Product Design Fundamentals

When building or creating a good product the most important part of said product is the feature or features.
Product design fundamentals
Product design fundamentals

Everything from digital to actual tangible products go through product development. During the development of the product, product design is key in the process. For a long time now Products have only been thought to be tangible items only. However, with time, digital products have made their way into the market as products.

When building or creating a good product the most important part of said product is the feature or features. Features encompass the contribution of everyone working on the product. This includes everyone from the product manager, designer, developer, the quality analysis team and the marketing team.

In this piece, we are going to touch on some of the main fundamentals or principles of proper product design.

What Is Product Design?

Before we dive into what the principles or fundamentals of product design are, let us look into what product design is. Depending on what you get when you look up product design. It can be narrowed down as the process of identifying an unsatisfied or untapped market opportunity and developing solutions for the said market.

During the development of the solution, you need to be sure to validate most if not all the solutions with the end-user.

Design Thinking As Part Of The Design Process

Design thinking is the driving force behind any product or project. This is because the design thinking process offers practical solutions for actual problems. Since design thinking was introduced to the world by Rim Brown of IDEO and David Kelley, it has gone on to become the go-to for all product design processes.

The entire design thinking process involves human-centred design which as a whole unifies every concept or idea. Whether you are designing a digital or physical product you should follow the design thinking process.

When pondering about different features or even the end product, you should break down your objectives. This will help you distinguish between business thinking and design thinking. To do this you need to answer a couple of questions. These are:

  • Is there a problem we are solving?
  • What is the problem?
  • Who is facing the problem?
  • What is our end goal?

Once you have direct answers to these questions you will have defined a path to follow. Do not move away from this step if you do not have clear and direct answers to all the questions. These answers will guide you to finding the solution, and this will happen in five phases. These phases are:

Empathize

Empathy is derived from understanding your niche and relating to their problems. To do this you need to conduct in depth research to get a better understanding of your users.

Define

Definition of the problem allows you to have views based on your users’ needs and wants from their insights.

Ideate

This is the process of brainstorming ideas. Basically, it is throwing ideas to the wall and seeing what will stick. Generating as many creative ideas as possible allows you the freedom to think out of the box. Remember, no idea is too wild.

Prototype

Prototyping is building solutions to test your hypothesis of the final solution. Creating prototypes allows everyone involved to see if they are on the right track or not. You should not be surprised if you are still coming up with new ideas at this stage.

Test

This is when you present your solution to your users and get feedback on its viability.

The Product Design Process

Now that you have a proper understanding of what product design is and why design thinking is a must-do. Let us jump into the design process. The design process or the design stage features a number of steps that the product development team follows to formulate an end product.

During this process, you need to ensure that you have a properly laid out and structured process for the entire project. Before you jump into designing the actual product there are a couple of steps that you need and these fall under a particular flow. This flow involves:

  • Definition of the product’s vision
  • Research
  • Analysis
  • Ideation
  • Design
  • Testing and validation of the product
  • Pre and post-launch activities

Let us look deeper into each of these aspects of the flow.

Strategy And Vision

Design strategy and vision
Design strategy and vision

The most important part of any product design project is the steps taken before the actual design even begins. This is key in understanding the context of the solution you are creating and its overall existence. It is at this step when you or your team should define what the vision and strategy of your product are.

If you have ever found yourself working on a project that does not have its goals clearly set. You know how hectic it can be when very few people understand the goals of the product. Or the few that do, do so in a very vague manner.

While this is a very common and recurring situation. Nine out of ten times it leads to the failure of the project and product and it ends up being a very grave and expensive mistake. Every successful project needs clear and precise goals.

These goals and milestones can have a specific time frame assigned to each. The time can range from hourly to daily, weekly, after every fortnight or even monthly.

The vision of the product on the other hand is important to be set before any work on design or production starts. This is because the vision of the product is what will drive the whole project. The vision will answer the how, why, what, who, and when questions when it comes to setting the goals.

Vision is only one side of the coin. The other is strategy. Your strategy or rather the product strategy will define the product journey. This combined with the vision will give your users a sense of direction to which your product is headed.

