What is product design?
Want a concise definition that strips away all the nonessentials and describes the heart of the question?
Imagine this scenario:
You’re a design founder. Your mobile app has launched. You’ve raised some money and added some features, but now your growth has flat-lined. You need to show huge growth or revenue to survive. You have one month of runway and one developer. 30 more days until your product and company are dead.
Feel your blood pressure go up a few points? What do you do next?
Become very good — and quick — at killing bad ideas.
Good Ideas vs. Bad Ideas
Good ideas are product decisions that will save your company.
They could be new features, improvements on existing features, changes to signup-flow, changes to messaging, new transactional emails, new customer service practices, and so on.
In concrete terms, they are changes that will produce a strong, measurable signal in an important metric.
Sounds great. What could possibly go wrong?
Bad ideas are just like good ideas — only when you build them, nothing actually happens. They seem like they will work, but they won’t… which is why bad ideas are evil and must be killed.
Most ideas are bad ideas. Your users won’t care. Your metrics won’t go up. Your hypothesis was wrong. If you have a good idea, it’s probably a bad idea, and you just don’t realize it yet.
In the scenario above, coming up with an array of seemingly-good ideas is easy. Discerning the good from the bad is very hard. If you fail to identify bad ideas before you waste a month building them, you’re dead.
Wire-framing, animations, coding, etc. — all of these presuppose that you’ve already made a great call at the idea level. But, to boil things down a bit: It’s never bad UI animations that kill companies — it’s bad ideas you thought were good ideas.
Agile, Lean, and Google design sprints were created to solve the challenges described above. And in my experience, they do: most of the way, most of the time. There are some complications, however, that make this business of killing more complex…
Your CEO, investors, sales team, customers, designers and developers all have their own favorite ideas. They are certain those ideas are good, they want them to live forever, and they will resist all attempts to kill them.
There is always one improvement that could save an idea: an adjustment to the microcopy, or a layout change. Your metrics can be completely conclusive, but still open to interpretation — especially when it comes to the “why” of behavior. If you or your team love a particular idea, the temptation can be strong to make some adjustments, re-test, and reevaluate in a week.
You can try to keep everyone happy, be ruthlessly pragmatic, or split the difference. Either way, the margin between product tyrant, and product fool, is pretty thin.
More complication: “Good ideas vs. bad ideas” is an oversimplification. There are some blatantly good or bad ideas, but good ideas rarely begin as good ideas.
Good ideas are the emergent result of taking good-ish ideas and stripping away all of the crappy assumptions around them. This is a messy process, and it takes several iterations. When are you simply stripping down a good idea vs. wasting time on a bad idea? It’s hard to say. It’s a subtle thing. In the end, it may just come down to fluency and judgement.
Product design = Killing bad ideas
Product design — the killing of bad ideas — is a skill that must be practiced. You get good by killing a couple hundred bad ideas, and building up the instincts to kill fast, accurately, and somewhat automatically.
In some projects, you’ll have plenty of time to use all of your methodologies. In others, you’ll have to make an instant judgement call.
It’s a messy business, but someone has to do it. Happy hunting.