Emilia Dunaj
Emilia Dunaj
Head of Technology Insights
April 2024, 20 min. read

Modern businesses recognize that customization is what today’s customers want. But giving them exactly what they’re after, down to the last detail, involves a precise and tailored sales process. Customers need to be guided through it, ensuring every aspect of the product meets their needs and is possible to produce.  And that’s exactly what a digital product configurator does. But how to build a product configurator and why go custom? In many cases, off-the-shelf tools simply won’t work. 

Custom product configurators allow for embedding your unique domain knowledge directly into the software. These sales tools are developed with your specific business processes and product complexities in mind. What’s more, they are reflections of your company’s expertise and approach to customer service.

In this article, we’re covering all you need to know about building a bespoke and advanced product configurator. You’ll also learn how this tool changes the way you sell your complex products forever.

Let’s get started!

Why build your own product configurator software?

Many companies, especially in manufacturing, rely on highly skilled engineers with specialized domain knowledge, often honed over years. Those experts carry the critical know-how required for performing advanced calculations and tailoring solutions to meet specific customer project needs. Many salespeople create intricate and incredibly detailed spreadsheets, using them as essential tools to support their ongoing work with complex configurations. 

But what if your goal is to sell more, reach more customers, or expand globally?

This is where a software development company steps in. Experienced developers can create advanced configurators infused with the domain knowledge of your specialists. 

Custom-built product configurators do all the hard work, delivering fast and error-free results. Therefore, investing in an automated configurator is the right strategy to scale your sales funnel and your business.

The impact of product configurator on different departments

Additionally, building your own configuration system is a smart move as it automates many processes across your company:

  • In sales, a custom configurator replaces manual configurations, swiftly and accurately generating unique offers. It’s interactive, guiding sales staff through each step of building a product or project, which simplifies training new team members. As a result, customers get a clear view of what they’re purchasing, enhancing satisfaction and increasing the likelihood of a purchase. Moreover, the configurator optimizes document flow, making it easier to manage sales documentation and offer customization.
  • In production, the configuration builder reduces manual workload and errors by automating complex calculations and measurements. It enhances efficiency in generating catalog numbers and ensures accuracy in product specifications, leading to smoother production cycles.
  • In marketing, the configurator shines as a dynamic tool to showcase your goods. It engages customers by letting them explore and customize product options, making your offerings more attractive. It also streamlines your team’s workflow, centralizing all product-related information in one easy-to-access location.

Now, let’s dive into the essentials of building a custom product configurator.

steps to build product configurator

Can I build a product configurator in Excel?

For small companies with limited needs, it’s possible to build a product configurator in Microsoft Excel. It’s a good starting point, as many companies use information from spreadsheets to configure their products anyway. This solution can be effective for basic configurator needs, such as doing calculations and keeping track of inventory. 

To build a product configurator with spreadsheets, you need to have a deep understanding of the software. Excel allows you to create a basic configurator by defining product options and associated rules. This method is cost-effective and manageable for simple configurations. 

However, this basic technology has its limitations, especially when it comes to more complex or growing business requirements. An Excel-based configurator may not integrate well with other systems or processes. It can be challenging to customize for more complex needs. Additionally, there’s a risk of outdated information, data being siloed, and challenges in managing access for multiple users, which can complicate operations as your business grows. 

Understanding your configurator users

Before you start designing your product configurator software, it’s important to determine who will use it. Knowing your users allows you to create a tool that caters to their specific needs and preferences, dramatically boosting its effectiveness.

But how do you effectively identify and understand your target users? 

Start by analyzing your current customer base and market trends. Then, engage with your sales teams, ask questions in focus groups, conduct surveys, and make interviews with your customers. This approach will help you grasp what your clients need and what might frustrate them.

Ultimately, the goal is to deliver a seamless and enjoyable experience to all users. With a clear understanding of who they are, your designers can align the configurator’s functionalities and appearance with each target group, ensuring maximum efficiency and user satisfaction.

