Product design is the process you go through when you conceptualize and build a product.
The path to building – hardware, software, or even simple prototypes – has different steps and approaches.
I have built products at Google and WFHAdviser.com and advised companies who are building products in the web development and mobile app space. Through my experiences as a builder I have made many mistakes. I have also gotten a few things right.
Learning how to design products is not only useful for builders. Learning to wear a “product design hat” can help aspiring product managers, engineers, sales professionals, and managers empathize with how a product is built and why.
Product design is focused on building products to help users make sense of a confusing, complex, and contradictory world.
Through a mix of product launches, mentorship, observation, and repeated experimentation, I have learned the fundamentals of product design. Hopefully you can avoid some of the pitfalls that I experienced.
I want to share eight practical steps with you in the hope that this framework enables you to build and design better products and more rapidly bring them to market.
Step 1: Define the vision of the product
At this earliest stage of design you should turn your computer off.
Put your pencil down. Think.
Ask yourself: “What is the purpose of this product?”
You should be able to loosely articulate what a product might be able to do, who will use it, and what problem the product solves.
Don’t drown in numbers or research. If you are intimately aware of the problem that the product will solve, great. If you are newer to the problem space, think about why the problem exists.
Define what a product will feel like, how users might interact with it, and why other products don’t adequately solve the problem you have identified today.
Step 2: Research the product space and market
In this second stage you should start to look at the market and define who is in it and why.
Answer the following: Who makes similar products, how are those products used and by whom, and what impact are these products having?
How were these existing products brought to market and distributed?
Thoughtful research starts with the end-users.
There are two types of products: those that are incremental improvements to existing products and entirely new inventions. Which one is yours?
Work backwards from customers. Although good product designers may pay attention to competitors, great researchers obsess over how people will use the product itself.
Step 3: Get Feedback and Generate More Ideas
Earn the future trust of users by practicing active listening.
Demonstrate strong judgement and good instinct by building a prototype and getting real feedback. When getting initial feedback, a strong product designer will never say “that’s not my job.”
Answer these questions: How does your product make a user’s life better? How will the product be built and in what timeframe? Who will buy the product?
Be externally aware.
Look for new ideas from everywhere. When getting feedback think about what the person is really saying. What are their words conveying? What do their actions (body language or tone of voice) imply? Most importantly, what are these prospective users not communicating?
Obtain and seek out diverse perspectives and work to accept or disconfirm feedback.
Use feedback to take curiosity – your own and that of users – and translate that into something that people can use.
Product design is about never being done.
Step 4: Ideate
During the ideation stage, insist on the highest standards.
Thinking big is a self-fulfilling prophecy. By looking around the corner, a product designer can think holistically about how a product will solve new or unforeseen problems.
A well designed product unlocks value for end-users. Don’t lose sight of this.
If a design decision is reversible and can be made quickly, show a bias towards action and ideate rapidly.
Embrace calculated risk taking.
Step 5: Build and Don’t Give Up
No task is beneath you in the building stage. Benchmark your progress against the best in your field.
As the Chief Product Officer of Pennybox, I spent two years steering the company through fundraising, development, and the product’s launch.
While I learned immensely from my experience at the helm of Pennybox, the period of time was not without its challenges — some of which, I recognize in hindsight, could have been avoided.
Pennybox, for example, let too much time elapse between product iterations. My experiences running the company have made me acutely aware that designing is hard.
If you are a builder, you can never fully insulate yourself from the inevitable setbacks that come with pushing technological boundaries or creating new products.
Building is hard. Keep bootstrapping. Keep building.
Don’t give up.
Step 6: Earn validation and examine results
Designers need conviction and back bone. They must be tenacious in the pursuit of design and product excellence.
Vic Gundotra, a former Google executive, once told a story about an interaction he had with Steve Jobs.
Gundotra noted that Steve called him and said the following:
"Vic, we have an urgent issue, one that I need addressed right away. I've already assigned someone from my team to help you, and I hope you can fix this tomorrow. I've been looking at the Google logo on the iPhone and I'm not happy with the icon. The second O in Google doesn't have the right yellow gradient. It's just wrong and I'm going to have a staff member fix it tomorrow…”
This maniacal attention to detail is one of the many reasons that Steve Jobs is remembered as a legendary figure.
You too can test and validate results post launch to improve your product and obtain better end-user results. No task is beneath the designer who is connected to, and focused on, every detail.
Flattery from a few users does not mean the design is great. My parents loved Pennybox. Unfortunately, few other parents did.
If the user metrics and anecdotes differ, a product designer will ask why.
Step 7: Set Key Performance Metrics and Measure Them
You can’t measure what you can’t count.
Know what you care about it and measure it.
For websites, that might mean the number of monthly visitors or how long users spend on your website.
For mobile applications, that might mean downloads or active users.
Gather feedback rapidly.
Through measurement and feedback you can make further product improvements.
Closing Thoughts on Product Design
This process will increase the likelihood that your products are relevant, well thought out, and can help users. But you can follow these steps and still stray.
Following are some examples of ideas and concepts I have experienced firsthand that make me think about the principles of good and bad design.
Use these examples to think holistically about the products you use in your everyday life and how you might change or improve them.
Case study #1: Bike paths in Munich
I used to live in Munich.
Bike riding is common in German cities. Designers built small bike paths adjacent to stairs to make it easier for riders to get their bikes up and down stairs without heavy lifting.
This is a compelling design and benefits users.
Case study #2: Train platform design
In the U.S. the space between a train and platform is regulated by the National Disability Authority to 1.5 inches. Not so in Europe.
The nearly 4-inch gap common in Europe is seemingly dangerous and difficult for many users.
Feedback from different stakeholders – like pregnant women, disabled people, and bikers – could have led to different design standards.
There is a reason “Mind the Gap” was invented in London.
Case study #3: Unidentifiable light switches
Here is a photograph of a light-switch, similar to the one in my kitchen. Which switch controls which light?
And which switch controls the drain’s garbage disposal unit? This design often leads to confusion and annoyingly (but understandably) I frequently push the wrong button.
Case study #4: Messaging matters
Sometimes good design can be as effective as clear messaging with a simple and compelling call to action. This is good design: a parking sign that is effective and memorable.
Compare the parking sign to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection pamphlet. This piece of paper is cumbersome to fill out and composed of very small print.
The sections are labeled sequentially on the front but not on the back. This is an inconsistent design.
Many travelers on long flights into the U.S. (where this form is required) take off their glasses or contact lenses. Wouldn’t it be great if this form was digital (to be completed upon arrival) or made of a larger font?
Case study #5: Game design
For those that like to play games, Solitaired.com is an example of great design. It is one of the only game websites that I visit and can start playing games immediately: there are no pop-ups, no logins, no distractions.
Case study #6: When design just works
Internal communications and email tracking firm Contact Monkey uses an elegant design to help their clients see pricing examples.
The clear visual delineation between offerings, the call to action, and core benefits are examples of good product pricing.