Design Means Connecting Your Product to Your Users

Photo by Georgie Cobbs on Unsplash

Ever since Steve Jobs gave us the delightful phrase “Design is how it works”, design has played an increasingly big role in product strategy. However, beyond some basic principles, it’s difficult to say what constitutes a “good” design for your product. It’s easy to evaluate design in hindsight: Were your customers able to use your product easily? Did it make them happy? Did it sell? However, these questions don’t necessarily do you any good when you’re trying to figure out how to design it in the first place.

If you’re using the Radical Product approach, the answer is relatively straightforward: “Good” design is one that fits into and advances your overall strategy. Design is just one component of that strategy (along with Real Pain Points, Capabilities, and Logistics), but it often has the most direct impact on the shape of your product itself.

What is “design” anyway?

When we talk about how a product is “designed”, we are talking about how we can intentionally shape the two critical ways your product connects with its users:

  • Interface: How people use your product
  • Identity: How people perceive your product

Interface: How people use your product

Interface design is how you expose your product’s underlying capabilities to your users. When paired with an enabling capability (such as data, expertise, and/or algorithms), the details of an interface are often called “features”.

For example, for an online insurance underwriting service, the user flow to gather and submit information would be the interface, and the back-end risk management databases and algorithms would represent the underlying capability. Taken together, “collect data from user and provide risk estimate” would be the product-level “feature”.

Interfaces also don’t need to be visual. Amazon’s Alexa is an example of a voice interface laid on top of Amazon’s increasingly powerful voice recognition NLP capability.

When creating your design strategy, try to avoid thinking in “features”. Instead, consider your product’s interface and its core capabilities separately. There is often more than one way to expose a product’s capabilities to users. By thinking of a product’s interface design as the bridge between your users and your underlying functionality, you can focus entirely on translating this functionality into the “language” of your users’ mental models.

When creating your design strategy, avoid thinking in “features”.

Mental models are a critical part of great interface design, but are often ignored. In the digital product world — especially in an “enterprise” setting — we frequently see products that are just a glorified set of forms, with inputs that map directly to columns in a database. This direct correspondence between back-end functionality and interface design (sometimes pushed to avoid “leaky abstractions”) requires that users understand the technical intricacies of how data is stored and processed, rather than allowing them to focus on the task at hand.

Using a goal-focused framework such as Jobs to be Done can be a good way of structuring your interface design around user tasks. More broadly, this practice of starting from the user’s perspective fits into Human-Centered Design, a popular set of principles and practices for translating product capabilities into interfaces that make sense to your users.

Identity: How people perceive your product

Thanks in part to the Steve Jobs quote up top, the look and feel of the product are often treated as if they are unrelated to solving the customer’s actual problems. In fact, the visuals, voice, and overall feeling of the product can have a dramatic impact on your product’s usability: UX researchers at Nielsen Norman Group have found that beautiful products are given higher usability scores than they “deserve”.

Beyond aesthetics, it is critical to match your product’s voice and tone to your customers’ expectations. This can greatly affect the desirability of your underlying brand, impacting both buying decisions and day-to-day usage in the same way that visual design can.

The importance of a product’s design identity doesn’t mean you should strive for form over function. It just means that, for maximum impact, your product design should take into account the humanity — social, emotional, even irrational — of your users, prospects, and customers.

The importance of a product’s design identity doesn’t mean you should strive for form over function. It just means that, for maximum impact, your product design should take into account the humanity of your users, prospects, and customers.

You should approach your product design identity through the lens of your customers’ expectations and anticipated usage patterns. Start by looking at the Real Pain Points you have identified, and consider the following questions:

  • What emotions are our users experiencing when they face these pain points?
  • Given those emotions, how should using our product feel? Exciting? Relieving? Fun?
  • What can we do with visuals, audio, text, or other experiential aspects to create these desired feelings?

For further reading on the subject of eliciting emotional reactions through design, check out Don Norman’s Emotional Design and Aarron Walter’s Designing for Emotion.

Putting design strategy into action

Defining the “right” design for your product’s interface and identity is a strategic task. You should leave the actual designing up to expert designers, but if you provide them with the right strategic guidance, you are much more likely to end up with a marketable product that effectively solves your users’ pain points.

So how do you put this into action? We recommend trying out the Radical Product Toolkit to help think through your integrated product strategy across design, capabilities, logistics, and pain points. Let us know how it goes!

The Radical Product Toolkit

Share your stories on defining the Design element of your RDCL Strategy. You can download the toolkit for free from Radical Product. We look forward to hearing your comments and questions.