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The product design definition has changed considerably over the past two decades. While it does conjure up the image of a hand-craftsman working on a physical, material item, this is far from the truth today, in the information age. Due to the ever-evolving definition, those outside the loop could find themselves asking “what is product design?”, and we’re here to answer that. Nowadays, product design can refer to digital products and does normally concern the inception, creation, and launch of either an app or website in broad terms. It’s important for not only designers, but developers, managers, and even users to grasp what goes into making a product.
Product design and development as a whole encompasses two major disciplines of designing as a whole, those being, the ever-present design thinking process, which overlooks the entirety of design as well as the product design process, a far more detailed undertaking, which breaks down the process into 7 phases. In this article, we’re breaking both these steps of product design, as well as tools and techniques designers can use to streamline their own processes.
Product Design: The Design Thinking Process
Seeing as the design thinking process is incorporated seamlessly into the product design process, it’s worth discussing what this entails, to get a deeper view into product design as a whole. It must be said that the design thinking process itself is far more abstract than the product design process itself, which we’ll delve into deeper, later in this piece.
The first stage of the design thinking process is “empathize”, which entails a designer immersing themselves in the problem which they aim to solve, in order to gain insight from all angles of the issue. In essence, this is the stage that puts the ‘human’ in human interaction, where designers can place themselves in the shoes of those facing the issue. It’s also a crucial step to allow designers to cleanse their own biases when facing a problem, and understand it with a ‘clean slate’ mentality.
This stage builds off the previous, where designers take the knowledge and perspective they’ve collated regarding the issue, and frame a problem statement, which should be human-centered in nature. This is also where a designer and their team should be asking “how?” more than anywhere else, as in, how should we approach this issue? Or, how should we approach the problem?
This is very much the pivot point of the design process when product designers would transition from gathering and collating information, to physically carrying out interaction design processes, and everything they encompass. This is the stage where product design ideas begin coming together, and concepts and features begin layering over one another. Generally a free space for all designers on a project to throw out their ideas, worst or best, to see what sticks, and what doesn’t.
The prototyping phase is when the product designer and their team begin creating low-fidelity designs and concepts to see how the product could shape up. The solutions dreamt up and prototyped in this phase are all deliberated over, examined, improved, re-implemented, or simply dropped. Here, the design team will be intimately familiar with the primary challenges and constraints of solving the design problem and attempt to overcome those hurdles as well.
The final stage of the design process, for product designers, is hardly ever the final stage in practice. Testing involves rigorously examining the solutions dreamt up in prior phases, to see how the product can be improved even further. While this has been listed as a ‘process’, it’s indeed far more similar to a loop, with product designers returning to earlier stages, even multiple times, to create a product with finesse and polish.
Product Design Process
Now, we come to the product design process itself. As mentioned earlier, the design thinking process is somewhat abstract in nature, and outlines the general process of creating a product from inception, to completion. However, the product design process is far more complex and specific, so we’ll be breaking down the most important parts of the process, as well as giving suggestions for designers to implement in their respective processes.
1. Pre-Design Process
Naturally, the first step of the product design process takes place before any product design has even taken place. This is because establishing a goal, or target for any given project is a necessary step, which gives a structural backbone to all the design developments which take place over the coming weeks, months, or even years. First up, establishing a product strategy, which defines the vision of what problems the product will end up solving, and will have to be addressed by the product design process as a whole. In addition to the vision, challenges are collated and defined by identifying possible pitfalls, and struggles that will have to be overcome by the product design team. All told, the product strategy poses the question ‘where must we go, and how do we get there?’
Next, creating a value proposition map is advisable for any product design process. This is focused far more intrinsically on the product and its relation to the audience, as opposed to the product strategy, which explores this relationship with the team. In the value proposition map, questions such as “who is this product for?” “When will this product be used?” are asked and answers, for the team to more effectively place themselves in the shoes of the users.
2. Product Research
Here, in the second stage, the actual process of product design comes into fruition. Here, the designers completely immerse themselves into the problem, in order to gain further, detailed insight into its nature, its users, and begin to formulate how to solve it as well. It’s important to remember that good research done early, will save a lot of time and headache later on in the design process, so it’s important to not rush this step, and invest more time in it than what you think is required.
User research is one of the most crucial pillars of the product design process, since the users are those for whom the product is being created, tailoring to their needs is essentially the goal of product design itself. This entails anything which involves communicating directly with those facing the issue which the product is attempting to solve. This could be through user interviews, ie. directly having a face-to-face conversation with a user or an online survey, wherein a large volume of users are quizzed. Contextual inquiry is also popular, wherein a designer essentially ‘shadows’ a user in their everyday life, making observations in a more natural environment.
The product research phase also encompasses competitive analysis, assuming that the product has no competitors in the first place. This involves a deep dive into the competitors’ product, seeing how it could be improved on, or differentiated from. Certainly, this adds another dimension to the product design process as a whole.
3. User Analysis
After the user research stage, designers are left with vast amounts of raw data, which must be transformed into legitimate useful insight, to propel the design process. If user research was data collection, then user analysis is data synthesis. Here, designers create models based on their research, to streamline the process of creating the product.
Firstly, user personas or UX personas are created. These are essentially one or more fictitious characters that are created, to serve as an analogous for the user. They highlight the users’ needs, wants, likes, dislikes, and more crucial details the designers may choose to incorporate. This can serve as a reference for the designers since instead of having to rifle through the vast amount of data collected in the previous stage, designers can simply refer to the persona to answer questions that may be raised during the product design process.
