Creating a successful product is essential to your business.
The best marketing, sales, and customer support team in the world can’t save a badly-designed product.
However, if you release a product that offers a great user experience and solves your customer’s pain points, then you have a successful product on your hands.
But doing that is easier said than done, especially in today’s competitive market where relying on one good product isn’t a sound business model. You need to be able to make more products, quicker than ever before.
“In our design sprint with Sprintwell, we saved ourselves months of building what would have been the wrong solution. That’s the difference that can make you first to market or last.”Christ Moscardini, VP Engineering at Indigo Agriculture
And being able to do that means having a strong product design and development process.
It’s here that we see so much waste, with businesses spending about 30% of their time building the wrong thing in the wrong way.
Product design and development inefficiencies and bad prioritization lead to missed deadlines, decreased ROI and a product that misses the mark with your end users or customers.
In this post, we’re going to give you a complete guide to product design and development, showing you how your team can use the principles of agile to build a better product that exceeds customer expectations and provides the foundation for business growth.
Note: When it comes to product design and development, do you know your team’s speed and effectiveness? Take our free quiz to see where your company scores, and learn how you can make better products faster.
What is Product Design?
Product design is the process by which your business’ design and development teams work together to create a product that solves user problems.
These can be products found on the shelves of brick-and-mortar stores, in an ecommerce catalog, or as part of B2B or SaaS company’s services.
Product design is what cements your company’s values into something tangible — it’s the ultimate testament that the proof is in the pudding.
We want to be very clear: Product design drives business growth.
Better products are easier to sell, easier to service, and result in customer loyalty (and increased LTV).
Without an innovative and efficient product design process, your company won’t be relevant for long, even if you’ve enjoyed past success.
Product Design vs. Industrial Design
Product design has a broad definition, so we find ourselves using subcategories to help get really specific and detailed when we talk about product design processes.
One of the more common questions is, “what’s the difference between product design and industrial design?”
For our purposes, know that we aren’t going to create any distinction between product designers and industrial designers. When we say product designers, we are talking about any design role that is concerned with solving customer desire and needs with a product.
User Experience (UX) vs. User Interface (UI)
Product designers focus on creating a better user experience, but that can mean different things for different people. Some companies put a huge emphasis on improving UX through improving UI. Other companies don’t yet see the value in improving UI (though we tend to think that changes as their competition grows and the market becomes more saturated).
Let’s back up.
The user interface (UI) is anything that the user interacts when using a digital product, from using navigation menus to adjusting the brightness of a screen.
UI is everything from the app icons on your phone or smartwatch to the complicated dashboard within Google Analytics.
Meanwhile, user experience (UX) is the overall general experience or consensus a customer feels when using a product.
In general, UX improves by investing in designing an excellent UI. But UX also improves by offering new features or tools to your end user.
So while the UI impacts the UX, they are two separate things in product design.
How Agile Helps with Product Design and Development
At Sprintwell we work with teams to help them apply agile principles to the way they design and develop products. Agile doesn’t mean doing the same things faster. It means working in a way to figure out the path forward. This is critical for handling change and ambiguity.
It’s the difference between building a track home (something that’s easy, straight forward, and doesn’t change) and trying to get out of an escape room (completely new, unknown situation where no one involved knows the solution up front).
Quite simply, projects that utilize Agile methodologies are 28% more successful than traditionally managed projects.
And since this article is going to look at design and development through an Agile lens, let’s briefly explain the differences between an Agile Design Process and a Traditional Design Process.
In a nutshell, traditional design processes work in a linear procession (a step-by-step methodology), starting with a blueprint and ending with a finalized product.
On the other hand, Agile design is human-centered design with work done in iterations.
Product designers create prototypes of the product throughout the process (everything from wireframes to high-fidelity usability testing) and change the trajectory of design based on real-time feedback.
The truth is that traditional design processes don’t work anymore. Or don’t work well. That’s not a sales pitch; it’s just stating a fact: Using outdated thinking to find modern solutions is holding your company back.