Spending time on your goals, vision and strategy will save you both time and money when building the final product.

Product Design Propositions

Propositions or as in the case of product value propositions are what guide you when it comes to mapping out your product’s key elements. These propositions will guide you in answering the following questions:

  • What product is this?
  • Who is this product for?
  • When will this product be used?
  • Where will this product be used?

Value propositions also come in handy when it comes to teams and even stakeholders. This is because the product’s value will be built on a consensus based on what the final product is set out to be.

Working Backwards

To properly define your product’s value you need to project what the final product will be. To do this you can use a very simple process known as working backwards. Working backwards gives you clarity of what the product is and what it is not.

To do this you will start from the end-user or the target user. From here you will work your way through each step of making the product until you find yourself at the beginning. Working backwards works best with new products.

This is because with every new product you have the freedom to experiment, unlike existing products. If you are to use the backwards technique on an existing product you will want to consider using it on features solely.

For all new products, most people or companies will offer either a press release or a one to one release with the end-user. For a successful release here are a couple of pointers.

The user is the main focus

Considering that you are building a product for someone else it is only right that they are the focus of the release. Make sure to point out the value that your product brings to the end-user.

Always ask for feedback

When reading or presenting your product statement to the press or the end-user, always be ready for feedback. This feedback may come in the form of people asking for clarification on the product or part of it. It can also come in the form of criticism on the entire product. Being open to feedback from your end-users is key to making sure your product is solving the problem you are set out to solve.

One thing to remember when receiving feedback is, learn to distinguish wants from needs and vice versa.

Be precise and to the point

While your statement or release should not really touch on every key specification of your product. Make sure to focus on the main points.

Make sure everyone on your team is onboard

Before presenting your statement make sure everyone you are working with on the project shares the same vision.

Use the release as a point of reference

When developing the product, always go back and look at the statement you presented. Do this to make sure you can keep the promises you made.

Success Definition

Now that you have defined your vision, value, goals, and you have your strategy laid out it is time to define what success looks like. Defining success is key in making sure that your business goals are met.

If at this point you have no idea what the business success of your product is going to be and how it is going to be measured you could be set up for failure. This is especially for products that you are looking to have financial gain from.

Definition of success can be based on what are your sales projections both monthly and yearly, what are your key performance indicators (KPIs) among many more aspects and criteria. Evaluating these numbers will help you in evaluating the project’s progress and process.

Kickoff Meetings

Before you start working on the final product you need to meet with every key player. This is to iron out any issues when it comes to the vision and goals of the product.  This is also the time to change anything as far as the business success and goals go.

It is during this meeting that you will give everyone a list of what they are expected to bring to the table. You will also walk them through a well-defined map of how the success of the product will be measured.

Research

Research and analysis of data and information
Research and analysis of data and information

Now armed with a properly defined vision for your product it is time to focus your attention on the end-user and the market as a whole. This is the part that will give you the other half that you need to design your product.

Good research maximizes the chance of success when it comes to your product and processes. Poper research informs both your product and the resources you will need to acquire. This will also give you a proper insight into what your customers already have and what they need. It will also help you determine if you are to develop an entirely new product or build on an already existing one.

Here are a few research techniques you can apply to have an effective research process:

Interviews

When conducting your research direct dialogue should be your go-to when it comes to your target market. It is through dialogue that you understand your users on a personal and emotional level. While other research techniques can give you insight into your users, they do not give context.

Effective interviews are often conducted between one interviewer and one interviewee. The minimum time to spend on an interview is 20 minutes and the maximum is one hour. Working with a flexible time ensures that you do not cut your interviewee short.

However, remember to always stick to the product. Digressing might cost you time and affect any remaining interviews you have to conduct. To prepare for a good interview, here are some insights.

One-on-One

With the pandemic, many people opted to have most of their meetings and interviews online. This proved that one-on-one meetings can be held anywhere and anytime. If you are working on a product and you cannot have physical interviews you can always opt for online interviews.

During these one-on-one interviews, you will not only get verbal answers but you will also gather behavioural data as well. You can do this by observing the interviewee’s body language and verbal cues.

