•Published: Oct 11, 2021
Product design is the backbone of the tech we use every day — our computers, our phones, and our apps. It’s everything that happens behind the scenes to ensure products provide the most value to their users.
It's a process that helps you confirm you’re solving a real problem in the market and helps you test your product ideas before launching them officially. Bob Greenberg, chairman and CEO at R/GA, says, “Product design is all about one thing: creative problem-solving to get the story out.” Without it, you can’t find product-market fit, and you’ll risk investing money in a failing solution.
Product Design vs. UX Design: What’s the Difference?
Even though they have similarities, many people confuse product design with UX design, which is not the same thing:
Product design focuses on the big picture of your upcoming solution by taking into account both the needs of the user and business. It answers the following questions:
- How does this solution align with our company vision and long-term goals?
- Are we solving a big enough problem in the market with this product?
- How much money will we have to invest in building out this solution?
In contrast, UX design only focuses on one aspect of product design: how users experience the product and what you can do to improve their satisfaction. The key questions it answers are:
- What features will improve the product experience?
- How can we reduce friction for the user?
- How can we get to the user’s “aha” moment as quickly as possible?
The 4 Steps of Product Design
The product design process has four steps: understanding your target user’s needs, generating product ideas, building a prototyping, and testing. Here’s what each stage consists of:
First: Understand Your Target User’s Needs and Challenges
As Dieter Rams, a German industrial designer, once said: “You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people.” Product design starts by having a clear understanding of the needs and expectations of your target audience. Otherwise, you’re basing your whole product design strategy on just assumptions. You can use interviews, surveys, and research to understand your target audience:
The simplest way to understand your users’ needs is to listen to them. Create a list of open-ended questions that focus on their challenges and what they're trying to achieve with your product.
Another tactic is to send a survey to a target group of potential users on their product expectations. You can offer incentives to get users to sign up for your survey, such as free gated content.
Run market research
You won’t likely be the only company in the market going after the same target audience. So observe your competitors: how are they solving the challenges of your market? What are users saying about their product?
Next, define the problem your target user is experiencing. You can create a problem statement that describes the user’s challenges from their own perspective, such as the example below:
“As a freelance writer, proofreading is a big part of what I do to make sure I’m creating quality content. However, it’s also a process that takes up a lot of my time and prevents me from writing as many articles as I want since I’m under strict deadlines.”
Second: Generate Product Ideas
After understanding your target user and defining a problem, start coming up with product ideas that could solve their challenges. Here are different techniques you can use to generate product ideas in the design process:
Mind Map Possible Products
Once you identify a user’s problem, you can use the mind mapping framework to brainstorm potential products that solve their problem. A product design mind map consists of a single problem in the center of the map, from which product ideas branch off along with the features needed to make it work.
Here are the different steps you can follow to get started with mind mapping:
- Write down your user’s problem statement in the middle of a page.
- Jot down potential product ideas that could solve the problem as individual branches in the mind map.
- For each branch, write down the features each idea would need in order to work.
- Review the mind map and all its different product idea branches with your team.
Create a Storyboard to Craft a Narrative
Storyboarding consists of creating a visual story around the challenges your buyer persona is experiencing. It gives you a better understanding of each step your buyer takes in their journey, what features will help solve their challenges, and how they’ll be using your product.
Here are the steps you can follow to create your storyboard:
- Introduce your target user and the challenge they’re facing.
- Skip to the end and write down how you envision the user solving their problem.
- Work backward and identify all the steps your target user took to get to the ending.
The goal behind working backward is to define ideas on the type of product the customer used to reach their desired outcome. Don’t be afraid to create multiple storyboards with different product ideas to determine which one is the best.
Challenge Your Existing Assumptions
A creative brainstorming technique is to question your existing assumptions of what the ideal product should look like and how it should function. Doing so can provide you with valuable insights.
According to Dan Norman, director of The Design Lab at the University of California: “I keep encountering people who jump to solutions and who fail to question assumptions — engineers, business people, and yes, designers . . . . No creativity, no imagination, no questioning. That's not what design thinking is about.”
An excellent example of challenging assumptions is the background story of Facebook. In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg’s assumption was that students in his university would never share their personal information online.
That assumption turned out to be false once Zuckerberg and his friends tested this theory in a real-life scenario.
Third: Build a Prototype
Once you find a product idea that fits the challenge you’re trying to solve, it’s time to build the prototype. It translates your idea into a functional beta product, which you can later test with your audience.
Building a prototype is divided into two steps: a low-fidelity prototype and a high-fidelity prototype. Here’s what each consists of:
The first step of prototyping is to build a low-fidelity prototype, which only showcases the visual design of your product and its basic content. You can create your low-fidelity prototype in the form of a clickable wireframe or a paper prototype.
The biggest benefit of low-fidelity prototypes is they are inexpensive and easy to create, even without advanced design skills. They also encourage collaboration since they require the input of different team members.
Your low-fidelity prototype serves as the foundation for your beta product. During this time, feel free to make as many changes as you need to the prototype layout until you get the approval of stakeholders to move on.
Once you’ve created your low-fidelity prototype and know how the final product will look, it’s time to build the high-fidelity version. High-fidelity prototypes aim to replicate all of the functionality of the product, which you’ll then be testing with users.
You have various options when it comes to building your high-fidelity prototype. You can use digital tools that host your prototype in the browser, or you can code the prototype yourself.
That said, building a high-fidelity prototype will cost much more than creating a low-fidelity one. So make sure to get all the details clear during the low-fidelity stage.
Fourth: Test the Prototype
After building your prototype, it’s time to launch it and have users test it to see if it does a good job of solving their problems.
Once a user has tested your prototype, you can follow up with them to learn what they liked and would improve. You can use the same methods you used to learn about their initial problems, such as interviews and surveys.
Testing is the perfect opportunity to collect user feedback instantly. Even if they have complaints, you can use this negative feedback to go back to your product and make improvements, so it’s completely ready before the official launch.
Here’s what Caitlin Goodale, senior product designer at language-learning app Memrise, has to say about collecting user feedback: “Our main objective is always to get real user’s eyes on the product — getting an early read on how the design is working, what they understand, and what they don’t. Things that might be clear to us on the product team are often incomprehensible to users!”
Common Tools Used During Product Design
The proper use of technology can facilitate the product design process. Some of the tools you can use to maximize the product design process include:
User Research and Feedback Tools
Doing user research and collecting your target audience's feedback will be a big part of product design. You can use many tools to collect user feedback to understand your target audience's needs better, such as Typeform, Apptentive, and UserReport.
Project Management Apps
Product design requires the collaboration of different departments, such as sales, UX designers, and stakeholders, each with their own tasks. The following tools allow you to better manage the various tasks involved in the product design process: Asana, ClickUp, and Trello.
You can use technology that allows you to create product prototypes much more quickly for beta users. The best tools we recommend to build prototypes from scratch include Proto.io, Sketch, and InVision.
Product Design Is Key to Launching an Effective Solution
Product design is the backbone of software success. So next time you plan on launching a new product, make sure to go through a practical product design process and use the best tools possible to maximize your chances of your new product succeeding in the market.