What is product design? What does the product design process entail? At what point should you enroll your design team? These questions always come up during any conversation about design.
Today, we answer those questions and offer insight into how successful product design profoundly impacts your business’s success.
What is product design?
The world of product design has evolved considerably over the years. And so too has the product design process. To a lot of people, design is simply how a product looks and feels. And while that is a component of product design, it is so much more than that. Product design encompasses everything from initial market research to the final, deliverable product.
Creating the visual side of a product comes much later in the design process than you might think. The steps leading up to finally putting pixels together begin much earlier in the product development cycle. As you’ll soon see, design is no longer a siloed activity that occurs at the end of the product development process.
Product Mindset vs. Project Mindset
Before we dive into what the product design process entails, let’s talk mindset. There are a couple of different schools of thought into which designers fall. One is product-focused, and the other is project-focused.
The product mindset focuses on the product as a whole. It broadly views the product as a living thing that continually evolves. The product is never done and regularly gets improved upon with new features added to the product life cycle. Designers with a product mindset always stay close to the users and their growing and changing needs to drive product iteration.
The project mindset looks at things through a much more narrow, project-focused lens. The project has a beginning and an end. When the product launches, those with a project mindset walk away and go into maintenance mode or move on to something else entirely.
For your product to be successful, you need to adopt a product mindset. The digital world moves quicker than ever before. If you aren’t continually evolving and making improvements to your product, consider it already obsolete. Having a product mindset also means enrolling your design team much earlier in the product development process than you might think.
What does the product design process entail?
Despite common misconceptions, the product design process begins quite early in the product development cycle. Product teams who don’t enroll the design team early in the process often wish they had. Or at least their users do.
Product design is a fairly linear process. The following stages should ideally occur in the order shown here. However, all of these steps can also be iterative and should be based on what is known about the users.
A modern product design team should be way out in front, working with the product manager to figure out what the market fit looks like. Then, they’re involved with the product from there on out.
What is market fit?
Market fit plays a huge role in your product’s ultimate success. Before you spend the time and resources to release a product into the world, you first need to figure out into what corner of that world it fits. To determine this, begin by asking:
- Is there a market for it?
- What is the niche within that market where you can set yourself apart?
- Is there a big enough problem that warrants a product, or a different take on an existing product that you already own?
Once you determine there is a market for a particular product, move on to foundational user research.
At the core of product design is some sort of unmet need for the user. Products designed based on unmet needs versus an “idea” have a much higher success rate. Without a clear understanding of what problem your product is solving for your users, there’s no way it will solve it.
So, how do you expose those unmet needs and identify the problem? Foundational research.
As the first step in the product design process, foundational research sets the stage for everything that comes after it. It’s here that the product team learns everything about the problem, the people experiencing the problem and their behavior, and the market.
The problem is that unmet need (or needs) that the user has. What is it that’s causing them problems in their lives that your product can solve? Where is there friction that your product can ease? Defining the problem helps determine where your product idea fits in to solve the problem.
More product design efforts either spin or completely fail due to an ill-defined problem than any other reason.
People and Their Behavior
Human beings are complex. The more you understand their behavior around a problem, the better you can understand how to solve that problem.
Who is experiencing the problem, and what are all of their unmet needs? Further, why do they have those problems and needs in the first place? Understanding people’s behaviors and motivations helps you design for those behaviors later on in the process.
A lot of design teams design for how they want the user to act. But by understanding their behavior, designers can instead design for how they’ll actually act. It also allows teams to design for deep, meaningful engagement and make the final product feel less like an artifact. Users’ interactions with it are much more humanized.
Break out your potential user group into personas. Finetune those personas by outlining specific pain points. Look at their demographics and psychographic traits. Research their behaviors and actions.
Plot all of this information out onto a persona matrix so you can see it all in one place.
Solid foundational research removes any guesswork from the equation when you move on to the next stage of the process: product strategy and vision
Product Strategy and Vision
You identified a niche in the market and exposed an unmet need. Now it’s time to start strategizing how your product fills that niche and delivers on that need.
- What’s the emotional value proposition your product offers your users, and how will they interact with it?
- What makes your product unique in the market?
- What are the qualities of your product?
- What’s the mood your product conveys?
So, how can you uncover answers to these questions?
One method is to conduct in-depth strategy and visioning workshops. These intensive, often multi-day working sessions bring all the product’s stakeholders together. The product owner, product manager, developers, solutions architects, designers — everyone who has a stake in the final product’s success gets a seat at the table.
The goal is to understand everything you can about the users based on your research. Stay away from the assumptions made in the conference room and really focus the data. Ask yourself: what’s the context surrounding our product and business as a whole? Then, examine where you think it’s headed and how you’re currently differentiating yourself.
