When does design matter most?

Well crafted products have a way of standing out. Building them, however, takes time and money—costs that the market isn’t always ready to shoulder, especially at the beginning. Markets mature to value different product attributes over time, and the role design plays evolves with it. Knowing what stage the product is at gives perspective on what to expect coming in. Sometimes this means that the best design isn’t the right solution. And attempting to build the optimal instead of the essential hurts the product’s growth.

A traditional product lifecycle roughly follows the structure of a three act play, beginning with a raw implementation of technology that then builds up to a comprehensive feature set, before shrinking down through iterative refinement. The stages aren’t always linear, and frequently loop back, but they make for rough guide posts.

Introduction of new technology

The first time a new product is introduced, it makes a mark by being able to outflank the incumbent technology. It may be far from perfect, and will not be nearly as polished, or reliable, but it makes it possible to do something that wasn’t possible before. The differentiating factors at this stage are:

  • A focus on performance. Compared to the existing way of doing things, it could be smaller, faster, or more precise, but it identifies a critical dimension that opens up possibilities which weren’t available before.
  • Creates new markets.
  • Mostly engineering lead.
  • Design often plays a small role here. Products at this stage are ruthlessly focused on staying afloat. Speed to market is paramount and the most important thing is delivering on this promise of being able to do something new.

Feature growth

The validation of the technology comes in the form of the demand it inspires. As it enters a more mature stage, the focus shifts to addressing the product’s shortcomings. There is a frenzy of companies joining the fray at this point since the nascent technology is relatively easy to duplicate, and the gap in feature coverage means that everyone has a shot at building something different. There is a paucity of information on what will have the biggest impact, and the feature list balloons in an attempt to uncover it. This stage is defined by:

  • Products that solve a broad spectrum of use cases. Feature parity/completeness become strong driving forces.
  • Mostly product lead.
  • Depending on product type and the competitive landscape, design can help define what features need to be built. Design may be a part of the conversation on how to make the product so that it ’sucks less’, but largely remains in a vendor role.

Refinement

Learnings from the feature growth stage provide perspective on how the product impacts people. The previous phase exposes flawed assumptions and the feature richness gives way to an iterative development process where relentless refinement becomes the go to mantra.. This stage is defined by:

  • Products that hone in on one use case and execute on them to perfection.
  • Mostly design lead, it has a far narrower problem definition.
  • Design shines here because product market fit has already been established and the technology has been built out. What differentiates one product from the other is the craftsmanship behind it and the delight it brings to its users.

Company/Industry impedance mismatch

Knowing which stage your company is in for a particular product is valuable in setting expectations on what matters most. But the challenge really arises when the rest of the industry is ahead of where your company is. It’s not enough to go through these phases linearly at that point. If your competitors are in the feature growth phase but you are just starting out, learning from where they are doubling down their efforts allows you to slingshot past them. A well crafted products at this point has a chance of carving a niche in a sea of undifferentiated “me too” imitations. This is where design really becomes a competitive edge, use it.

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