What is the product design process?

With many technology companies reaching unicorn status more and more attention is being drawn to them. Likewise, there’s an increase in curiosity regarding the products they produce and the processes that create them. As a product designer working on enterprise digital products I’ll share some insight and perspectives on how products are launched, an overview of the product design process including tips, tools and helpful resources if you’re curious for more.  

Setting context on the product design process

Before I can dive into things it’s good to provide context on where this all came from, what companies typically call products and how teams manage projects. From there I’ll cover a designer’s perspective of the product design process.

Product design works towards identifying opportunities, clearly defining problems and solutions for solving them. It evolved out of the industrial age when things went from hand craftsmanship to mass production. At that time industrial designers were hired to help make physical products. 

Things like radios, sewing machines, cars, furniture, even macaroni and cheese makers were all made by industrial designers. People such as Dieter Rams paved the way for most and are an inspiration for many designers today. Eventually products were unbound from the material plane and a new designer was born.

If the term product is confusing from a digital perspective things like an email newsletter, backend admin interface, software as a service platform, browser extension or even an ecommerce shop could be a product. 

An email newsletter? Really, a product? 

Actually, yes. There might be a number of reasons why a company would consider this a product. That list of recipients has significant benefits for businesses therefore a lot of times companies ensure the content they provide is highly valuable. It quite literally could be the only actual product a company offers, i.e. The Morning Brew.

Clearly product design can have a serious impact. Cross-collaborative teams must be efficient at what they do. In order to arrive at such efficiency they usually have a process and rely on frameworks or structured approaches to get there. All companies are going to be different, the product design process is a small portion of product planning and development as a whole. 

Regardless of what that framework is, every project should have one that draws a clear path towards validation or invalidation of an idea. Typically a company will have some sort of process in place regarding how it structures it’s product planning. Based on my experiences whatever the process is there’s typically:

  • Brainstorming
  • Market research
  • Feature planning
  • Design / Prototyping
  • Development
  • Quality Assurance / Control
  • Beta Release / Testing
  • Release Planning
  • Launch

Those areas are what make up the lifecycle of a product development process. With that basic framework projects are put together, cross-collaborative teams are built and designers like myself can contribute via our own product design process.

A designers view of the product design process

Creating a new product is no easy feat. Nor is designing a solution that meets so many requirements. Design plays a big role in building a product. Not only are designers responsible for all the subtle nuances of their responsibilities. They need to advocate for their users, ensuring needs are met while aligning their thoughts with the business goals. 

A human-centric approach to creating products that draws from a set of tools and methodologies while working in conjunction with both the business and it’s end users to create the requirements for a successful product is design thinking. 

Design thinking puts everyone on the same page and guides teams towards the final destination. Through design thinking teams will get a better understanding of the overall impact a project can have. 

Thought provoking questions that dive into the reasons that this project might have commenced, who it will be for, when and where they might need it or what the product might be are all examples of questions I ask myself. 

It is then that I embark on a highly collaborative, non-linear and flexible process with a lot of internal parts that draw from a bucket of deliverables and methods. The four phase product design process I follow is:

  • Learn
  • Build
  • Measure
  • Iterate

My product design process

I can’t stress this enough but information gathering is probably the number one thing I do as a designer. Whether figuring out what to design, how my design is perceived or how my design is performing, I’m gathering information. Luckily there’s tools and methods to help.

Learn

During the Learn phase of the product design process I spend time figuring out whatever I need to know to align my ideas with everything mentioned prior. Sometimes known as discovery or the research portion of a project, Learn is a time when you use any and all techniques necessary to make sure the vision and strategy is clear, a problem is defined, user group(s) are targeted, scope is outlined, requirements and a path forward are established. 

It doesn’t mean that the clear path is the end result, it means that there’s a next step towards the end result. In taking the next steps there are a lot of tools and methods that can be used during this phase of the product design process. Some of the more common approaches or deliverables are:

  • Market research
  • Competitive analysis
  • User research
  • User personas
  • User interviews
  • User Surveys
  • Contextual Inquiries
  • Empathy maps
  • Journey maps
  • Scenarios & Storyboards
  • User story
  • Job story

I have worked on a project where the idea was not clear. Discovery relied heavily on design to gauge the strategy. Instinct was to perform a competitive analysis in order to set a baseline. Then collaborative brainstorming sessions led to an interactive prototype and usability tests were performed. The idea was validated, an MVP was decided upon and the project kicked off.