With all of those questions answered, you’re ready to build out a product vision and add structure to the product. Define what it is, what it does, and how it does it. Build out a vision of how it shows up in the world.
With a robust product strategy and vision in hand, you can plan how to build out the product’s experience.
User Experience Design (UX Design)
By now, you know everything there is to know about the problem your product solves, the people it solves it for, and how it solves it. Now, you can start designing what the experience is like for the people using your product.
To do that, user experience designers have several essential tools in their toolbox.
Experience mapping is an exercise that, well, maps out the experience. It’s also likely what you’ll see if you search “UX Design” on any stock photo site. Visually, experience mapping looks like a ton of sticky notes on a whiteboard. But those sticky notes account for every single stage of the user journey when they use your product.
To get started, return your attention to the personas identified during the research stage. Map out the entire experience for each of them from start to finish. Experience mapping, or journey mapping, aims to better understand how each persona will use and interact with the product. By taking a high-level look at the entire experience, you can pinpoint potential areas of friction.
Experience mapping isn’t to be confused with journey mapping. The journey mapping exercise maps out what exists today compared to the vision of what you want to build.
User Requirements Definition
After you complete the experience map, add more structure to the journey. Do this by translating the journey into specific user requirements, broken down by persona. All of these requirements get put into a matrix along with the individual components required to meet them.
This exercise is what helps you determine the components and user flows. It is about figuring out what must be there to allow the user to complete the task at hand.
User Flows and Information Architecture
With detailed product requirements in hand, translate them into user flows that describe specific interaction patterns and use cases. These user flows then allow you to build a site map and taxonomy to define the overall information architecture.
Based on the user flows, move on to building wireframes of the product. Assuming all the previous steps are complete, the wireframes have annotations. Annotated wireframes describe in detail exactly how elements on the screen should function. In essence, they serve as an extension of the design team to the developers building the product.
User Interface Design (UI Design)
Moving into the user interface design stage of the process, start to add to the product’s visual side. The UI is the display layer. It’s what the user is seeing and interacting with. UI design is also the stage of the process that most people think of when they think of design.
So, what does UI design all entail?
Visual Concept and Production
UI design encompasses things like colors, fonts, grid structure, and how elements on the screen look. All of this together is called the design system. When creating a design system, every decision is evidence-based and backed by thorough research. After all, the whole point of doing all that work on the front-end is to make your UI work successful.
UI design also addresses how the elements in your product’s design interact with one another. Create a design system of components and add some small, micro-interactions to elevate specific features within the product’s overall experience.
The keyword with these interactions is “micro.” They shouldn’t distract the user from the overall experience. Keep them minimal and very subtle to make them successful.
UX writing lays out the language guidelines to which all of your product’s content must adhere. Does a button say “Enter” or “Go”? “Get started” or “Begin”? According to your product strategy and user research, what are the right words to use for your audience?
And that’s it, that’s the whole product design process-
Hey, wait a minute, what about usability testing?!
Ok, you got me. We haven’t discussed the testing stage of the process yet.
And that’s because it’s not really a stage. Rather, testing happens throughout every step of the product design process. If you aren’t testing and validating your work before moving on to the next stage, you might be working off of work that doesn’t actually work. (Boy, that had a real woodchuck chucking wood vibe, didn’t it.)
My point is, if you don’t test regularly, you could end up wasting time designing and releasing a subpar product. But if you do test often, every design decision you make all the way through launch is backed by test evidence. And you’ll have a final product that better serves your real users’ needs.
So, how does the product design process benefit your business?
Design is good for business. Or, more accurately, good design is good for business. Industry-spanning studies prove the positive impact design maturity has on revenue, cost savings, time to market, and valuation perspective.
If this whole process is new to you, it’s easy to brush it off. It might come across as a lot of extra work and trouble just to design a product. If a designer is good enough, shouldn’t they still put out a good product without all these additional steps? Is going through the entire product design process really worth it?
Yes, it is.
And I don’t just say that as a design professional. I say it as an avid user of digital products as well.
Think about the apps that you’ve downloaded. How many times have you deleted it after only a couple of uses because the experience was so bad?
Product teams tend to track how many times their app gets downloaded. But they should also track how many times it gets deleted. As an experience designer, that’s the statistic I care more about.
First impressions matter. Attraction bias matters.
You can release as many iterations of your product as you want. But if it flops the first time, getting people to engage with it again is a pretty steep hill to climb. If you do it right the first time and go through the design process, you build loyalty (and revenue) right out of the gate.