Typically, there are 3 types of configurator users:

1. Self-service for B2C buyers 

These configurators are designed for the general public, making them user-friendly and intuitive. They enable customers to customize products without expert guidance. The focus is on simplicity, attractive design, and alignment with your brand. This approach is particularly important for marketing and brand building, as these tools often have shorter usage times compared to more professional tools.

2. Self-service for B2B clients 

For business clients, configurators are more advanced yet maintain user-friendly features. These are tailored for users with more domain knowledge but still emphasize ease of use, appealing to a professional audience.

3. Assisted configurations for internal staff

These are best for complex or highly customizable products, where professionals guide the configuration process. These tools are used internally, with a design focus on ease of use and eye comfort, considering staff may use them for several hours a day. The aim is to automate the configuration of elements and enable faster customer service.

For instance, a customizer for technical experts might offer advanced options and detailed customization, while one for end consumers would prioritize simplicity and visual appeal.

What if you want to mix user groups?

The challenge increases when you’re targeting a mixed group of users or when you’re a manufacturer wanting to offer your configurator to distributors with an option to integrate their branding. A custom-built configurator addresses all these complexities.

What is the role of UI/UX in product configurators?

When you start building a custom product configurator, it’s critical to carefully analyze and make strategic decisions to shape its User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX). This planning is critical in the early stages of the project.

UI and UX are interdependent and crucial for making your sales configurator both functional and user-friendly. However, they have different roles.

Key differences between UX and UI

UI, or User Interface, is about the configurator’s design and visual layout. It deals with its look and feel.

UX, or User Experience, focuses on how easy and intuitive the configurator is for users to navigate and customize their products. It’s responsible for ensuring a smooth user journey.

A good UI attracts users, but a great UX keeps them happy. For instance, a beautiful configurator that’s hard to navigate can annoy users. Also, a very colorful and busy design might be overwhelming for a sales rep who uses it daily, even if it’s easy to use.

Ideally, the same person or team should oversee both to ensure consistency and cohesion. This unified approach helps in creating a configurator that looks great and is user-friendly.

UX’s impact on configurators

UX stands for the journey your customer takes. A configurator with excellent UX guides users effortlessly from start to finish. It makes the process of customization intuitive and satisfying. Furthermore, It includes clear instructions, feedback on selections, and a smooth transition from one step to the next.

Good UX is rooted in a deep understanding of user needs and behaviors. UX designers work towards creating an experience within the software that feels right for the user. This involves a blend of creative and analytical thinking, applying best practices drawn from experience. An experienced designer guides you in tailoring UX to enhance not just the software but the overall business process.

UX significantly influences how long users spend working with the configurator and how they feel about the experience. It involves analyzing user habits and applying proven best practices to configuration design.

Thus, creating UX specifically for identified audiences and processes is crucial. A well-designed UX leads to more efficient operations and a better product experience (PX) overall.

UI’s role in configurators

UI connects your digital product to the customer. A good UI is simple and clear, and it shows off your brand’s style. It helps users smoothly go through the customization process.

Think about adding your brand’s logos, colors, and fonts to the configurator’s UI. This makes your brand more recognizable and builds trust and connection with users. 

Moreover, the configuration of the UI should be a direct result of UX principles. This means the design of the UI should focus on what the user needs and expects. By understanding these needs, you can make a configurator that’s easy and pleasant to use. A well-designed UI has clear directions and responds well to the user, making the whole experience better and more intuitive.

For tools intended for internal use, the focus on UI may differ. Here, functionality and efficiency for the user take priority. The UI should be designed for ease of use and to minimize eye strain, especially since staff might use these tools for several hours daily.

What are the configurator’s capabilities?