Plan your questions

Planning out your questions allows you to stay on track during the interview. These questions should also be centred around the goals and visions you have set. Asking the wrong question can have a detrimental impact during the development phase of the product.

This is because many designers and developers rely on the data gathered to build the product.

Use experienced interviewers

While you might be a people’s person, you might lack the ability to be a good interviewer. If this is the case you need to find someone who is comfortable conducting an unbiased interview and a well-detailed one.

Surveys

Surveys are one of the most used research methods. These coupled with questionnaires are the go-to for many companies or individuals looking to cast a wide net. They give a more detailed and unbiased analysis compared to interviews.

In most cases, surveys are used to conduct quantitative research. They have, however, in some cases been used for qualitative research. Most surveys like questionnaires feature open-ended questions, this gives people the opportunity to give more in-depth feedback.

Most questions on surveys are centred around which, where, when, who, what, and how. The greatest advantage of surveys is that they are cheaper to conduct. Their biggest flaw on the other hand is they do not give context and you cannot access the responses based on verbal and behavioural cues.

For an effective survey make sure to:

Keep it short

A long survey will limit the number of responses you get. This is because people lose interest halfway or opt not to even participate. If you have many questions to ask, you can do this over a course of different surveys and on different days instead of cramming everything into one long survey.

Make sure all your questions are open-ended.

Asking open-ended questions give you a better chance at getting a detailed response. Open-ended questions are also quick to read and direct.

Conducting Contextual Inquiries

This is a very popular research method employed by many scientists. Contextual inquiries allow you to observe your users in their natural environment. This method will give you insight into how their day to day life is and how they approach the problem you are trying to solve.

Before you get started you should ask your users a number of baseline questions to get a starting point and determine where you should start your observation. The main goal of a contextual inquiry is to form empathy with your end-users and understand their perspectives.

When conducting a contextual inquiry, make sure to follow these two rules.

Do not interfere

During this inquiry, you might be tempted to interfere with your user’s day to day experience or struggle. However, if you do chances are you will not get an unbiased view or feedback. Data gathered for these inquiries need to be as pure as they can possibly be.

Listen and observe

Observation is the main focus of a contextual inquiry, however, do not forget to listen. How people behave and how they say what they say might prove vital to your product’s success or failure.

Market Research

Market research
Market research

When coming up with an idea for a solution you can never choose to ignore what is already on the market. Some if not most of the time you will find that you do not have to come up with a new product. All you have to do is build on an already existing one.

No need to invent the wheel. Conducting in-depth market research paves the way to understanding what your product is really brought to the table. For an effective and comprehensive market research here are some key pointers.

Competitive research

Competitive research is a very popular research technique employed by companies looking to build a new product in a market saturated with a similar product. When conducting competitive research you will be exposed to the standard industry practices and new business avenues that you probably might have not thought about.

During this process you will come across two different kinds of competitors:

Direct Competitors

Direct competitors are those with a similar product to yours. This means that when your product goes into the market you will have head-to-head competition. Most of the time both products will share the same value propositions and even vision.

Indirect Competitors

Indirect competitors on the other hand offer an almost similar product but with different value propositions.

When conducting your research you should pay close attention to these competitors. This is because they have a hand in the success or failure of your product. The rule of thumb when approaching competitive research is to pick three direct and three indirect competitors for proper data gathering.

When doing this make sure to make a list of all your competitors. You can come up with this list based on your personal experience, what your target users or stakeholder have presented.

When conducting your research make sure to have a spreadsheet listing what product each competitor has and what it lacks. This way you can look at what you can remove or what you can add to your product.

You can share this list with your stakeholders just in case they come across a competitor or competitor feature they might have seen that you missed.

Analysis

Once you have collected data from your target users and competition it is time to analyze what you found. Analysing this data allows you to draw insight from this data. This means capturing it, organizing it and using it as a reference point. This helps you filter your users’ needs and wants.

To do this you need to build on what you have learnt about your user’s environment and behaviours. This is where personas come in.

