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Product Design: 
a comprehensive guide

Mariel Lettier

Product design seems like an extremely vague term. What do we mean by “product”? What exactly are we designing? And what does design really entail? In this article, we hope to answer these questions as clearly as possible, while also focusing on why product design matters and how product design works.

What is Product Design?

Let’s start by breaking this term apart. Most of the time, when we see the word product, we think of a material object. However, this definition has broadened significantly over time and now also applies to digital products, such as websites and mobile apps. On the other hand, when we think of the word design” we tend to associate it with aesthetics. But there is a lot more to design than just how things look or feel like. Design is also about solving problems and about how things work.

So, what is product design? Well, to give you some more context to what we’ve mentioned above, product design is about finding the right opportunity to solve an existing problem in the market, clearly defining and solving that problem, and then validating that solution with real users. The definition above may sound simple enough, but there are a lot of skills and areas that need to be covered to successfully create a product. These can include UX and UI design, graphic design, animation design, user research, data analysis, prototyping, and business strategy.

Now that we have a clearer view of what product design is, we’d like to cover what it entails. However, before we get to the product design cycle, let’s focus on why product design matters.

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Why does product design matter?

In a previous article, we’ve covered the relevance of design, particularly for apps. Well, the same concept applies to why product design matters in general. The design of a product includes what users see and how they interact with a product. Therefore, product design can make or break your product, both regarding user acquisition and user retention.

Good product design means that what you create is based on clear objectives, that you have gathered and taken into account data regarding the target audience and potential competitors, and have also gone over multiple possibilities to accomplish the best possible result. All of this results in a product that is more appealing to potential users and sets you apart from the competition. It also makes the product user-friendly and broadens your target audience.

How to approach Product Design: Design Thinking

Before we get into the product design cycle, let’s get some context. The design process most often revolves around the concept of Design Thinking. Design Thinking originated in the 1950s and grew exponentially over the following decades. As defined by Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO: “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.

When it comes to Design Thinking, there are three main questions to ask yourself when considering a product and its features:

  1. What is the problem being solved?
  2. Who are the ones that have this problem?
  3. What do we want to achieve?

Typically, design thinking comprises five main phases:

  1. Empathizing: researching the users’ needs.
  2. Defining: stating those needs and problems.
  3. Ideating: coming up with ideas to fulfill those needs or solve those problems.
  4. Prototyping: creating a potential solution.
  5. Testing: trying those solutions out.

Although our product design cycle is based on this, both the number and order steps might change a bit, which is why we’ll go over what product design roughly looks like for us below. If you want to read more on the benefits of design thinking, you can take a look at this article.

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Product Design Cycle: how does Product Design work?

There are six main steps in our product design cycle. We’ll go over each of them in detail below.

Vision, goals and strategy

Before you start designing your product, you’ll need to work on what your vision and goals for it are. This means asking yourself what the problem you are trying to solve is and why you are trying to solve it.

This step is incredibly important so that those involved in the project can understand what they are working towards. Your vision will illustrate the essence of the product, giving your team the information and tools they need to successfully create it.

In this step, you should also consider your product design strategy or product journey. This strategy is composed of both your vision and your goals for the product. The question you are answering when it comes to strategy is “how are you solving the problem?” There are two things you should do to carry out this step:

Define your value proposition

Your value proposition includes what the product is for, who the product is for, and when and where it will be used. Both the development team and the stakeholders should be involved in defining the value proposition so that everyone agrees on what the product will be.

Define your success criteria

You should know what you wish to achieve with the product you are designing from the get-go. Success criteria can take on many forms depending on the specific project. For example, it could be the number of sales, the conversion rate, the number of downloads for a mobile app or the number of visitors for a website.

Product and User Research

The next step of the product design cycle is research. Research might seem time-consuming, but it actually saves you time in the long run. Proper research means fewer changes will be made to your product later on, which will save you both time and money.

There are two main types of research carried out in this step: research on potential users and on the product itself. We’ll take a look at both of these below, as well as at what you will be doing with the data you gather.

User Research

Knowing your users is essential to make sure you are designing a product that adjusts to their expectations and needs, leading to a better user experience.

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There are various ways to carry out user research. You can have interviews with potential users, create online surveys or have a contextual inquiry. When it comes to interviews, you should try to conduct them in person, plan your questions carefully and make sure the interviewer is experienced. In the case of online surveys, you will probably be able to gather intel from a larger number of potential users and at a lower cost. You should try to keep online surveys short and ask open-ended questions. Finally, contextual inquiries are based on observation. Through this method, you ask potential users questions and observe their behavior as they interact with a particular product.

