This blog about the Digital Product Design Process: Foundational Research is an excerpt from our eBook “Fulfilling Users’ Needs: Take a Design Thinking Approach to Ship Digital Products that Win”. Click here to download the entire eBook.
The mobile landscape has changed a great deal since MentorMate developed its first mobile app twenty years ago. At that time, we were limited to the few mobile devices that could handle any sort of third-party application — mainly PalmPilots.
Mobile devices have obviously become much more plentiful and powerful since then and so too have our options for creating mobile applications. Over the years, we’ve worked with hundreds of organizations to design, develop, and deploy mobile apps used by millions of people around the world.
Throughout the course of that work, we’ve learned a lot of valuable information about what’s important when considering whether and how to create a mobile app as well as all other digital products. And we want to share those learnings with you as you embark on your own digital product design process.
Digital Product Design Process: Product-Market Fit
Contrary to popular belief, great products don’t start with a big idea. They start with an unmet need that eventually leads to an idea of how to fulfill it. Your chances of building a product that people actually want to use are exponentially higher if it’s based on an unmet need rather than a creative idea alone.
That’s where product-market fit comes in.
The success (or failure) of any product is often determined by its product-market fit. That is, the market demand that exists for your product. Is there a problem that the product solves? Is there an unmet need that it fulfills?
Determining product-market fit is no small task. But doing so saves you from building a product that no one actually needs or wants to use.
How do you determine the product-market fit and uncover unmet needs? Research. And lots of it.
Start by identifying the broad space that you’d like your product to be in. As an example, let’s look at healthcare. From a 10,000 foot view, the digital healthcare space is vast and heavily saturated. But if you start to look into the many niche markets that make up the broader vertical, you can start to hone in on a corner of healthcare that your product can occupy, like diabetes care.
Looking deeper at the digital diabetes care space, there are plenty of competitors at the table. But most are focused on the broad daily care for anyone living with diabetes. Is there an opportunity for you to zoom in further and carve out a spot where your product can live and grow?
Your market research ultimately steers you toward looking at diabetes statistics. You learn that of the 1.4 million Americans living with Type 1 diabetes, 200,000 of them are under 20 years old. This triggers a lightbulb moment for you. What does diabetes care look like for teenagers with Type 1 diabetes? How does it differ from someone much older and with much more experience handling personal responsibility?
All of this initial research leaves you with the confidence that there is a product-market fit here:
Teenagers with Type 1 diabetes would be better served by an app tailored to them and their specific unmet needs than one built for the broader community of diabetes patients.
Digital Product Design Process: Foundational Research
With your product-market fit confidently determined, you can get out there and start figuring out what unmet needs your product can fulfill. And for that, we turn to foundational research.
Foundational research can take on a lot of different forms but the ultimate goal is gaining empathy for the people who will be using your product. You won’t be able to successfully fulfill their unmet needs if you aren’t empathetic to their pain points.
The best method of empathizing with people is to observe them and gain a deep understanding of everything going on around them. In the case of the diabetes care app, that means finding teenagers living with Type 1 diabetes and observing their daily habits. Get to know them and find out what their current care routines look like. Interview their parents and see if there are any external factors that might be contributing to pain points. Talk to their doctors, teachers, coaches, friends, and anyone else who might be a stakeholder in their care.
If the product you’re developing is in manufacturing, observe the line workers or machine operators who will be using it. Medical records or appointment scheduling app? Find some healthcare administrators, doctors, and nurses to observe.
Regardless of the industry or user groups that you’re observing and connecting with, the key to useful research lies in how you approach it. To get an effective qualitative data set, plan on observing at least 10–15 people in your user group.
Observe people in their environment
It may be tempting to simply schedule a sit-down interview with someone in a conference room or coffee shop. Resist that temptation. The best way to fully understand people’s experiences is to observe them in the context of that experience. That means while they’re checking their blood glucose or self-administering insulin, working on the manufacturing line, or inputting patient data.
Ask the right questions
Observing people in context is key but that alone won’t get you far unless you’re also asking the right questions of people. Ask broad, open-ended questions that prompt a discussion or explanation rather than a yes or no answer.
- Tell me about a time when you forgot to check your blood sugar.
- What are some of the most challenging aspects of working on the line?
- Can you walk me through the entire process of inputting a patient’s medical history?
- Have you ever forgotten to check your blood sugar?
- Do you enjoy working on the line?
- Does the software you currently use have all the features that you need to do your job?
Take note of workarounds
As you observe people, take note of any shortcuts or DIY hacks they’ve implemented to make their work faster or easier. If there are workarounds in place, that signifies a gap in the process which usually points to an unmet need. A reminder in their calendar app that it’s time for a glucose check, a cheat sheet of complicated codes to run a certain machine, a second computer because the current software bogs down the hard drive… all of these are problems that your product can potentially solve.
Synthesize your data
All of your research will undoubtedly leave you with a massive swath of raw data. Before you can pull any insights out of all of this data, it needs to be synthesized in a way that allows you to interpret it. That means transcribing all of your interviews, highlighting commonalities, and putting them on Post-Its (physical or digital), sticking them on a wall where they can be moved around as needed. The goal is to get the information out of machines and into a format that allows synthesis to happen. You simply can’t get there in a spreadsheet.
As you synthesize, you’ll begin to notice patterns and spot anomalies in the data. It’s within these patterns and anomalies that your insights and unmet needs lie.
While you’re synthesizing and analyzing your data, you find that kids who are active in a lot of extracurricular activities have more lapses in their glucose checks. And that in many cases, they’re the only ones in those activities who have Type 1 diabetes. Further, multiple kids you interviewed said that they’re the only diabetics in their entire school. They don’t find themselves interacting with other kids who understand the challenges of the disease very often, making it easy to slip into bad care habits.
Those sound like some unmet needs.
To read more about the digital product design process, download our eBook “Fulfilling Users’ Needs: Take a Design Thinking Approach to Ship Digital Products that Win”.