These simple research methods can help prevent product design pitfalls

Discover competitive products that have been on the market by doing patent searches, checking trade publications and show directories, and conducting interviews.


When considering the viability of your invention’s design, research the history of similar products that have been in the market to see how they worked and how they fared. This may help you determine which pitfalls to avoid.

Markets have many preconceived notions about product design, often based on products that have come before.

Product design, including producing prototypes, is expensive. So it behooves you to learn all you can before locking in a significant investment.

Products patent search: One way to discover competitive products that have been in the market is to conduct a competitive products patent search, which is easy to do at either Google Patents or the United States Patent and Trademark Office website. Simply input a short description of your product in the search box and see the patents that come up.

When you find a patent in your category, go the end of the patent and look for patents under the Cited By category. These are patents that came later than the invention you first found in the search that cited that invention’s prior art documents.

Look up patents that are somewhat similar to your product and see which ones have been assigned to a corporation. You should contact these companies.

Trade magazines/trade show directories: You can also find current competitive products in trade magazine product directories. Find those magazines through internet searches.

Industry trade shows are typically sponsored or at least covered by trade magazines or websites. The magazines typically have an issue with an industry product directory where you can find competitive products.

Many trade magazines also have an industry trade show schedule on their website. Call the show in that schedule and ask for last year’s directory. Competitive products, if being actively sold, should be listed as a source for your research.

Phone and in-person Interviews: Contact salespeople of companies to whom a patent is assigned; salespeople at companies who have been exhibiting at trade shows; retailers in your product category; trade magazine writers and editors, and independent sales representatives.

Call one of your targeted companies and ask for a salesperson, then request a copy of a brochure for the product of interest to you. But also ask whether the product has been successful, where it is or was sold, and about any improvements after introduction. If the product wasn’t introduced, ask if the salesperson know why.

Once you get the brochures, talk to retail store managers and see which products they have sold, sell, or considered selling. Ask what they liked and disliked about the products and what kind of consumer feedback they received.

I’ve found trade magazine writers and editors to be knowledgeable and helpful. But you should be well prepared to talk to them.

By now, you should have three or four products in your product category that have been in the market. If you tell writers that you are looking into this product category and mention the products you are most interested in, you should be able to ask which features set apart each product and whether any of the products encountered significant problems—either feature, quality or market issues.

Also consider contacting independent sales reps or manufacturer’s sales representatives. Sometimes you can get a list of reps from a trade magazine, or from a trade show directory.

Otherwise, you can look at the websites of many of the companies you have identified and see whether they post their sales reps list.

Independent sales reps sell many products, typically 10 to 15. The reps know the market well and often give lots of feedback if they know the product category.