Persona

Going back to the data collected during your research you and your UX team can focus on a user and using this data you can create a representation of this user called a persona. A persona is a fictional or imaginary character created to represent a group of users.

To come up with a good and reliable persona you need to use the end-users for reference. This is because you are trying to simulate a realistic scenario where you use your solution to solve the presented problem.

Through personas, you create very specific user goals and contexts that aid during the ideation phase. When coming up with these personas you might be tempted to invent details about the persona to make them more appealing. This should never happen because what you are going for is an unbiased person. Meaning all the personas you create should be based on the information you gathered.

When coming up with your personas stick to generic names. Never use your end-users real names. This is to avoid having attachments to the persona and creating a product for only one user.

Empath Map

When analysing your data you need a visual map or tool to lay out what you know about the user. Here is where an empathy map comes in. Empathy maps are what will give you a better and broader understanding of the why question. And it is during this process that you will finally be able to differentiate the needs and wants.

Empathy maps shift your focus from your product to the user. It is because they centre the user. This is based on what the user said and how they said it, what their thought process is, how they behave, and finally their emotions.

When creating an empathy map make sure to turn it into a poster that you will be seeing when building the product. This will give you a reminder of what you are doing and why you are doing it. It can also act as a motivation for your team.

Ideation

Ideation is key in product design
Ideation is key in product design

The ideation stage is when everyone comes together to brainstorm. It is during this phase that everyone throws their idea on the wall to see what sticks and what does not. While you might be tempted to go crazy with your ideas you should always remember the end goal. You should never dismiss an idea during this phase, make sure to write all your ideas down and evaluate each of them carefully.

There are different techniques when it comes to presenting ideas. These range from sketches to storyboards. You can choose any so long as it is used to the overall visualization of the idea. Below we are going to touch on some of the most popular ideation techniques.

User Journey Map

To start us off are user journey maps. User journey maps a visual step by step process that your target user will go through to achieve their goal. Normally this technique is presented in a series from start to finish.

When creating a user journey map remember that different users might approach your product from different points of view and with different goals in mind. Make sure to stick to the most basic and direct user, markdown every timeline and pay attention to what each step adds or takes away from the process.

The simplest user journey map is one that focuses only on the scenario or on the path.  A complex user journey map is one that incorporates all if not all scenarios at different times or stages when a user is using your product.

Storyboards And Scenarios

Now that you have a person it is time to create a story or scenario for them. This scenario or story should be based on how they interact with your product. This means you should have a story in their day to day life while facing the problem you are trying to solve.

It is during this that you inject your product and formulate an interaction between your user and the product. You can do this as a comic book layout or even as a short movie. This will give you a better understanding of how people will incorporate your product in their day to day lives.

When building your storyboards make sure to:

Have a strong narrative

Your persona’s background is solely based on the data you acquired during your research. However, the narrative you create should be based on the problem and the solution you are building. Having a structured narrative gives you room to have a detailed backstory for your product.

Have a clear outcome

When creating your scenarios and storyboard you might find yourself going off-topic. This will derail you from achieving the correct outcome. Ensure that your storyboard has a clear outcome without you having to explain what the outcome is.

User Stories

Often when you present your idea you need to incorporate your users from start to finish. To do this effectively you might opt to use user stories. User stories are descriptions of the goal the user wants to achieve with the help of your product.

Having a complete and detailed user story will reduce the number of feature creeps that might pop in during design and development.

Job Story

Using a job story is another way you can use to present your idea. Job stories describe both the main and sub-features of your product. Job stories can be broken down into situations, motivation, and expected outcomes.

During the process of you coming up with your job story or stories you need to create them based on priorities. The jobs with the most impact come first and those with very little impact go last.

Sketching

Whether you have a concrete idea or not sketching will give you a visual point of reference. Sketching is what many consider a rough draft. Often done by hand sketching gives designers the opportunity to broaden their thinking.

You can have everything from low fidelity sketches to cutouts of the product to have a feel for what it might be.

Wireframing

Wireframing as part of the product design process
Wireframing as part of the product design process

A wireframe is a guide that can be used to represent both the structure and flow of the product. Wireframes give you a hierarchy of the elements involved. Wireframes can be represented in the form of low fidelity sketches to high fidelity sketches that are designed using UI design tools like Adobe XD.