A well-designed custom product customization app is a robust tool serving various users and departments. It can enter the sales process at different stages, helping to select the right product parameters collected from the end customer. So, let’s explore some key capabilities of good product configurator software:

Input

The input mechanism of the configuration solution is where customization starts. Here, users specify their preferences and requirements for the product. Common product inputs include aspects like size, color, material, components, and features. As an example, in a furniture customizer, customers might choose dimensions, wood types, finishes, and extra features like drawers or shelves.

For many manufacturers, inputs can be more advanced. For designing HVAC systems, for example, inputs can include the specific environmental conditions of the installation site, the desired temperature range, or the size of the space to be conditioned. The configurator can assist with calculations, such as determining the heating or cooling capacity needed and how changes affect the final solution. This involves using equations and configuration formulas to process the input data.

Inputs for the configurator come from more than just what users type in. It can gather information from forms, pictures, or even AI chatbots, which is a rising trend replacing traditional forms. This diversity in input collection means that the configurator can adapt to different user preferences and technical requirements. This makes the process more efficient and user-friendly.

Output

Once users enter their preferences, the configurator processes this information to create various outputs. These include detailed product specifications, pricing, and realistic 3D product models. These outputs help customers visualize their customized products, making them more confident in their choices. 

An advanced configurator goes further by generating essential documents like project documentation, sales offers, or production orders. This ensures a smooth integration with your existing business processes. 

Outputs from the configurator can take various forms. This includes product data sheet PDFs with complete lists of elements, ready for printing in different paper sizes. Other forms can include Excel sheets for detailed analysis, XML files, or data in other convenient formats such as JSON available via API ready for data transfer.

As visuals help us to better retrieve and remember information, providing this type of output is also important. Users might see 2D visualizations, technical diagrams, or even 3D renderings on their screens. Some advanced configurators offer virtual or augmented reality (VR/AR) experiences, allowing for an immersive view of customized products.

Integrations

Integration capabilities are what set apart a great configurator. The ability to integrate with your existing systems like ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), CRM (Customer Relationship Management), and B2C/B2B eCommerce platforms ensures a smooth flow of data and processes. 

Such integration allows for the reuse of data, saving time and maintaining brand consistency. 

For example, the customer details you enter into the configurator can be directly used in the CRM system, ensuring product data consistency and efficiency. Similarly, integrating with your ERP system can automatically adjust inventory and production schedules based on customer orders from the configurator.

However, integration comes with its challenges. Data from the configurator must be compatible with other systems. This means data needs to be reusable and correctly formatted to fit into various systems like the PIM system (Product Information Management), CRM, and CMS (Content Management System) for eCommerce. 

For ERP systems, the configurator can also act as a receiver of information, further enhancing operational efficiency. However, these systems often have specific requirements. Therefore, it’s important to tailor the integration to align with these existing systems’ guidelines.

Configurators can greatly boost your data analytics capabilities. When integrated with Business Intelligence (BI) systems or Google Analytics, you gain valuable insights into conversions and user behavior. This data is key to guiding improvements in configurator design and marketing strategies.

How to build a robust configuration engine?

Creating a product configuration tool is like building a machine. It needs the right parts (data) and the ability to work out problems (calculations). When done right, it becomes a powerful tool that helps sell your products in a way that’s tailored to each customer.

Let’s take a closer look at these 9 key foundations, which are essential to building a robust product configurator.

1. Gathering essential data

The first step in building a good configurator is to collect all the essential data. Essentially, this data is the heart of your configurator. It determines the customization options you can offer and ensures the results are spot-on. Consequently, you’ll need details about your products’ capabilities, customization choices, pricing, and any specific rules and constraints about how they can be configured.

Data can be sourced from various systems like PIM, ERP, CRM, and CMS. However, sometimes this isn’t enough. Your datasets might be missing key laboratory findings from engineers or analytical data that aren’t readily available. It’s common to start with data stored in Excel files. But in some cases, configuration data might need to be purchased externally. Especially when you need specialized information, such as high-quality meteorological data or expensive laboratory test results.