It’d be like using air travel for a trip to the grocery store. The traditional design process is tantamount to going up in the air and then following the same routes as the cars beneath you: the same roads and highways, the same turns, stopping at the same lights.
That’s what it’s like in today’s world if you are designing products using the traditional design process.
Modern product design takes a village. It’s designed based on user journeys, customer feedback, UX researcher ideation, conversion oriented design, developer feedback based on prototype testing, and much more. This isn’t a job done by one team at one point in time but by several teams in iterative loops.
In the traditional process, though, there is no village. Instead, there’s a string of islands connected by one-way bridges. This lack of communication and teamwork between the user, the design team, the development team, and others is a major hurdle your business needs to overcome to find to achieve meaningful results with your product.
Who is in Charge of Product Design and Development?
This is the wrong question: If you’re asking who is in charge of your product design, you’re still thinking the old way, outdated way.
Complex problems of the future will be solved by teams, not individuals. Understanding how to collaborate is an increasingly critical skill at work.
So, what you should be looking for instead of “one person who is in charge” is the person who can help bridge the gap between the customer and the design and development process.
And that person is the product manager.
Product Managers vs. Project Managers vs…
Now, maybe your company has a product manager, or maybe it has a project manager. Or maybe it has some other job title that we aren’t familiar with. So, to be as clear as possible, we are going to focus on what the product manager role encompasses.
An easy way to understand the ideal role for a product manager is to imagine playing poker. The product manager is the person who makes sure the team is placing the right bets.
They make sure the team is solving the right problem. The challenge here is that isn’t always easy to answer. Releasing by a certain deadline or shipping a certain feature are easier to do than actually solving the right problem, but this is where product management and project management differ.
A quick comparison between product management and project management:
A project manager is more like the head-strong trip planner on a road trip. The project manager is responsible for:
- Making sure you only take the allotted amount of stops (if they can shave a stop or two off to save time and resources, even better).
- Checking that all of your expenses come out of an approved budget.
- Ensuring that, no matter what occurs, you end up at your destination, car intact.
Product managers are the glue between design and development and the customer, and they are responsible for keeping momentum. To do this, they need to be customer-obsessed and think in terms of the job stories.
In short, they need to think like your brand’s target persona, understand what they want to achieve, and why:
They need to have a deep understanding and appreciation of design. They need to be well-versed in conducting UX research with the goal of improving the overall user experience. A good product manager will collect data, encourage ideas from their product team, and guide the team through tight feedback loops to turn out a successful product.
This brings us to our final point about the difference between these two roles:
The project manager is effectively in charge of the trip, even if the kids in the backseat say they want to go to Salt Lake City instead. That gives them authority over the project.
On the other hand, one of the key indicators of a good product manager is giving up the illusion of authority. A good product manager knows how to utilize their influence without relying on authority.
What’s the difference between a Product Manager vs. a Product Owner?
There is a misconception that product managers and product owners are interchangeable, or that product owners answer only to product managers, or that product owners are even needed.
So, while we have you, let’s clear it up real quick.
A product owner is nothing more than a title created within Scrum. That’s it.
A product owner does come with some definition and meaning but, like Scrum artifacts and the Scrum master role, the concept of a product owner is a Scrum creation. And, in our experience, product owners are falling to the wayside as their responsibilities are rolled into the collective mindset of a team and duties of a product manager.
For this post, and for your thinking going forward, unless you’re working within a Scrum system that dictates otherwise, you don’t need the title product owner.
Three Elements of Product Design
Sometimes you’ll see posts call these the “stages of product design,” but that doesn’t work for our purposes.
A stage implies a clear start and a clear ending, and a natural procession of moving on to the next stage. If you’re still thinking in stages of product design, you’re still operating under a traditional design and development process.
Note: The key takeaway here is that we are not operating within the traditional Waterfall worldview. Instead, our ideal design and development process is cyclical and adaptable.
