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Frugal Innovation: A feasible approach for aspirational products?

Frugal Innovation: A feasible approach for aspirational products?

Frugal innovation has been explained and understood in many different ways – doing more with less; putting human ingenuity – that abundant and replenish-able natural resource – to good use; innovation focused on essentials; products-optimized-for-a-market; etc.

Based on the oft-quoted examples of frugal innovation, it is tempting to associate frugal innovation with “good-enough” products, where existing products are re-targeted for developing markets. This is usually achieved by critically examining and “optimizing” the features and level-of-performance needed for that specific market. Such an association caps consumer expectation whereas in reality, consumers are increasingly aspirational with no compromise on the performance they expect - an expectation that is unfortunately at loggerheads with the price they are willing to pay. This is today’s reality for most consumer products.

With BLU3 E20, we wanted to bring car-like comfort to two-wheeler riders – an aspirational leap for two-wheeler riders who have had to settle for far less than their four-wheeled counterparts. While our performance-goal was world-beating, we realized early on that our ability to price the product would need to be within the realm of two-wheeler rider expectations which brought us to the question, “how can we use frugal innovation to deliver world-class performance at ultra-low cost?”

We started off by reminding ourselves that most consumers/riders had already made a big investment with their smartphone and to them, software was practically free - all they were missing was a connection between their in-built input/output devices (mouth/ear) and their smartphone. The minimum additional investment they would need to make was in a bluetooth module that would ferry content between them and their phone. The question before us then was “If the consumer/rider is willing to invest in only this basic hardware, what all features can we still offer him/her?”. To answer this, we considered the additional hardware requirements needed to support each of the features we wanted to offer and whether the consumer/rider already was using that hardware in some form that we could leverage. Fig.1 shows a flowchart that describes our decision-making process.

BLU3 E20: Decision making process for bluetooth connected helmet cooler

Figure 1: Decision-making flowchart for a feature-rich, but ultra low-cost BLU3 E20

Let’s walk through a few examples of this thought process - a couple where we decided to implement the feature, and one where we decided not to. 

Example 1 - Achieving additional functionality from existing hardware on our PCB: We wanted to give our riders several new features that aren’t available in any other two-wheeler bluetooth headset today - control of the fan through the mobile app, read out whatsapp messages as they arrive and the option to upgrade the firmware as and when they were released. Figure 2 illustrates our decision-making process on this.

BLU3 E20: Decision making process to include BLE support in BluArmor's bluetooth connected helmet cooler

Figure 2: Decision-making process for supporting BLE in BLU3 E20

Example 2 - Using the smart-phone’s services to eliminate the need for additional hardware on the PCB: We would like a voice-note feature where the consumer/rider can record a geo-tagged voice-note that can play back as they re-approach that location. Location-based reminders are of immense value to riders - imagine being reminded about a grocery purchase or a dry-cleaning pick-up as you approach the store. Figure 3 illustrates the decision-making process on this feature.

BLU3 E20: Decision-making process to include a voice-note feature in BluArmor's bluetooth-connected helmet cooler

Figure 3: Decision-making process for including a voice-note feature in BLU3 E20


Example 3 - Postponing a feature because there was no cost-effective way to address specific use-cases: We wanted to explore support for an intercom feature that would allow riding groups to stay connected on long rides. There were several points to consider here - is this a feature for everyone or a niche feature? And if its a niche-but-valuable feature, what are the different constraints under which it needs to work. Figure 4 illustrates our decision-making process on this.

BLU3 E20: Decision-making process to NOT include intercom feature in BluArmor's bluetooth connected helmet cooler

Figure 4: Decision-making process for supporting an intercom feature on BLU3 E20

In this specific example, it was clear to us that there was no way to justify the additional hardware expense since the intercom feature is used only by a small fraction of the users. Further, we realized that one of the important use-cases for these niche-but-serious-riders is to stay connected in areas with poor network coverage. We felt that while internet-based-intercom offered us the lowest-cost-to-customer solution, the timing wasn’t right to offer it just yet. 

We signed off on removing this feature with the understanding that when we do implement the internet-based-intercom feature, it will be offered as a firmware/app upgrade that would not require our consumers/riders to make any additional hardware investment.

An approach like the one outlined here allowed us to carefully evaluate each and every feature we wanted to offer on BLU3 E20, and pick those where we were confident that the incremental cost to the consumer/rider would be minimal. 

In our learning, frugal innovation is not just about building “good-enough” products. It is about offering world-class experience by understanding how to leverage the consumer’s existing resources. Most of us have been in awe of the iPod’s click-wheel where a single mechanism could execute different functions. Extend that thought a little bit - what all can we do with something that is already with the consumer/rider (in our case, the rider’s smart-phone) - and that’s BLU3 E20’s mission for you. While its too early to claim that we have succeeded, winning an innovation award at the Consumer Electronics Show in the in-vehicle safety and entertainment category definitely gives us a lot of confidence that we are approaching this correctly.

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Appendix (for interested readers):

The below table provides a detailed run-through of our decision-making process for some of the features we have implemented on BLU3 E20.

Feature

What additional hardware does it need?

Is there a way to avoid this additional hardware cost?

Extra cost for rider?

Control the fan speed through the app

A wireless link (such as BLE) for continuous data-sync app and BLU3 E20

A BT Classic connection is anyway needed to play music, support navigation and phone calls. Most chipsets are built to support both BT Classic and BLE – a mode that is rarely used by product designers because there is no off-the-shelf support for this feature. Supporting this mode will provide additional features at no extra cost

No

Read out WhatsApp messages

Provide the option to upgrade firmware

Location-aware voice notes

latitude & longitude from a GPS receiver

Every smartphone has a GPS receiver. Use BLE to read its data and avoid a GPS chip on BLU3 E20’s hardware

No

Support for voice commands

Module that can detect hot-word, and execute the voice command

The existing smartphone ecosystem already comes with very powerful voice assistants. We can integrate all our functions and user manual into the phone’s voice assistant

No

FM radio support

FM receiver

Internet radio? Applications like radio-garden support over 18K channels, and with voice-assistant support, riders can choose songs, station or location. Avoids an FM chip on the hardware

No