Also in this stage comes the empathy map, an essential product design tool. The empathy map, as the name suggests, helps the designers view the issue from the perspective of the user. Questions such as “why does the user require this product?” will be addressed in this map. In essence, the empathy map describes what the user feels, does, thinks, and says.
The fourth stage of the product design process is ideation. This is when designers collate all ideas which have presented themselves for the project. The inception of a product’s “creative spark” stems from this stage, and ideas are exchanged, debated, and deliberated over.
Creating scenarios and storyboards is an effective tool to use in this stage, where the designers can envision how the product will integrate into the life of a user, making it easier to effectively target and address their needs, as and when they need them. This plays into the narrative aspect of product design, which good designers can use to their advantage. Also effective is user journey mapping, wherein the basic actions a user will complete, in order to achieve a task, are laid out by the designers in a very broad sense. Once again, this helps establish a narrative for the product, letting those working on designing the product begin visualizing the app.
All these efforts culminate in the creation of information architecture. This is a flowchart-like plan of how the entirety of a product will work, with regards to navigation. Here, pages and screens are interlinked, creating a cohesive roadmap, with a broader view, of how an app will be laid out as a whole. Similar to conventional architecture, designers will logically create a flow of how the space occupied by the product will flow.
Sketching and wireframing would be the next step in the ideation phase of the product design process. Individual screens or pages are created, in a low fidelity manner, to visualize what exactly the final product will look like, troubleshooting also takes place here, with designers going back to the research phase in order to address lingering issues that may have presented themselves. These are essential to ensure that these problems don’t end up making it into the final product, supplementing the testing process, which we’ll come to later. If information architecture is planning a product on the macro level, low-fi wireframes show the more focused micro level of how a product will look, feel, and most importantly, function.
Following the ideation phase comes what most people would suggest is the most important phase, the design itself. This begins with prototyping, where functional models of the product are created, to see how all the elements work in tandem with one another. A prototype has a starting point, normally the home screen/page, wherein it is expanded on to eventually encompass the entirety of a product. This serves as a sort-of skeleton, upon which designers can place ideas, visuals, or more models, at this point, this is the most complete vision of the product as is available. This naturally also initiates a “prototyping loop”, which involves three steps:
Prototypes are when high-fidelity designs are created, and appear to increasingly resemble how the final product will look. The designers then thoroughly comb through the prototypes to find any issues, or better, areas of improvement to make the product even better-rounded. The review phase sees the users and stakeholders returning to test the prototype and give feedback to designers on where changes and improvements can be made. Finally, in the refinement stage where iteration after iteration of designs is created, in an attempt to reach perfection, or rather something resembling it.
Lastly, right at the tail end of the design stage, comes a handoff. Here, when designers are satisfied with the makeup of a product, they hand it over to the developer for coding, or the literal “manufacturing” of a product in a sense. In order to do this, designers give developers a ‘design specification’, essentially a document that highlights everything from the information architecture, to the smallest color swap, so that developers can completely internalize and craft the product to even the designers' most specific expectation.
7. Testing & Validation
The penultimate phase of the product design process is testing and validation. This begins with the creatively titled ‘dogfooding’ process, in which the team which helped design the product themselves test its close-to-final form. Here, the team decided how close to their vision the product turned out. Issues are also recognized and designed around immediately, in an attempt for the product to be in as much of a state of polish as possible.
However, it’s also important that the project is viewed from outside the view of a designer's eye, which is when usability testing is conducted by the designers, on the real end-users of the app. A product design example of where this applies is, where the app is being designed by young designers, to solve an issue faced by the elderly, the differential in context, particularly in regards to technology, could not be picked up accurately by the designers, hence the need for usability testing. Jakob Nielsen, the father of UX design states that 85% of usability issues can be solved with just 5 users testing the product, and who are we to argue. After collating and addressing all the internal and external feedback, the product is finally put out to the world, and launched in its (for the time being) final state, for users to enjoy, and address the problem which we’d originally highlighted in the problem statement.
8. Post-Design Process
The seventh, and final part of the product design process comes after the product has launched. So we’re done, right? Think again. This may confuse those less familiar with the field, but the design is a continuous process, which existed before the product was launched, and will continue to carry on afterward. Designers will continue to improve and update the app, which is sure to get plenty of feedback, both directly and indirectly. Firstly, designers can now use metrics, with a large volume of users using the product, and providing data for the same. These can be used to make the design even more friendly, and the user experience more functional and flowing.
Additionally, feedback can be given directly from users, which can be done in myriad ways, such as ratings and comments on the app store, or even asking directly through the product whether or not users would help improve it through a survey perhaps. Regardless, this creates another cycle in the design process, of improvement, refinement, and implementation.
As addressed earlier, the definition of product design has evolved countless times over the years, and now, in the information age, it seems inextricably linked with the UI/UX design process. One of the biggest misunderstandings in the product design process is that it’s solely linear in nature, this is simply not true. The process is far more cyclical, with smaller cycles taking up the bulk of the time, we’ve explored the feedback loop in this piece, but there are in fact far more microcosms of design thinking which take place as well. While product designers the world over will either have their own set-in-stone process for creating a product, from inception to launch or, they’re looking for ways to optimize their process and make it even better. Whichever boat you’re in, incorporate some of the elements highlighted in this blog, along with maintaining good foundational UX design principles, and you’re sure to make a difference in the product design process for the better.
Author: Bony John, Sr. UX UI Designer, Onething
Originally published at https://www.onething.design on February 16, 2021.