In the simplest of terms, it looks like this:
That said, there are three elements we use to make the product design and development process tangible.
1: User Research and Team Ideation
There’s a disconnect there…
To better align your business’ understanding of how you’re doing with what your customers want, here are seven things your team can do to conduct the research needed to make products that exceed your customer’s experience standards.
And then we are going to tell you the number one user research and ideation mistake we see companies make.
The 7 things to do when conducting user research:
- Focus on participant quality more than quantity. Research has shown you can typically uncover 85% of the insights you need with only 5 people. We’ve found anywhere from 5-10 participants is ideal to get the data you need.
- Focus on behaviors and psychographics. While demographics do matter, it’s better to focus on behaviors and psychographics, such as how often the participant uses a particular product or how familiar they are with your industry.
- Ask open-ended questions. Asking open-ended questions will prompt longer, more insightful answers from the participant. The goal is for them to talk more and for you to talk less.
- Avoid asking leading questions. Avoid asking questions like “How difficult do you find it to make a mobile deposit?” Instead, ask the participant to rate the difficulty level of making a mobile deposit. It’s a subtle difference, but the first question is loaded, signaling to the participant that you think the process is difficult.
- Get your participants to tell stories. Storytelling is a common theme amongst nearly every element of product design and development, and it starts with the user telling a story based on your questions.
- Utilize silence to your advantage. Don’t be afraid of silence. If there are silences in the interview and you jump to fill them with the next question, there’s a good chance you’re not giving your participant enough room to get comfortable and divulge key information.
- Probe for more before moving on. Don’t just accept the first thing a participant says. Not to get too Freud on you, but you’ll want to utilize “tell me more about that” and “can you share with me how that felt” to get the participant to speak with depth about the subject.
After the interview, you can do post-research analysis.
In post-research analysis, transcribe any recordings (doing light edits to make the transcript read easier), highlight compelling phrases (where the participant was expressing pain or need or desire), and then make this data readily available to every member of your team for their analysis. This is something we offer as a service to our teams.
Now, for the number one mistake that we see companies make….
Traditional product design processes tend to put research at the beginning and only at the beginning or, worse, completely forgo research altogether. In fact, only 45% of Product Managers are expected to conduct customer research, which is a stat that made us do a double take. And when teams do research, it’s often mediocre – they’ll talk about a strategy, design a product, and then release it six to eight months later.
In the modern world of product development, that’s no longer enough.
You wouldn’t expect to hit the bullseye with your eyes closed – the same goes for product design. If you want to understand and solve customer problems, you need to do the research.
To be agile, you utilize the elements of research, design, and development simultaneously, throughout the process. You need to consistently gather customer insights throughout design and development. This happens in many ways – observing customers, conducting interviews, creating and demoing prototypes, running design sprints (with user testing at the end).
The number one mistake is thinking you know and moving forward based on assumptions. Don’t assume. Speak often with your customers.
2: Testing Realistically Designed Prototypes
50% of programming time is spent debugging, resulting in over $312 billion dollars of labor (across the entire software industry).
Agile looks to reduce your company’s waste (which can be calculated here) by bringing prototyping (something traditionally reserved until near the end of the process) front and center.
It’s an absolute requirement that your team will have some level of a prototype available at the end of each sprint. This allows your team to play with the prototype, catch any bugs early, conduct another round of user interviews, play out user stories, and take the feedback and adjust the product backlog accordingly.
A design sprint is done in 5 days (or less). Let’s briefly break down each day.
- Day One: Articulating the who, the what, and the why of the sprint. Analyzing the competition, outlining potential pitfalls, writing down the long-term goal for these five days.
- Day Two: Sketching out potential solutions. Begin recruiting customers who will test your prototype on the fifth day. You don’t need a huge crowd of participants. 85% of usability problems are found by testing the product with only five participants.
- Day Three: Take all viable solutions, as sketched on day two, and commit to a path or series of paths.