Completeness and quality of data is critical for delivering accurate outputs and product calculations. Many businesses aren’t aware of data gaps or the low quality of their existing data. Adapting this data to fit into the software is crucial but time-consuming. Issues like inconsistent structure, errors, or incomplete data can significantly affect the configurator’s results. 

For instance, if you’re making a configurator for custom HVAC systems, you’ll need comprehensive information on many components. This includes detailed specs for vents, thermostats, and various heating and cooling units. 

But, you’ll also need performance data and compatibility rules for each product type. This might involve calculating optimal airflow based on room dimensions or determining the most efficient system configuration for different climate conditions. Gathering this detailed data shows just how complex and capable a custom built configurator is, especially for advanced setups.

2. Designing necessary calculations

Once the data is in place, the next step is to ensure your configurator can perform the necessary calculations. Some of these calculations can be simple, like determining the total length of the configuration by adding the lengths of individual components. Others are more complex, involving tasks such as calculating fluid dynamics or conducting thermal analysis.

Take a configurator for building materials, for example. It needs to work out how much material is needed based on the size the user enters. This involves thinking about the strength of the materials and how they handle heat. 

The design of these calculations is typically handled by an experienced software development team, further supported by skilled engineers with specific domain knowledge. This collaborative approach ensures the calculations reflect real-world scenarios and product specifications accurately.

Here are some important calculations that a high-level configurator can do:

3. Performance measurements

Performance measurements

4. Consumption estimations/predictions

Energy Consumption predictions

5. Product efficiency calculations

Product efficiency calculations

6. Safety/venting requirements

Safety/venting requirements

7. Venting efficiency calculations

Venting efficiency calculations example

8. Load calculations

Load calculations example

9. Filling/volume calculations

volume calculations example

Implementing robust algorithms and ensuring they are tested for accuracy and efficiency is critical for the configurator software. 

Choose the right architecture and technology for a strong configurator

Building a great product configurator depends heavily on its technology and architecture. Wise choices here ensure the configurator functions well and evolves easily with your business. 

The configurator is often developed progressively, starting with one product group or an MVP (Minimum Viable Product). The volume of data and rules processed is always increasing, so it’s crucial to consider whether the software can handle the growing data amounts. Addressing scalability and server capacity early in the project is vital, as later changes can be costly.

Now, let’s break down these key components to understand how important each part is in the configurator’s functionality and performance.

Configurator layers

A robust configurator is typically structured in three key layers, each having a different role in the tool’s functionality:

  1. Visualization layer: This is where users interact with your configurator. The UI takes a major part in how we are presented with the output. It’s responsible for displaying the product and the customization options. The app can present them in various forms like tables, schematics, diagrams, or charts. Advanced configurators might include 3D visualizations for a more immersive experience.
  2. Rule-management engine: The rule configuration layer is the backbone of your configurator. The engine processes the configuration rules and logic defined for your products. It ensures that the customizations chosen by the users are possible and consistent with the product’s capabilities.

Types of engines

Every engine is a unique combination of ready-made libraries with a pinch of custom elements specific to physics and mathematics. It reflects the domain knowledge of engineers transformed into software. Moreover, the form of this rules engine varies depending on the data structure and applied UX. It can be divided into two types:

  • Script-based engine: In this type of engine, it’s usually difficult to manage rules, but with new technology, like no-code and low-code options and AI-driven text-to-script features, it becomes more accessible.
  • Data-based engine: Here, rules and exclusions are based on extensive Excel structures. It allows data manipulation, but managing these rules can also be complex, as it majorly depends on the quality of the data.
  1. Data layer: Often overlooked but extremely important. The data layer manages all the information related to products, customizations, and user interactions. A well-structured data layer is key to the configurator’s performance and scalability.

Implementing dynamic parameterization features ensures the data is ready to be expanded in the future without requiring developer involvement, thus making the configurator more scalable in terms of features. As a result, clients can add options independently, like extra color choices in configurations, without reaching out to programmers.

