cc by pexels

Designer! Get your seat at the table.

The market is flooded with lousy products. Unusable solutions to problems not well defined. Take a look at this remote control, for example. A proudly representative of the logitech line of products, and yet another remote that takes a manuel to operate.

Source: Logitech website

UX designers will quickly observe that the remote’s set of buttons doesn’t reflect the hierarchy of the user’s actions. While people mainly use their remote to turn their TV on/off, adjust the volume, and change channels, these buttons are lost in a sea of other useless buttons. The actual operation of this device by real people, as weird as it may sound, was not taken enough into consideration.

How do products like this pass through a design process without being ruled out? Isn’t there a designer that can better analyze the tasks this device is meant to perform and come up with a better solution? I think there is. He might even sat in the room where this remote was originated. Sometimes bad products are born not because bad designers, but because the voice of the designer was simply not heard.

The voices around the table

In the process of making a product, there are a multitude of voices around the table that affect the set of features it will include. This is as true for universal remote controls as it is for digital products and services. Each person involved in the development process approaches the question “what does this product need?” differently depending on their role, area of expertise and background.

Commonly, One of the voices urges to include features that equal those of the competitors. While the general assumption is that chasing another company’s set of features will result in more sales, in reality, the contribution of a specific feature to your competitor’s success is rarely known. The team may very well end up spending valuable time and resources on a specific feature while over in the competitors board room, argues are made over how to trash the damn thing. The end result are a myriad of products that are nearly identical, even in their faults. These products may have little to do with the best solution for the problem at hand.

cc flickr by redjar

Get your seat at the table

Designers are problem solvers. They act under a set of constraints to find the best solution for a given problem. As part of understanding the problem, designers need to get themselves familiar with the people experiencing this problem. This is called research. Research deliver insights. Research insights are translated into building blocks for any given solution.

Good designers know the value of a product in relationship to the user. So why is this point of view so often ignored? The answer usually lies in the inability of designers to effectively integrate their understanding into the strategic process of planning a product’s roadmap.

Product managers use roadmaps to prioritise product’s features. Each product manager figures out what’s the best way to do so. Designers need to fit into this process. As a designer, there is no better place to communicate your understanding of the users than the prioritization process.

Get to work

Let’s assume you are in a team building an app that helps navigate the city using public transportation. You have done your research and come up with a list of features that solves real user’s needs. We are going to score each feature with two scores: ‘Importance’ and ‘Viability’. Both on the scale of one to five.

Importance is the assumed impact a specific feature will have on the user. An important feature is one that would have great impact on the ability of the user to successfully achieve his goals. Viability is the combination of the technical ability, resources at hand and the risk involved. A viable feature is one that can be done easily with minimal risk.

Start scoring each feature for both Importance and Viability. When allocating points however, you have a total of 21 point to dispense (3 X the number of features) for each category. That way you won’t define all features as highly important. Sit with the product manager and discuss the scores together. Consult with the technical teams to figure out the viability of features.

A typical product will have more than one target audience. If you used personas to summarize your research findings, this is a good time to take them out of the basement and dust them off. Place George, who is using your product daily on his way to work, in the first column. Next to him, place Sara, who is using your product occasionally when she is out of town.

These two different target audiences usually have different ‘weights’ in the decision making process. Their ‘weight’ is defined by the size of the group they represent and its business value. For example, the ‘Georges’ might be a group with great potential for creating massive growth to the company. While their relative share among users might be small, you still want to allow their needs to be better represented in the product. Therefore, you can increase their ‘weight’ in the calculation of the combined score. Here I’ve multiplied George’s importance scores by 1.6 to reflect his ‘weight’.

Notice how ‘see recent rides’, which was ranked at the bottom in previous step, went up to be the first feature in the list when taking various target groups into consideration. While for Sara, who uses the app occasionally when out of town, this feature is meaningless, for George, who uses the product daily, this feature can be a deal breaker, saving him the re-entering of the same destination over and over again. Since we defined the ‘Georges’ as having a more strategic value for the company, this feature naturally went up the list.

Your product manager may wish to focus in the near term on the ‘Saras’. In that case, increase her ‘weight’ and see the priorities change. Do you still want to implement by a different order? This is ok as long as you have visibility into the compromises you make.

At the end of this process, you will have a prioritized list of features for your product that takes into account various target audiences and the tasks they perform. This way, feature prioritization is not defined by your competitors, but by your real users and their needs.

Final thoughts

A list of prioritized features is far from being an execution plan. There are many factors that affect a decision to proceed with one thing over the other. This method is not the only way of thinking about priorities. It only allows a conversation where the designer voice is being heard. It is a tool for product managers and designers to make sure they are taking into account the entire range of their users. This, in turn, will surely result in a better product overall.

Edit: I gave a talk on UXI Live conference on this subject. You can watch the slideshare.

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