Product Design – What Is It & How Can It Help You?

February 13, 2019 Krzysztof Piwowar

Product Design – for some – is an ambiguous term that is difficult to understand. However, this doesn’t mean it’s not important. After all, if you don’t fully grasp what it is, how can you comprehend its business advantages, of which there are many!

So, what is it?

Very often design is the most immediate way of defining what products become in people’s minds.
– Jony Ive

The modern world is full of desktop tools, mobile apps, web applications, platforms, software ecosystems. and online services. These things surround us, help us get jobs done, and make our businesses run smoothly on daily basis. Whether it’s in the office, at home, on the laptop or the two-year-old tablet, in your pocket, or even on the wrist – everything you use is a product.

These solutions (let’s call them digital products) are here to stay. If you ever thought about creating one from scratch, or extending an existing one, this article is for you. Product Design is the means of preparing your digital product (existing or new) with both business and user needs in mind, enabling your team to create and grow something more successful.

Building digital products

It could be said that building a digital product these days is a piece of cake. The process often seems so simple and straightforward – a metaphorical walk in the park.

You can assemble a working application from small and larger reusable bits and pieces. You can use modern platforms and frameworks that make the development process quick and relatively cheap. And, of course, you can use larger modules that are sold as stand-alone boxes. Building something quickly and getting it to the market in next to no time? Not a problem.

But that is not the real issue you should be concerned about. So what is it? It’s all the work that goes into your project before you start building, which is a key starting point in Product Design! To emphasise this importance, let me ask you a few questions:

  • Who will be using the product and what is their motivation to do so?
  • Is this product solving the end users’ problem(s)?
  • If so, which issues does it solve – and how?
  • How will the product differentiate itself from other solutions already available on the market?
  • Does the product fit your current business model and strategy?
  • If any parts of it don’t, what you will do about it?
  • How will the product survive on the market – what’s the long term plan?

You may have noticed that there are no questions relating to the UI or development? That’s not a coincidence – we’re not at that stage yet. Here, we are looking to set the foundations before we hit the ground. This is the core of any digital venture – and also the hardest part that not everyone manages to get right.

Building modern digital products is not about technology: in its truest essence, it never has been. It’s about asking question and getting the right answers. We’re looking to learn the needs of our users, their constraints and any other existing context. By defining and validating goals, we are adjusting our decisions and actions in accordance with results.

We want to win and ultimately make a profit (a very reasonable expectation!), so we need to get these things correct.

For this, I recommend you to know with your newest best friend and companion for the journey – Product Design.

“Design is concerned with how things work, how they are controlled, and the nature of the interaction between people and technology. When done well, the results are brilliant, pleasurable products.”
Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

Product Design is an adjustable process that helps you discover – and acquire – what you need to build a new product, or even grow an existing one. More specifically, it focuses down on two essential areas: your business perspective and the user’s needs.

It puts these in the middle of every conversation, decision and action that your team will go on to have or take. The outcome of this is that you will have a usable, growth-ready product that delivers the highest quality experience for users, solving real issues that either you, your business or your customers encounter.

One of Product Design’s key values is its flexibility to work with the range of tools and methods that are available for you. This adaptability lies in its lean approach, allowing it to be aligned with your unique needs and goals. Thus, it makes you faster and more reliable, with the power to adapt to your reality. After all, your business’s situation is different to anyone else’s.

This is a real advantageous mindset that’s worth nurturing, so let’s explore how Product Design works.

The business goals of Product Design

So, what are the business goals of Product Design? Your exact objectives will, naturally, vary, but there are some common objectives that Product Design should always strive to answer.

Solve business problems

Product Design aims to solve problems. This is the ultimate goal and it’s why people hire undertake the process in the first place. It’s also why, during the early stages all activities are focused on defining and prioritising these goals.

Let’s image that your product is a mobile app that was released one year ago on the iOS platform. Now, your stakeholders are asking you to ship your application to Android devices. You can always do this without asking any questions, but that doesn’t mean you should be going in blind.

So, after asking “WHY”, you learn that your desired target group is indeed using iOS devices. To gain broader awareness and adoption, you should invest into Android devices, as this is the driver to further scale your subscription revenue and profits from new markets.

In this case, your core problem is stale revenue that isn’t growing fast enough. One viable solution is to extend the range of potential paid subscribers and use statistics to scale the income. The Product Design approach will help you define this goal, as well as build a solution that is also aligned with the needs and expectations of your target Android users.

