Becoming a strategic, customer-centric product designer

Anthony Stonehouse
Dec 11, 2019 · 6 min read

When I originally studied design in the late 1990s it was all about execution. The focus was on composition, colour theory, typography and layout. After I graduated I spent 5 years working in web design, building my style, opinions and confidence in what I believed was good design. As my enthusiasm for design matured, I wanted to learn more. I enrolled in a Masters of Design degree in the mid-2000s. There I was introduced to subjects such as customer-centric design, and design & research. I learned that great design is formulated by more than just the designer’s opinion on what looks good, or their personal style. I altered the approach to my work, creating outcomes only after I felt I had built a deep level of understanding of the end-user, and felt confident how they would interpret the design. Thankfully, this is what most design courses now teach.

During this period the notion of design went through a transition — from being thought of just ‘making things look pretty’ to being seen as a key strategy for running a successful business. Companies that adopted design-led strategies, such as Apple, Nike, and Disney, saw their value significantly increase. The design thinking movement took off, and with it, the scope of my role as a designer expanded; from owning the interface to owning the entire experience of a product or service. I was asked to teach the design process to business practitioners so they could learn more about how they might alter their approach to business strategy. They left the course surprised about how relevant design thinking was to their work.

A design-led strategy is now standard practice and I think it’s a really exciting time to be a designer. Designers learn to think creatively, build empathy for customers, and be comfortable with ambiguity. These are core skills needed to develop innovative customer-centric ideas, and it means designers are uniquely positioned to help frame design-led product strategy. If jumping into this strategic side of design scares you, don’t worry. This article guides you through typical activities and links to Atlassian plays that you can borrow.

So, where to start? Firstly, make sure you set out to build a collaborative and caring team, then review your product‘s vision and goals, and identify what assumptions and constraints you have about accomplishing those goals. Next, you need to build context and a shared understanding of customer problems and opportunities within the aforementioned goals.

Creating a map of the system is a great way to start building a shared understanding with your team. The 5 Ps are a useful framework to ensure you’re looking at it from all perspectives — People, Place, Product, Performance, and Process.

Assess current knowns by evaluating the existing experience, relevant research, and any analytics you have access to. Then create a plan based on what you want to know, but don’t already. Typically this will mean you need to conduct exploratory research through contextual inquiries, customer interviews, journaling, and shadowing. This will let learn from customers, staff, customers who have switched to competitor products, and from people who have never used your product. As a general rule, you should speak to at least three people from each of the cohorts you identify in your research plan. If one person says something it might be interesting, if two people say the same thing it could be a coincidence, but if three people say the same thing you can you be certain it’s note-worthy. You may decide to divide the groups by retention, size, industry, or any other aspect that is relevant to your product and goal.

Once you have gathered research data it’s time to start synthesising and drawing meaning in the form of insights. Try to avoid applying your own bias or opinion and present the research as it manifested rather than your interpretation of it. Keep the insights simple, and tie them back to real stories to help to build empathy. Insights should stimulate distinct actions. You are looking for things that were consistent across the research and where you learnt something. Assess whether the hypothesis, risks, or assumptions you took into the research were validated, or not. You can also create empathy maps from the research data, which will build collective knowledge of customers and develop customer segments and behavioural archetypes.

You can map the insights and archetypes to the current experience with an as-is journey map. If you have gathered the internal processes through your research you can build this into a service blueprint. Both types of maps will reveal pain points and opportunities for specific types of customers.

Once you have insights and research artefacts you can start thinking about creating solutions. Solutions are at their most innovative when they are defined and designed collaboratively, ideating with people with a diverse range of perspectives on the problem space. The best way to bring people together for ideation is in a workshop, where together you can co-create an ideal future state. Run the workshop from a customer desirability perspective — embrace technical and business constraints but don’t feel limited by them. Include a mix of disciplines and also invite key stakeholders, and even consider inviting people you spoke to during your exploratory research.

A typical workshop goes like this:

Take the outputs of the workshop through a feasibility and viability analysis to create an overall prioritisation framework. As a team, evaluate confidence in each proposed solution to fit the customer and business purpose. Then put together a high-level roadmap that describes the desired end-state experience. Roadmapping isn’t a one-off exercise, as ongoing planning, pivoting and reprioritisation are all critical in following an iterative process, the key to being innovative and customer-centric.

Plan and run experiments and test prioritised concepts with prototypes to establish how successful the proposed solutions will likely be with customers, you will learn what will and won’t fail early on. Reflect on these experiments and any user testing results to iterate and ultimately decide on the features to implement.

Once you know what you want to build you can create an engagement plan. This identifies the team needed to tackle the work and a timeline with significant milestones. Create another revision to the roadmap and plan the strategy for how you will get these solutions to market, and what goals, signals and measures you’ll use to assess impact.

Now it’s time to get back on the tools and start applying all your learnings to the design execution.

Good luck!

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Designing Atlassian

Tales from the Atlassian design team

Thanks to D. Keith Robinson

Anthony Stonehouse

Written by

Product Designer @ Atlassian Sydney

Designing Atlassian

Tales from the Atlassian design team

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