Even though there’s a fairly long list of things that could be done, all that was necessary was some foundational information and a tool to communicate the vision. Other projects have required on-site contextual inquiries and series of user research sessions upfront. 

It all really depends on what’s right at the time. 

Build

Building is probably everyone’s favorite part of the process. There’s certain parts like systems and interaction design that I really love as well as prototyping. But to get to those points in the product design process we’ve got to take a step back from all the things we’ve learned, synthesize our findings in our mind and begin to look at problems with a different set of goggles. We’ve got to now start to structure our thoughts and ideas into tangible artifacts.

Some of the more common approaches:

  • Sketching
  • Information architecture
  • Content planning
  • Sitemap diagrams
  • User/task flow diagrams
  • Interaction design
  • Wireframing
  • Interactive prototyping
  • Visual design compositions

Much like the project I mentioned before I haven’t always approached this exact part of the product design process the same. Sometimes I can jump right into prototyping and create artifacts from information already known in order to find out information I need to know. Other times I’ve had to pull apart existing processes and look at the flow to scrutinize what’s there. While in many cases I’ve had to start from scratch and go from the bottom up. 

Measure

As a designer something I needed to learn early on was to let go and remove myself from my work. If I was too attached to my work it became difficult to objectively accept criticism. Constructive criticism is a way to improve upon something that’s already established. We’re not creating art filled with emotion. We’re creating products to facilitate the completion of a goal.

We can gather feedback and get information from peers as a form of measurement. We can also do the same with our users.

Part of the product design process is to measure. First we have to measure our ideas and see if they’re inline with what’s expected. Without our users as we craft solutions it becomes extremely difficult to gauge if the product design is going to be successful. Some examples of usability testing methods and tools include:

  • Moderated usability testing
  • Unmoderated usability testing
  • Guerrilla testing
  • Dog-fooding

We aren’t done yet! Once the product is launched we then have to measure our solutions to see if they’re performing the way they’re supposed to. While user feedback apps are among the best and most direct ways to learn what users think, some tools can provide even deeper and more meaningful insights about products.

These tools allow teams to monitor and collect data on how real users interact. It allows teams to discover what’s resonating with users, what’s confusing them, and what aspects of the product they might not even realize are there. Having analytics embedded into your product and monitoring the data over time can teach you a lot. 

Some of the reports and analytical findings that teams look at are:

  • Heat maps
  • Session recordings
  • Conversion funnels
  • Direct user feedback tracking
  • Traffic
  • Time on page
  • CTR

Note: The NNG established a general baseline for user research and that is that 5 people are all that’s really necessary to see the majority of the patterns, pain points and problems when gathering feedback. To learn more check out this article: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/why-you-only-need-to-test-with-5-users/.

Iterate

Mounds of data serve no purpose if it is not being used in a beneficial way towards our project. The reason we measure our designs before, during and after the product design process is because digital product development is an iterative, fast-paced cycle that releases enough for users to accomplish their goals while businesses realize a return on their efforts sooner.

Whether it’s incorporating peer or stakeholder feedback from internal reviews or acting upon research findings captured during usability testing throughout the entire project some level of iteration will be going on. These are the moments we go back and make tweaks to keep refining the outcome before product launch.

Post product launch iterations could commence based on improvements or enhancements scheduled that weren’t created during the initial build. 

Quality Assurance

Quality is of the utmost importance and it should happen throughout the entire product design process. This means that even when designs are quick and dirty an attention to detail should be given. The total experience has to be considered at every step of the way. A bad experience with the product is just that … a bad experience.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in what we’re hyper focused on. Therefore taking a step back to assess things entirely can be necessary. When creating any experience are you thinking about what it might be like for a first time user? Have you made sure it’s accessible in all regards?