The wireframes for the final product can be used as a mockup and skeletons of the product. All wireframes are supposed to be simple to only show the layout and flow of the product’s processes. However, when testing the product avoid using the wireframes you have created regardless of their fidelity.

Information Architecture

Formulating ideas will have you working on overdrive. This can see you push your limits. To avoid this you need to lay out your product structure. Doing this will have you focused on what you need rather than what you want.

For digital products like websites, apps, or any other product you can create an information architecture. This gives you and your users an understanding of what goes where and why. During the creation of these structures, you will need to create navigation, categorizations, and hierarchies.

You can opt for a card sorting approach to create your structures. For this you need the help of your users, each feature will be sorted in its category by your users. At the end of this exercise, you will have determined how your users interpret and process the product.

You can conduct a card sorting session both in person and virtually. If you opt for virtually you can always use the available card-sorting tools on the internet.

Validation

Brainstorming ideas should not take too much of your time. Once you get three or five ideas, work on this, trying to get the one that works best. However, this does not mean dismissing all the other ideas. Make sure you validate each idea to see why it works and why it does not.

During this stage, you might find yourself borrowing features from all the ideas you have to build the final product. When conducting your evaluations you should do design sprints.

Design Sprints

Design sprints are quickly whipped up design frameworks to set up to build the frameworks. These sprints last anywhere between three to five days. You can use these sprints to build low fidelity prototypes to validate or invalidate your ideas. To do this you should present the prototypes to the users to confirm if the product you have in mind solves their problem.

Design sprints will have you set up when it comes to designing the final product. This is because all you will have to do is build on an idea that you have a direction for. When designing these prototypes do not get hung up on the first solution you come up with. Allow yourself to experiment with other ideas.

Designing

The design stage is reached once you have a good and proper understanding of your product and its impact. If you are not sure of the right approach to the problem you are solving you should go back to the research and ideation stage.

Design of the product is the first phase of actualizing what the end product will be. To do these there are a couple of steps or phases you have to go through. One of the most important steps is prototyping.

Prototype

Rough draft paper prototype
Rough draft paper prototype

Prototyping or creating a prototype is the process of building an experimental model of your product to allow for testing before creating the final solution. Most prototypes often start small and rough. During iterations, the prototype will end up as an advanced version of what it started out as.

Once you have completed all iterations you can then hand over the final prototype to the development team. Regardless of the prototypes’ fidelity, you need to make sure that all prototype builds are efficient. To do this you can adopt the rapid prototyping process. This is done in three stages:

Creating the prototype

This is the process of creating sample solutions that will be reviewed and tested.

Reviewing the prototype

Reviewing prototypes are part of the process of testing and validating the viability of solving the problem using a particular solution.

Refining the prototype

This is based on the feedback you will have received during the review of the prototype. After this, you will have to start the cycle again on all your refined prototypes. Refining the prototype also gives you projections on what you still have to get done as far as achieving your desired product goal.

Each stage of this cycle will involve different qualities of the prototype. Most people will start from paper prototypes to interactive prototypes that function as the final product. The less complex your prototypes are the less work you put into building them.

Paper Prototyping

Paper prototyping is the use of paper to create prototypes. All paper prototypes are low fidelity and are easy to make. It is considered similar to sketching but with more details and better interactivity. When creating your prototypes using paper you have the opportunity to rapidly experiment with the product altering it at different stages.

Paper prototypes are also easy and less intimidating for users to use without the fear that they are going to break something.

Digital Prototyping

Digital prototyping is the use of software and digital tools to create your prototype. This approach is especially popular in creating websites and apps. Most digital prototypes are high fidelity and can easily be transferred into the final product.

Digital tools that are most popular when it comes to creating digital prototypes include Adobe XD and Figma. These tools require a bit of expertise to use but they do not have a big learning curve. When creating digital prototypes remember”

Do Not Use Dummy Text

Using real content allows you to get a better feel for the final product. Using placeholder text is viable during the early stages of prototyping, however, with every advanced prototype you should consider using actual text and images.

