When it comes to product design, there are people like Steve Jobs and then there are rest of us. Product design is mix of art and science. For lessor mortals (like me), science plays a bigger role in providing the framework for product design. There are many existing frameworks that have helped me immensely. Here I am putting down my thoughts based on my experiences and ideas from other sources.
Going back to first principles, a product is a product only if there is a user. So product design has to start with a user. Two fundamental questions to ask
1. Who is the user? What is the need or want of the user?
The first questions is the most fundamental question and analogous to what Peter Drucker said about the definition of the business – ‘The purpose of the business is to create a customer’. Well, the purpose of the product is to create a user. Given that we know so little about human beings, answering these two questions is not so simple. The most common mistake, we do here is that we assume something and fool ourselves that we know the answer to these two questions. And since we are rationalizing species, we figure out many justifications to rationalize our assumptions. The better, and less risky, way is to create a hypothesis – with a promise of testing it before moving on next steps.
[This is the most frustrating part I have experienced in the product design cycle. Some call it idea-searching phase. Most of the user needs or problems cannot be just thought of. And I have seen many people, including myself, spending many hours brainstorming about that right idea. One of the suggestions from Paul Graham (How to get startup ideas) is to think about problems faced by oneself. Or problems you have seen firsthand. Another problem is that at times you have to imagine the future, say 5 years from now, and imagine the problems faced by your user in that world. In hindsight – how would you have come up with the idea of iPad 10 years back?]
2. Hypothesis: My solution “A” meets the need of the user
How do we test the hypothesis? The most logical way is to ask the users. But unfortunately, it does not always work (it took me a venture to realize that, fortunately I did not invest much time and effort to it). Users are human beings and they are complicated. So if you ask them “Would you like know crop prices on SMS”, they would say “Yes”. “Will you pay for this service”, “Yes”. And then you create an awesome(?) product that nobody uses or pays for. Thats when people say, you should listen to your customers and listening is not about just hearing what they are saying. It is an art to figure out what customers are saying and this might be mastered with practice. But here we are trying to simplify this process using scientific methods. This course on Human-Computer Interaction on Coursera has a lot of tricks on customer needfinding.
One of the non-so-smart-ways to test it out is to actually developing the product and try it out with the real users. And that how we are going to do it. But intelligently. How? We will create a minimum viable product that users can try and pay for. Payment need not be in terms of direct money transaction. If a user
spends invests time in using the product, keeps using it and tells about it to friends, that is a kind of payment. It is up to you how you define the payment (see point 6 – Product metrics). So we move to the next question to ask.
3. What is my Minimum Viable Product (to test my hypothesis)?
MVP is easier said than done. Once thing I need to remind myself is MVP has the word “minimum”. In some cases even a landing page with right messaging or product screen shots should be enough. In others, we might need a decent prototype to show it to users and test the user experience. Or going further, our hypothesis might also test whether user pays for the product and hence MVP might also mean collecting cheque from the user.
However, in all the cases, one thing is common. We need to come with “minimum” set of functionality the product can do so that we can test our hypothesis. Sometimes there are multiple hypotheses to test and MVP also means to cut down these and test only the most important and risky ones. For instance, if the core value of a test preparation company is adaptive learning, the set of important hypotheses can be –
1. adaptive learning is effective
2. users will understand this and pay for it
And hence these will be the first ones to test. Next step is coming out with minimum set of features to test these. Some hypotheses can be extremely difficult to test [like the example we have picked] and designing the feature set and user experience can be a daunting task.
4. How to design the product?
Even when you are convinced that the product needs the real needs of the user, it is always very easy to make a scrappy product that the user will not use. In fact, it is extremely hard to create something that user would use – and continue using it.
If it is improvement over existing product, your product needs to be 10x better than the existing one. Because there are two things always against you. a) Users resist discarding the products they are using and 2) Users resist to try new product.
On the other hand, if your product is fundamentally first one, the onus lies on you to convince your user about the need for such a product.
In both the cases, a behavior change or habit change is required. And designing new behavior is not really easy . But again, for non-Steve Jobs kind of people, there are frameworks to study and apply selectively (Notes on Behaviour Design).
Going into further details, I would go through the following checklist
Is the product value clearly visible to the user? How is it going to help the user? To what extent?
How does user start using the product? Is there a onboarding process or a starting plan? How easy it is for user to try the product?
What are the behavior changes required? How is the product tackling those changes?
How easy is it to use the product? Is it giving enough liberty to make mistakes? How much does user have to think before using the product or while using the product?
Does it give continuous feedback to the user? Is there social proof about using the product?
Had penned down some of these sometime back (7 Questions To Ask While Designing New Consumer Products)
5. Measuring the right metrics
There are two reasons to measure the metrics – to test out the hypothesis and to improvise.
Metrics give well-defined qualitative and quantitative facts to answer the following two questions
1. Is the hypothesis correct?
2. How to correct / improve the hypothesis?
If you are designing product without leveraging the data, either you are shooting in the dark or are just too good in understanding the consumer behavior and designing for them.
Again, defining the right metrics is very dependent on the type of product it is. In any case, one need to define set of numbers that can measure these metrics. Some usual metrics for software products
2. user activity
There are many others. Here is a great presentation from Dave McClure (Startup Metrics for Pirates)
One can leverage effective tools like A/B testing or multivariate testing to get more meaningful data.
6. Modifying the hypothesis and testing again
It is highly unlikely that we will get the right product the first time. And this is where the science takes over from the art. The lessons learnt till now can be ploughed back to generate better ideas. This neat figure from the book The Lean Startup explains everything.
Good products never get completed. They keep improving – by providing more value or better user experience.
I think all the sexy work in product design end in the first two points. But the most dirty work starts when we start productizing. Productizing needs testing your product for all the corner cases, managing the product workflows, creating ancillary stuff around the product, packaging, versioning, support and many other non-cool things. Heres what I wrote while having such an experience – Lessons From Productization
A product is just a project before it is productized. It’s that last 20% of the work that consumes 80% of the time in product development.
8. Reaching out to early adopters
One of the best ways to find the early adopters is to simplify the problem so that the target market becomes very small. Analogous to MVP, we should hunt for MVM – that is Minimum Viable Market.
The ideal cycle would be as follows:
1. Discover the MVM
2. Crack it with MVP
3. Increase the scope of MVM
4. Crack it with new MVP
5. Go back to point 3
Again it is easier said than done [and I have not succeeded in doing this yet]. Be it LinkedIn, Quora, Facebook or AirBnB, this is how they have done it. LinkedIn & Quora hacked the inspiration value in the product by first going to successful and renowned people (friends). Facebook started with a single college network. AirBnB started with letting out their own apartment.
Check out this topic on quora to read about more companies and their inital traction – How Did X Get Traction? Questions about how companies got success early in their history.
To write the story in short, all the above points answer these 3 questions
1. Why? Point 1
2. What? Point 2,3
3. How? Point 4, 5,6,7,8
I think it is very important to start from “Why”. It sets the vision of the product. I also think there is no unique process to design good products. On the other hand it is still possible to design suck-y product even after using hundreds of frameworks or checklists. It is important to be ready to fail.
To end the long post, check out this video from Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action
[thanks to Ashok I for reading through the draft and proving the feedback]