain aspects, especially when you are caught up in the enthusiasm of something you believe in. We therefore decided to define a first MVP (minimal viable product). It was to be based on our gut feeling and to be tested as soon as was possible. We committed to putting all our skills and efforts into the MVP, most importantly, knowing that we might fail. We were prepared to just learn.
So, is this where the moment of truth comes for the product? The one where you find out if the refined initial idea stands a chance?
Stefan: To some extent. It is certainly the moment where we collate all that has happened up to this point into an end goal. This is where the ideas have to be formally brought together to showcase the entire concept: from what we envisage to how it works in reality to what is needed to achieve it. The team mapped out diagrams, scenarios, draft designs and vision and mood boards. We then brought in an interaction and graphic designer to challenge us and create a proposal for a first version of the end-user side of the product. We focused on those features within the product which represented value to the user - those features we believed people would benefit from.
Kim: It isn’t what I would call the make or break moment but it is a defining moment in the process and the direction the eventual product will take. It’s the one that makes us and our audience truly assess whether the dreams and ideas do come together to form a tangible solution. One that can be built technically but more importantly meet a potential market demand. As part of the process we worked closely with Apollo Media, a team of ‘magicians’ when it comes to creative coding. They took the designs of the interaction and graphic designer to build an App in Framer which we could then test with the market. Our end-product was never and is not intended to only be an App but this was the fastest and most accessible way to test with the market. Our marketing manager Zoë had already pre-aligned industry professionals willing to test the product and I guess, the results of those tests is what becomes the moment of truth. Those results steer the next phase. This is when the internal dream identifies with its external reality.
This whole process is certainly challenging. What motivates you to keep going, keep innovating and keep creating?
Stefan: Both of us are certainly motivated by the idea of capturing the imagination. We want to create and build solutions that are both accessible and comprehensible as well as positively contributing to the level of comfort and overall pleasure whilst on board. Cutting edge technology, extensive knowledge and a driven team of professionals are of course fantastic assets to have but, quite frankly, we see those as pre-requisites. The real innovation lies in turning those must-have-features in to a thing of beauty, where the cogs turning go unnoticed by the end-user. Un-intrusive sophistication. A subconscious or organic interaction with technology that helps you learn more about your current environment.
Kim: For me it is the potential in the solutions we create and engineer. Being able to bring a solution to yacht guests that fulfils needs they perhaps did not even realize they had is certainly a strong driving force. Stefan and myself take pride in the fact that with YachtEye, we were able to combine intelligence, related to the yacht itself, with breath-taking presentation. A visually beautiful and informative digital experience reflecting the physical journey. Having the skill set to be able to deliver vital journey and vessel information via a visually engaging platform has enormous potential when it comes to further viable applications and that is very exciting. We strive to provide access to journey-relevant information in a user friendly and inspiring way. There is often a focus on connecting the world-to-the-yacht but we look at it from the other side. How can we connect the yacht-to-the-world. In other words, how can we indulge guests in an experience that is information rich when it comes to their onboard stay, journey and experience.