Performance and scalability are key in all these layers. The configurator must be responsive, meaning it should be fast and show configuration effects quickly. Any delays in processing can result in UX challenges and, ultimately, unsatisfied users.

Does the choice of programming language matter?

The choice of programming language can significantly impact the configurator’s development and maintenance. While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, certain languages may offer advantages in terms of performance, scalability, and ease of integration.

The language should fit the specific needs of your project without over-engineering it. For instance, the choice can impact licensing costs and infrastructure expenses. Overall, important factors include:

  • Costs
  • Licensing
  • Maintenance ease
  • Popularity
  • Compatibility with existing software
  • Scalability 

Popular languages like JavaScript, along with frameworks like React or Angular, are widely used for crafting dynamic user interfaces. For backend processing, robust and scalable languages such as Python or Java are often preferred. Python, notably, works well with AI integrations.

It’s also important to consider the language’s compatibility with your existing IT environment. A consistent language choice can reduce maintenance costs and the need for specialized knowledge. On the other hand, choosing a less common language may pose challenges in finding skilled developers.

Another crucial aspect is the decision between cloud vs. on-premise hosting. Internal hosting ensures better control over data and processes. External hosting can reduce the burden on internal resources but might raise concerns about data security and integration with existing systems.

The importance of post-launch customizability

After your product configuration system is up and running, being able to update and change it is fundamental for the growth of your business. This post-launch flexibility makes sure your tool stays useful and up-to-date with what your customers need and what your business offers.

This means adding new features, adding more target users, or expanding it to include new products as your business grows.

For instance, if your company starts offering new product variants or updates existing ranges, your configurator should be able to handle these changes easily. This keeps it relevant and helpful for your customers and your teams.

One strategy for ensuring scalability is modular design, where the configurator is built in such a way that new features or components can be added as modules. This approach allows for easier updates and expansions, reducing the need for significant downtime or redevelopment.

→ Further reading: 10 Best Practices to Scale Your Web-Based Product Configurator Infrastructure

Thinking ahead, your configurator might become part of a bigger system called the CPQ system—Configure, Price, Quote. This quotation automation solution helps turn your configurator into a powerful tool for customizing products and automating pricing and quoting.

Maintenance and technical support with SLA

It is important to keep your product configurator in top shape after it goes live. This is where a Service Level Agreement (SLA) becomes a key aspect of your partnership with a software development company. An SLA typically includes regular updates, timely resolution of any issues, and adaptations to align with new changes in your business.

Moreover, as your product line evolves or customer preferences shift, your configurator needs to reflect these changes. The SLA is a plan for these updates. With this agreement, you have a clear outline of the support level you can expect. It makes sure your configurator can grow with your business, staying fast, safe, and doing exactly what you need it to do.

Final thoughts

You now know all about how to build a product configurator. Custom product configurators are essential digital tools for meeting customer demands for configuration-to-order products. They offer excellent product experiences, showcase your commitment to customer needs, and are key to staying ahead in your market niche.

Key points to remember:

  • Invest in a custom product customization tool if you’re offering advanced made-to-order products and services.
  • Identify your users early, as this shapes the configurator’s UI/UX.
  • Accurate, well-organized data is crucial for data-based software’s functionality.
  • Build a configurator that’s easy to expand and integrate with other IT systems.
  • Invest in CPQ to automate your sales order processing flow.

A well-designed configurator will delight your customers, make your staff more productive, and, ultimately, improve your sales. Additionally, modern sales tools can position your brand uniquely in the market, ready to meet current and future demands.

Right Information has experience in creating advanced configurators for various industries, including HVAC, automotive, construction, and industrial engineering. Our skilled team is here to help you navigate the technical decisions, from selecting the right programming language to optimizing your business processes. We make sure these choices fit well with your existing systems and can grow with your business.

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