A Comprehensive Guide To Product Design

Learn about the main principles and approaches that will help you to design great products

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A Comprehensive Guide To Product Design
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What is a product? Until recently, the term was used only in relation to something material and often found in a retail store. Nowadays, it is coming to mean digital products as well. Apps and websites are modern products.

When it comes to building great products, design is the most important “feature.” We’ve moved into the stage where product design dominates — it’s what sets companies apart and gives a real edge over competitors.

Whether you’re a designer, developer, product manager, program manager, marketing manager, or project manager, it’s essential to understand (and have a reference guide to) the product development process in order to create your best work.

In this three-part series, I’ll focus on the main principles and approaches that will help you design great products. In part one, I’ll start with global things (like what product design is all about), and in parts two and three, I’ll discuss the individual phases of product design (such as research, ideation, testing, and validation).

What is product design?

Product design is the process of identifying a market opportunity, clearly defining the problem, developing a proper solution for that problem, and validating the solution with real users.

Design thinking as the foundation for the design process

“Design thinking” is a method for the practical resolution of problems. Originally coined by David Kelley and Tim Brown of IDEO, design thinking has become a popular approach to creating products. This approach encapsulates methods and ideas of human-centered design into a single unified concept. According to Tim Brown:

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

Good designers have always applied design thinking to product design (whether physical or digital) because it’s focused on end-to-end product development, and not just the design phase.

Design thinking is a human-centric creative process to build meaningful and effective solutions for people. Image credited to Cathy Wang.

When thinking about products or features, designers should understand the business objectives and be able to answer the following questions first:

  1. What problem are we solving?
  2. Who has this problem?
  3. What do we want to achieve?

Answering these questions helps designers understand the user experience of a product as a whole, not purely the interaction (feel) or visual (look) part of design. Only after answering these questions does it make sense to move on to finding a solution for the problem.

Finding a solution to a problem includes the following five phases:

  • Empathize: Learn about the people for whom you are designing. Conduct research to develop a deeper understanding of your users.
  • Define: Create a point of view that is based on user needs and insights.
  • Ideate: Brainstorm and come up with as many creative solutions as possible. Generate a range of potential solutions by giving yourself and your team total freedom.
  • Prototype: Build a prototype (or series of prototypes) to test your hypothesis. Creating a prototype lets designers see if they’re on the right track, and it often sparks different ideas that you wouldn’t have come up with otherwise.
  • Test: Return to your users for feedback.
While design thinking is simply an approach to problem solving, it increases the probability of success. That’s because design thinking is focused on understanding people's needs and discovering the best solutions to meet those needs.

Design process

Now, with an understanding of what design thinking is, it’s time to define the design process. The design process is a series of steps that product teams follow during the formulation of a product from start to finish. Having a solid, well-structured process is essential for two reasons: it helps you to stay focused, and it helps you to stay on schedule.

While it’s impossible to provide a universal design process that fits all projects, it’s still possible to describe a general flow for designing new products. This flow includes the following steps:

  1. Defining the product vision
  2. Product research
  3. User analysis
  4. Ideation
  5. Design
  6. Testing and validation
  7. Post-launch activities

Define product vision and strategy

One of the most important phases of product design is actually done before the design process even starts. Before you start building a product, you need to understand its context for existence. It’s the time when the product team must define the product vision and product strategy.

Have you ever worked on a project whose overall goal was not clear, in which the people involved in the design and development only vaguely understood the purpose of the product? Quite often this happens because there is no vision for the product. Unfortunately, this scenario happens all too often. In most cases, this has negative consequences. As the old Japanese proverb goes, “Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.”

Every design project needs a product vision that sets the direction and guides the product development team. Vision captures the essence of the product — the critical information that the product team must know in order to develop and launch a successful product. Vision helps build a common understanding of what we are trying to build here and why. Vision also helps you define what you are not building. Being clear about the boundaries of your solution will help you stay focused when crafting your product.

But vision is only half of the picture. The other half is strategy. Product strategy defines a product’s journey. Your vision helps you define a destination (the target condition) — the ultimate user experience toward which you’re aiming. You can plan your route toward the target destination by focusing on exactly what you need to build. By setting the goal (the challenge), you can adjust the direction of your product efforts.

Product strategy is a combination of vision and achievable goals that work together to direct the team towards the desired outcome — the ultimate user experience. Image credited to Melissa Perri.
How vision and strategy are related to each other.

Spending time and money on vision creation is a worthwhile investment because this phase sets the stage for the success of a product.

Define value proposition

Value proposition maps out the key aspects of the product: what it is, who it’s for, and when and where it will be used. Value proposition helps the team and stakeholders build consensus around what the product will be.

Working backwards

A simple technique called “working backwards” adds clarity and definition to the vision of a product. As the name suggests, the product team starts with target users and works its way back until it gets to the minimum set of requirements to satisfy what it is trying to achieve. While working backwards can be applied to any specific product decision, this approach is especially important when developing new products or features.

For a new product, a product team typically starts by writing a future press release announcing the finished product. Such a press release describes in a simple way what the product does and why it exists. As with any other press release, the goal is to explain to the public what the product or new feature is and why it matters to them. The press release should enable each team member to envision the future product.

Tips:

  • Put the user at the center. The press release should center on the customer’s problem. When writing a press release, focus on the value that the product brings to customers.
  • Read the press release to potential users and ask for their feedback. If the benefits listed in the press release don’t sound very interesting or exciting to the target audience, then perhaps they shouldn’t be built. Instead, the team should keep iterating on the press release until they’ve come up with a proper set of benefits.
  • Trim the fat. A press release isn’t a product specification. If the press release is more than a page, it is probably too long.
  • Make sure everyone on the team shares the same vision. You need to not only define a clear product vision but also ensure that all team members share it.
  • Use the press release as a reference during product development. Once the project moves into development, the press release can be used as a reference. The press release can function as a north star to guide your team in times of uncertainty.

Define success criteria

It’s essential to have a clear business goal that you want to achieve with the product. If you don’t know at the beginning of the project what the business goal is and how success will be measured, then you’re headed for trouble. Defining explicit success criteria — such as expected number of sales per month, key performance indicators (KPIs), etc. — during this phase establishes targets for evaluating progress. This also helps to establish a more results-driven process.

Tip: It’s worth interviewing stakeholders to define business goals and objectives for the project.

Schedule a project kickoff meeting

The kickoff meeting brings all the key players together to set proper expectations for both the team and stakeholders. It covers a high-level outline of the product’s purpose, who is involved in designing and developing the product, how they will work together, and what the stakeholders’ expectations are (such as the KPIs and how success of the product should be measured).

Continue reading part two of A Comprehensive Guide to Product Design: Research, User Analysis and Ideation.

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