Some of the details often overlooked are: 

  • First time UX
  • Accessibility
  • Error states
  • Empty states
  • Copy/Tone
  • Mobile/Responsive
  • Transitions
  • Micro-interactions
  • Languages
  • Failures

Depending upon the context it may not be necessary to think about all of those things. It’s good to have them in mind or build a checklist of the items that impact your organization. Quality assurance extends beyond the product design process and continues when designs are handed off to other teams or stakeholders. Some organizations have teams devoted to checking interfaces and making sure things go smoothly while others rely on design and engineering to get it right.

Handoffs, reviews and fixes all need to be done in an efficient manner. Teams should work together to find the absolute best method that works for them and the depth of communications. It’s crucial for engineering, design and product to work together to figure out the best ways to: 

  • Annotate and communicate design’s vision
  • Handoff of visual design artifacts
  • Setup QA/UI reviews

I’ve worked in environments that required heavy documentation, whole others required none.

Tools and Helpful Resources on the product design process

Hungry for more? Great! I figured you would be. The product design process can be a fun and rewarding one. If you’re looking to sharpen your skills look no further. The following sections will touch on the basic methods of product design, popular and helpful books, learning programs and some great online communities for more information.

Methods

Product teams around the world have been working hard to build amazing products amidst all of that hard work they also work to improve their own methods. Toyota is known for its project management style, kanban. As well as their just in time ordering method sparking lean methodologies today. Heck, even Google is known for their 5 day design sprints. 

While there are a variety of improvements or different types of techniques, the tried and true ones that most people are familiar with are Waterfall, Agile and Lean.

  • Waterfall is exactly how it sounds. A waterfall method of having a series of phases lined up one after another where teams then pass off deliverables to other teams in order for them to carry the baton until the end of the race. It’s a ​​linear project management approach where requirements are gathered at the beginning and information gets handed down over time. It’s a structured methodology that’s been around for a long time. Simply because it works. Not always the best for digital product design but still works nonetheless.
  • Agile is a methodology that works to bring cross-collaborative teams together where they can work in two-week dual track sprints in order to effectively design and develop a product in a much faster and iterative way. Because agile is a non-linear process and works in such a way that improvements and enhancements are made over time new priorities and requirements are injected into the project after sprints and customer feedback sessions.
  • Lean is my personal favorite and one I even tout as my own approach to design in general. Lean is a four-phase approach. It is a cyclical approach to product design that allows a practitioner to answer the necessary questions by learning a lot often, building prototypes and measuring their effectiveness in order to deliver a solid final product.

Books

There’s probably a million different books that I could list. Product design is an interesting industry with a lot of aspects not limited to design. While this isn’t a definitive list it is a good starting point.

Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love (Silicon Valley Product Group)

Image of the book Inspired which speaks about the product design process.

Inspired covers how today’s most successful tech companies deploy products that have earned the love of billions worldwide. This book covers how to construct a vibrant and effective product design organization and begin crafting products users will love. The book covers a hefty amount of content explaining areas like assembling the right people and skill sets, discovering the right product, embracing an effective yet lightweight process, and creating a strong product culture.

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

Image of the book Hooked which speaks about the product design process.

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products answers questions relating to how companies create products people can’t put down. Diving into why certain products are more engaging than others. Author Nir Eyal combines years of research and experience into this book exposing a four-step process to get your users “hooked”.

The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition

Image of the book Design of Everyday Things which speaks about the product design process.

A classic that can be found in most designer’s libraries, The Design of Everyday Things goes into human-centered design and explains the importance of usability as much as aesthetics and that good design can be achieved simply. Through explanation of various guides and principles this book leads down on a path of cognitive psychology.

Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability

Image of the book Don't Make Me Think which speaks about the product design process.

Common sense isn’t so common they say. Hundreds if not thousands of designers have relied on the information contained within Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. A must read on the principles of intuitive navigation and information design.

Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

Image of the book Sprint which speaks about the product design process.

Need an answer fast? Look to Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days. Created by Jake Knapp and used within the walls of Google, this book is a great look at how teams can come together in a short amount of time and walk away with answers to some of the biggest problems. It can be a great way for teams of any size at all types of organizations.