Use Up To Date Tools

When using digital tools to create your prototype ensure your tools are up to date. This allows you to have access to up to date features on these tools.

Design Handoff

Design data and specs
Design data and specs

Once you are done with designing the prototypes it is time to create a final design that is ready for production. Handing off your final design to the production team is called design handoff. It is at this stage that the designer explains their thinking process when it comes to the design.

The designer should also go into every detail and layer of the design. This makes sure that the designer and the developer are on the same page from the get-go. The designer should also hand off the design specs that are outlined in a document. These specs include colours, dimensions, fonts, and any other information that involves the flow, functionality, and overall behaviour of the product.

Testing And Validation

Now that design and development are underway or complete it is time to prepare for testing and final validation of the product. Testing and validation are key in making sure that the product is working as it should.

This is the phase where the product is broken down and the data and information collected during the research phase are compared to what the final product is. You can take different approaches to test your product, these can vary from using your team or having users test it.

Here are some of the most popular testing and validation methods.

Dogfooding

This is the process of using your team to test out the product and prove its viability. It is also known as in-house testing. One of the pitfalls of this method is bias, having the same people who have built the product test it out might have some bias.

Usability Testing

Usability testing is the use of a group of users to validate whether the product works as built. This testing should be done by giving the users the product and having them use it without your involvement. During this testing process, you will collect both qualitative and quantitative.

To do this efficiently you need to gather both verbal and non-verbal feedback from the user. This feedback can be used to improve the product before it goes to market.

When performing your usability test, get objective users while being placed in a testing environment to get better results. Remember to record all sessions to have a well-documented reference point if you have to improve or remove a feature.

You can also take a less formal approach when conducting usability tests. This approach is known as a guerilla approach. This is when you conduct your testing with random people by offering them incentives.

Diary Testing

This approach involves observation of the interaction between users and your product over a long period of time. During this testing period, all users are provided with diaries to record their interactions with your product.

To guide your users you need to have a set of open-ended questions for them to answer when recording their pieces of information. These questions are centred around the five Ws and H. Using the diary testing method you will get organic insights into the users’ behaviour and approach. This gives you context to how they are using your solution to solve their problem.

If and when you opt for the diary testing approach there are a couple of things that you should remember. These are:

  • Always remind your users to diligently log in all their interactions with your product.
  • If you are using digital diaries you can have the option for your users to capture images.
  • Make sure the instructions on the diaries are detailed and specific.

A/B Testing

A.B testing is important especially when it comes to choosing between two ideas. Both of which are viable. This testing method focuses on presenting two ideas to a group of testers and having them choose between the two which one works best for them.

Launching

Now that you have gone through the whole product development process you are ready to go into the market. However, you need to remember that this does not mark the end of the product’s development. Once on the market, you will continually receive feedback that will have you working to improve the product.

Before you launch there are a couple of things you need to tick off your to-do list. These are:

Analysis

Metric analysis of products before and after launch
Metric analysis of products before and after launch

Having a grasp of how users are responding to your product and how they are using it might not be information you have at hand before launching. This is where metrics analysis comes in.  This analysis allows you to gauge how users are interacting with your product.

The data gathered through metrics analysis will give you more insight into your users and what you need to improve on your product. While metrics analysis is key in gauging user responses, you should not just rely on these numbers. You should also factor in results from testing.

Feedback

The best way to know if your product is a git or a miss is by receiving feedback from the end-users. This feedback can be obtained through online surveys, comments, or even one-on-one feedback. Make sure to make your users feel comfortable to give your honest feedback.

Conclusion

When it comes to product design and development the key principle is to always remember the user, Designing for the user allows you to come up with great solutions that solve real and existing problems. To build a great product you need to properly define your users, the problem, and the solution.

If you rush into building a solution without doing your due diligence then you risk losses in terms of money spent and time wasted. When build both digital and physical products remember that a good product is heavily reliant on:

  • Good communication
  • It is a never-ending process
  • Product design will never be a linear process
  • All processes should fit the product and the project.
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