- Day Four: Build a prototype (or prototypes). You’ll want this to be realistic enough so you can test it with your customers that you spent day two recruiting.
- Day Five: Take your prototype and see how it handles solving problems for your customers. Take the information you get (the wins and the losses), report it back to the team, and prepare for the next sprint.
For a much more detailed write-up of how to execute a flawless design sprint, click here.
3: Collaborative Development
The Agile manifesto was written by software developers. Specifically, it was written by software developers who were annoyed at the status quo: being handed inefficient, ineffective instructions for product design.
Those software developers were tired of creating products that weren’t focused on the end user and which didn’t respond to actual user pain-points.
This is all a very nice way of saying developers weren’t involved in research, ideation, and design. Except, it costs 10x more to fix a problem in development than it does in design.
That’s why we don’t have stages. We have elements. Done well, agile means that development happens in parallel with research, ideation, design, prototyping, and testing.
Now developers know the user journey and have a close relationship with not only the how of the product design but the why.
Product Design Example – How a Product Design Team Rebranded Firefox
The popular browser Firefox had a problem. They had a successful product (the Firefox browser) but were unprepared, in terms of brand safety, to grow their product catalog.
They reached out to Ramotion for help.
Firefox knew they wanted to:
- Keep their current users and not risk alienating any of their customers with a drastic, unwanted rebranding.
- Gain the trust of new users. Firefox wants to be a browser and overall company that their customers feel safe using.
- Create a master brand that allows them to reduce costs and lead times when launching new products. They reached out to Ramotion because they didn’t have a product design system in place. In their current state, creating new products and launching them would be expensive and the results would likely be underwhelming.
The design team at Ramotion knew that companies struggle when redesigning their brand identity.
Here is how they put it:
“It’s challenging to swap the old for the new, especially when users are familiar with a logo and visual identity. Our experience shows us that to adopt a new identity, a client’s team needs at least two months to create it. And the more history that a brand has, the longer this process takes… Unfortunately, there are design agencies that do not pay attention to this. Such agencies accept a redesign task, don’t ask the right questions or spend the necessary time doing research, disappear for a few weeks, and then return with a solution that may not be approved.”
The reason we like this case study by Ramotion is because they acknowledge at the very beginning that more goes into good product design than just having a team of skilled product designers. You need collaboration and you need research.
And the one thing you don’t want to do is just take some notes, go to your design lab, and come back with a proposal and say “ta-da!”
You can see the finished re-branding in the image below.
Ramotion used what they called the Design Funnel, which embraces research, ideation, prototyping, and testing throughout the entire process.
Through most of this design process, Ramotion was mainly testing stakeholders and Firefox employees but as their process went on, they had something more concrete to show Firefox users. And when they did that, they were able to help collect the data and analyze it down to one significant point:
“An analysis of the user comments showed that the audience was not ready for significant changes.”
Taking this user feedback, Firefox did not make drastic changes to their master brand but picked the style and aesthetic that built upon their previous branding while allowing for more drastic changes in their newer products, which had not yet developed a relationship with users.
We hope you enjoyed our guide to product design and development.
In our experience, companies really are tested by their product design program. A company that has a great product design team but poor agile process will, in today’s market, fail. They will either fail because they keep producing lackluster products or because they are bleeding themselves dry financially as they deliver product value only once every few months (or even years).
At Sprintwell, we work to help your product team run research-backed design sprints. We put the emphasis on rapid prototyping, so you can, in real-time, see how your customers (potential or existing) respond to the direction of your new product.
We work with your team to change the way you structure your product design and development. Our goal is to enable your team to create better products while minimizing waste (which is a drain on time, money, and energy).
If you’re interested in speaking to an expert about how sprints can help your team, reach out to our team.
CEO & Co-founder, Sprintwell
After 20 years designing for Google, LinkedIn, and global startups, I burned out. I believe there’s a better way to work. At Sprintwell, we’re on a mission to help innovators like you build your business without burning out – and work with joy while you’re at it.