Using Product Design as your default work approach is like any other investment – it needs to provide a decent level of revenue afterwards. The numbers must match. If you do it right and focus on your direct business problems, it will.

Answer your users’ needs

At the end of the day, there’s always someone using your product. You didn’t create it in isolation and for personal use only. So why not take advantage of this resource?

Talking to end-users, listening to their stories and observing how (and why) they use your product is the best approach for discovering your user requirements. When your product addresses some of these needs, it instantly gains added value and a key driver behind sales or usage. In other words, this is the optimal position where you should be aiming for your product to be.

Let me use a well known example. Spotify, in essence, provides easy access to a variety of music genres via its streaming service: it can serve many different tastes and profiles. It’s successful for many reasons, but one of the most important is that it understands its users’ needs and addresses them directly within the service.

Back in its early days, there were three significant needs that Spotify was focused on solving:

  • Online access (streaming)
  • Saving and storing music
  • Finding and discovering new artists and songs

An excellent definition and understanding of these needs allowed the company directly address and resolve them through the use of an online platform that provided modules like the main music player, various playlists, a rating system, bookmarking features, and the ability to make and receive recommendations. Spotify made this the core of their service.

Ultimately, it was through understanding what people want, what their must-have requirements are, what potential game changers could be, what drives their decisions and how are they motivated to action, that gave Spotify success. As you can see, investing in a Product Design process lays the foundation for any great design decisions in the future.

“Great design will not sell an inferior product, but it will enable a great product to achieve its maximum potential.”
– Thomas Watson, Jr., 2nd president of IBM

Align your actions & decisions with business metrics

If you want to achieve your goals, you will obviously need some guidance. When it comes to building digital products, there’s no better way to achieve this than by using clear metrics.

Your metrics should be specific, measurable, actionable, reliable, and time-bound (also known as S.M.A.R.T – does this acronym rings any bells?). With these, you will be able to steer the team’s decisions and priorities, focus on the truly important stuff and not waste too much time on irrelevant discussions. Such a focus will also show you if you are paddling in the wrong direction.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
– Thomas Edison, Inventor

Metrics should be bound to the two core focuses that I have mentioned a few lines earlier: business perspective and user needs. These should be well defined up-front and you need to make sure you have buy-ins and approval from stakeholders and decision-makers, alongside the actual project team.

To give you a taster on how you can define your metrics, look at these example targets:

  • The conversion level will an increase from 2.5% to 3.5%, with a stretch goal of 4.0% by the end of the financial year
  • Negative user feedback related to the off-boarding scenario will be lowered by 2.0 percentage points by the 2nd quarter of 2019
  • The overall Net Promoter Score (or NPS) will at least maintain the same level of 35% two months after rolling out the first module in production
  • There won’t be any severity 1 issues relating to the quality & performance of the product before it enters a key phase of the next release

All of these metrics can be used to measure success – not in terms of direct finance, but in terms of user engagement, reception and experience. When you know these are the metrics that define the project, Product Design will put them front and centre.

Prepare success with a defined process

Having a planned process is never a bad thing. After all, having a plan and agreement about how everyone will approaching the work will save you a lot of headaches during design, development and eventual release.

For building digital products, I recommend using a lean approach, where you can keep things simple and fast. It can sometimes get a little messy but, overall, it will take you through the product’s defining, building, shipping and refining stages in cycles. Iteration is key here – and validation is you tool to guide your next steps.

It’s good to have a general idea of how you approach building your teams, but you should always be ready to adapt to changing requirements, new insights and feedback that you should be collecting along the way (both structured and unstructured), as this is all used for ongoing decision making.

Build a culture of communication and cooperation

Product Design is not a one-man show. It never has been, never will be and absolutely never should be. In essence, it’s a team effort. It’s the cooperation of many different people with a broad mix of skills and experiences.

At various stages, it includes UX Designers, Visual Designers, Business Analysts, Frontend Developers, Backend Developers, QA Specialists, Product Owners, Project Managers and more! Each and every one contributes to the final result, which is shipping the best possible solution in the current context for your business problem.