Product Design Process: The manual for Digital Product Design and Product Management

Image of the book Product Design Process which speaks about the product design process.

Product Design Process: The manual for Digital Product Design and Product Management is an all encompassing guide that covers in depth the design and product management life cycles based on years of research and a multitude of methods and approaches all created to solve the same problem, how to build a product? With a plethora of information and resources this book should be a solid guide.

The Lean Product Playbook: How to Innovate with Minimum Viable Products and Rapid Customer Feedback

Image of the book The Lean Product Playbook which speaks about the product design process.

The Lean Product Playbook is the “missing manual” to the Lean Startup and is a practical guide for creating products that users love. The book will help you determine answers to the most important questions that go into creating a product as well as help you to establish an MVP or minimum viable product. It’s perfect for those looking to increase their knowledge about the product design process and helps to find an efficient approach. 

Product Design and Development, 5th Edition

Image of the book Product Design and Development which speaks about the product design process.

Product Design and Development clearly defines a detailed set of product development techniques that brings together marketing, design, and manufacturing into one process. It explains how cross-collaborative teams and communal decision making brings together different disciplinary perspectives helping to shape ideas and spark innovation.

Courses/Programs

Whether you’re just starting out or looking to enhance your skills, an online course or in life program could be a great way to boost your skills. Here are some trust sources for information on the product design process.

Flatiron School is a leading provider in online education. Their product design bootcamp teaches you in-demand UX/UI skills to launch a career in product design. Covering visual, technical, and research skills, their course teaches you the product design process to shape products and collaborate with developers, designers, and other stakeholders to communicate a product vision that serves both the end-user and the business.

https://flatironschool.com/welcome-to-flatiron-school/product-ux-ui-design/

Udemy’s mission is to change the way the world learns for the better. Their online marketplace can teach you skills spanning a gamut of topics and are taught by many leading industry experts. Their online platform provides a simple and easy interface to learn all the necessary skills and specialized skills needed for product design. Trusted by leaders of industry, Udemy’s catalog on product design helps create products that get users hooked.

https://www.udemy.com/topic/product-design/

Udacity aims to train the world’s workforce for the careers of the future. Specializing in technology and partnering with the leaders in their industry Udacity works to understand how technology is transforming lives and what that means for the future. Udacity began when two Stanford instructors offered their “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online for free. Over 160,000 students in more than 190 countries enrolled. Led by leaders at Google their product design course shed serious insight from A to Z.

https://www.udacity.com/course/product-design–ud509

Believing that education is the key that unlocks many doors and that educational material of the highest quality was only accessible to a select few the founders at edX believe that opening the classroom from some to all empowers millions to reach their full potential and be the kind of people that can make change happen in the world. Their course on the product design process focuses on the Delft Design methodology. That will help guide students through the steps and approaches used to create ideas and test them for success. 

https://www.edx.org/course/product-design-the-delft-design-approach

Communities

Even a community of one can be a massive asset. Finding your tribe and having other professionals nearby can be a challenge. Especially in these times when face-to-face contact is limited. Here are some of the best.

Designer Hangout is a dedicated, invite-only network of user experiences designers and researchers who gather to discuss trends, give advice, share stories, uncover insights, surface opportunities, and connect. Designer Hangout is great for progressing your career and accomplishing goals.

https://designerhangout.co/

Interaction Design Foundation are market leaders in online design education. Experts create their specialized content and cover the entire spectrum of UX design from beginner to advanced. Their bootcamps, classes and discussion forums are great places to learn and craft your skills while connecting with others.

https://www.interaction-design.org/community

User Experience Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for user experience researchers and experts. Dedicated discussions constantly arise around all things user experience. Stack Exchange is also an industry standard source for information gathering and peer-to-peer problem solving.

https://ux.stackexchange.com/

Conclusion

Designing products for companies large or small can be extremely rewarding especially when an organization has bought into the ideas of design thinking and all parties are operating with a shared knowledge and understanding of the product design process. It can be difficult for an organization to progress if their ideas and approaches are not aligned and all teams are working in an efficient manner.

As a designer it’s always fun to work on new products and understand how teams approach things. If you have  any ideas or insights I’d love to hear about your processes.

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