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Make Your Product Stand Out--Without Going Broke

Use these inexpensive design tips to set yourself apart from the competition.

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Just selling a product like beer-infused potato chips should be enough to grab some people's attention. But Brett Stern, founder of Portland-based Beer Chips, wanted to make sure his company's chips got noticed beyond the beer crowd.

"Making something that attracts [consumers] visually is the first half of the battle in getting attention to your product on a very crowded shelf," says Stern, who spent 20 years inventing and designing products for companies like Pfizer (PFE) and Revlon. He loaded his kettle-cooked spuds into bright metallic green-, red- and gold-colored bags and arranged the typeface on the bags vertically, rather than horizontally (typically the norm for snack foods). In 2008, sales were up 200 percent to $1.5 million. Stern expects sales to grow by 50 percent over the next two years.

Stern is an anomaly. Most new entrepreneurs fall short when it comes to , notes Tom Merle, vice president of product at Continuum, a design consultancy in Boston. "Entrepreneurs often get caught up in the functionality of [a product], rather than the experience of it," he says.

To help make your product stand out, without breaking the bank, follow these tips:

Observe your
Before you even have a product, get a feel for your prospective target user group's likes and dislikes. Observe a select group of people as they interact with similar consumer products or services, says Michael Dearing, a consulting associate professor of product development and entrepreneurship at Stanford University's Institute of Design. You'll start to notice what catches their eye, and what they ignore.

Commissioning a formal ethnographic study from a organization can be costly: Depending on the size and scope of what you're after, a customized study could start at $40,000 or $50,000 and go up from there. You can, however, conduct your own research by going to a shopping mall, observing and recording how consumers interact with similar products and conduct in-store interviews with shoppers, suggests Don Norman, a design professor at Northwestern University. Also, search for white papers and case studies that explore various consumer groups' likes and dislikes. Such studies are often available online at product design firm websites or from universities.

Get some design help--on the cheap
Once you know what drives your target audience, get some design advice. Tapping professional design firms for even a simple product can set you back hundreds of thousands of dollars, says Merle. To save cash, seek out graphic designers, marketers and other contract-based design professionals on fee-for-service websites such as CrowdSPRING, Elance and Guru. At these sites, designers can bid on your project, which can often trigger lower prices.

Test your product in the real world
After you've built a prototype--complete with packaging--observe how consumers interact with it. Look for errors in the product's functionality and whether it's as usable as you intended. Maybe better user instructions are necessary. Or, perhaps they use it in ways you never considered. If that's the case, you might want to play up those unintended uses.

Find a good manufacturer
A product design firm can also help you select an appropriate manufacturer. Choosing the right one is important: Some manufacturers may specialize in fabric, while others strictly work with food. To help you dig up a manufacturer on your own, visit websites such as Alibaba and Panjiva, which contain directories of manufacturers in the U.S. and abroad, says Dearing. For other resources in the U.S., click here and here for help finding manufacturers that will stay within your budget. Also, to learn about how the price of manufacturing has fallen in recent months read our story on contract manufacturers.

--Write to Diana Ransom at

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