It takes no skills to make something crappy. Skills are only required to make something great.
– Jared Spool

So how can you make this work? Here are a few simple tips that will give your culture of communication and solid foundation from which to start:

  • breakdown the walls between specialisation silos
  • be constructive, not destructive
  • there are no silly questions – silly is keeping them only for yourself and acting without the information you need
  • being wrong is not a disaster, but you should always be seeking to learn from mistakes
  • any decision is better than no decision at all
  • when in doubt, go back to the project roots and look at the goals, metrics and priorities
  • explain things by using examples
  • there’s a time for a discussion and there’s a time for focusing – always keep these balanced
  • When one person talks, others should be listening

Of course, you need to find your preferred approach, but be brave and look for new ways of encouraging such a culture. Remember that Product Design is a team effort. Give people the power of making decisions, along with the responsibility for dealing with the results of such choices. Look for inspirations in other project teams, encourage people to have a regular cadence of retrospectives, and communicate with teams outside the project.

Make an investment and give provide more space for creativity, discussions and self-organisation. Be open – but also set clear expectations. This is the way to get the best out of your team.

Make the future more predictable

Do not go into any venture blind. Make sure you are also investing some time for planning your next steps.

Along the way, you will land on various ideas and you will often have to make tough choices by prioritising what’s more important over what isn’t. You will decide the Minimum Viable Product’s (MVP) scope and define the action plan for building it – leaving a lot of ‘nice-to-haves’ for the future.

Grab these items and start bringing them together to create a draft roadmap for your product. Make sure that, during your work, you will be catching all of this and collecting it in one place. A good practice is categorising them and keeping in a simple structure (but do not over-engineer this process – simple and accessible is the way to go).

“We’re experimenting with new methods and techniques, we’re seeing lots of crazy ideas (plants that Tweet! social networking around virtual farms!), and we’re seeing culture being shaped by the very things we’re designing.”
– Daniel Brown, Cofounder of Eight Shapes

Paint different scenarios and allocate some time to have an ongoing discussion with the stakeholders and project team about them.

Being able to react fast is good. Being prepared and having a long-term vision (plan) is way better.

If you need help prioritising, don’t forget that we started by looking at business goals and user needs. Use this to drive all future decisions. Sometimes you may need to decide between something that users will appreciate or something that will solely benefit your business. When in doubt, go back to your metrics and business goals. Looking to improve adoption and purchase rates? Then focus on the core metrics that detail how users perceive your product.

Summary

Product Design is a comprehensive approach to building digital solutions. It brings business and user spectrums together, enabling you to plan work that addresses both of them at the same time.

It encourages you to measure and validate your decisions, learn from the outcomes and improve your product in constant cycles. It provides a structured approach with a broad set of tools that can be adapted to different situations and needs.

This process brings all the best that is in your team by setting the foundation for open discussions and good co-operation between various skills. Everyone knows what is expected, what the final product needs to accomplish and, even better, they know why. It helps you plan for the future and build a backlog of ideas that you can use for deciding your next steps.

In the end, you will create a product that will be of very high good quality, and will solve real problems, address your user’s needs and make the business happy. So, that’s what Product Design can do and why it matters – do you care to try it?

General benefits of Product Design

Before we finish, let’s just recap and summarise the benefits of Product Design. Here’s everything we’ve discussed above in more concise detail.

Higher ROI

Product Design priorities business objectives and user needs. Combined, this makes your product more financially viable – it works for you and your customers are happier to use it. All of this can result in bigger ROI then, for example, a product that isn’t designed with these core factors in mind.

Longer retention

Similarly, a product that doesn’t meet these objectives doesn’t last as long in the market. Users will choose better alternatives and – without the understanding gained during the design phase – you will struggle to compete with these other products. Give users what they need, however, and they will stay loyal.

Growth & scale

Users choose the products that meet their needs – this results in better adoption and sales. Likewise, if your ongoing plan focuses on their extra needs and wants, this keeps them engaged and increases your audience, so you can better scale the product as time goes on.

Broader perspective for the team

The more the team understand the product they’re going to build, the better the outcome will be. Product Design offers teams this knowledge, giving them broader information on the target users, their needs and the business goals. This way, they are always working with these objectives in mind – rather than trying to shoehorn them in at the end.

Business Perspective

Product Design ensures your products are developed in the right direction. By focusing on business objectives and user needs – measured through agreed upon metrics – you can steer your products and services towards greater success by laying this core framework of understanding from the very start.

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