Product or Market Research

In addition to thinking about your user, you should also have your product and the general market in mind. Chances are, there are similar products in the market, which means you should take a look at what your competitors are (and aren’t) doing. This gives you the chance to gain a competitive advantage over the existing products by, for example, coming up with an extra feature your potential users need or want.

Keep in mind that your competitors can be direct or indirect. Direct competitors are those whose product’s value proposition is identical or very similar to yours. Indirect competitors don’t offer entirely the same value proposition but do have the same target audience.

Data Analysis

Once you have gathered all the data from your user and product research, it is time to analyze it. You can interpret the data you have collected and make various assumptions based on it. With this data, you can create personas that represent key segments of your target audience and build an empathy map to determine what the product team knows about the user. You will use this information to guide your brainstorming and design process.

Brainstorming

During this step, team members brainstorm potential ideas to fulfill the goals of the project based on all of the information gathered above. There are various tools that can help you in this step. We’ll take a look at some of these below.

User Stories

A user story is a description of something specific the user wishes to accomplish by using your product. Creating user stories helps you prevent adding more features than necessary. Typically, a user story will have the following structure:

As a (description of user) I to (action/feature) so that (outcome/benefit).

User Journey Maps

User journey maps help you capture the experience of a user while interacting with a product. It’s usually a representation of a series of steps to achieve a specific goal. User journey maps help the product design team understand the user’s narrative.

Storyboards

This is a visual way to represent a user’s story. In this context, storyboards are usually based on specific scenarios that describe how the product fits into the daily life of a user. Storyboards should have a structured story and a clear outcome.

Sketching

Sketching is a very useful way to visualize ideas and it allows you to look at various design solutions before making any decisions.

Wireframing

A wireframe is a two-dimensional outline of your project and covers everything from structure and layout to user flow and intended behaviors. Wireframes can take the form of sketches or digital illustrations. Creating a wireframe helps you keep the product user-oriented and clarify your app’s features.

Specification and Planning

After you have gone through the brainstorming phase and decided on the option that best fits your goals and the users’ needs, it’s time to establish particular requirements and plan the design stage.

You may also go through a design sprint before the actual design and prototyping to validate the idea you have chosen or even a handful of different ideas. This is similar to creating a minimum viable product (MVP) to validate your initial design and see if the product can solve the user’s problem.

Designing and Prototyping

You have a clear idea of the kind of product you want to build, it’s now time to create it. You will use all of the knowledge you have gained plus the information from the specification to create a brief outline of how the product will work and look like. Once you are finished with the design, it’s time to make a prototype. There are various design and prototyping tools you can use such as Figma or InVision, but you can also make your prototypes on paper if you prefer.

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When it comes to prototyping, it usually entails three stages:

Prototyping

This means creating an experimental model that helps you test your solution before building the “final” version. You should keep your first prototype small and add or modify features as you make progress.

Reviewing

It’s important to get feedback from both stakeholders and users so you can have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t.

Refining

Once you get feedback from the reviewing stage, you can clarify what changes may need to be made. You will then apply these to your next prototype and start this process over until no more refining is needed.

Once you reach the ideal prototype, your design will be ready for production and given to the development team for coding. Here you should take care to give clear specifications on how everything should look and work.

Testing and validating

Once your product has been developed, there is one final step before launching it to the market: testing and validating. Testing helps your team make sure the product works as intended. As you carry out the testing, you can validate each aspect of your product that is functioning properly and to which users respond favorably.

Testing is usually done internally and externally, as both the product team and potential users should test the product. The main type of testing done at this test is called usability testing. This type of testing allows users to provide feedback that you can then use to identify any usability issues, collect qualitative data and determine the overall satisfaction with the product. There are various types of usability testings:

  • Dogfooding: Here, the product is tested in-house.
  • Moderated Usability Testing: In this case, a real person moderates the test with real users, whether remotely or in person.
  • Unmoderated Usability Testing: Here, the user receives no guidance.
  • Guerrilla Testing: In this case, users are randomly selected in public places.

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Conclusion

Many people don’t even think about all that has to be done before a product reaches their hands, let alone all that comes before (or after) it is actually developed. We hope this guide has given you a clear idea of what product design is, why product design matters and how the product design cycle works.

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