Learning Digital Product Design for Startups @ JFFC2019

Mike Jaren Yap
Jan 28, 2019 · 7 min read

This year’s Junior Form, Function & Class, the biggest student web conference in Asia, was a rather fantastic and insightful event. Last January 26–27 at De La Salle University, I was one of the speakers who did a Web Crash Course workshop in front of more than 50 attendees. And boy, I have so much share with the experience. After my lecture, I had the opportunity to listen to some of the talks that came after, one of which really caught my attention. It was about Digital Product Design for Startups, facilitated by my long-time colleague, Alexis Collado.

Alexis is a product designer at Kalibrr and the host at Roots, a podcast featuring stories of Filipino Designers. He is also the Co-Founder and Former President of the User Experience Society.

As he began his talk, he defined “Digital Product Design” into several terms. The term “digital” refers to a virtual paradigm that people often perceive in an analog way. The digital product is a sellable entity in a virtual format. The design is the initiative to create something while product design is to solve problems. But when you try to stitch together the array of meanings, digital product design is a plan to create a virtual product that you can sell online.

Anyone, by any means, can create products or offer services to their customers but making it profitable is another thing. How do you know, much so ensure, if people are actually adopting your product/service?

How does it relate to startups?

It’s a thing now. I’ve noticed there is a growing population of students who are dreaming to inaugurate their own startup companies. And, of course, it’s a typical excuse to avoid working in a corporate setting. Because they believe their ideas are the next big thing. Creating startups give them so much room for innovation with flexible time and their vision to focus on.

But that’s all you really have. Just a vision. Startups are ventures without a business model. In other words, if you plan to create your own, you start with no structure. You may have a goal in mind yet the outlying factors that may affect your company is left unplanned.

Pro tip: Never trust a “startup company” that doesn’t know how to create a business model.

Now I understand why Alexis mentioned that startup companies have a slim to none chance of survival in the industry. We are so eager to show the world what we have to offer that we skip doing the prep work. I know the intention is good, but you have to first establish the value you’re giving to customers as well as knowing your target market. Your objective is to not only be successful but also make your business sustainable.

This is where you demonstrate your value as a designer

Time and time again, I hear people saying that designers only make things aesthetically pleasing. A statement to which I completely disagree. Sure, we make products seem astonishing to look at, but that’s only a fraction of our true purpose. It’s a common misconception of the role and it’s becoming problematic, to be honest.

The “real” job of a designer is to find solutions to challenges and to align business goals with customer needs. Like what he emphasized during his talk, 90% of the time, we focus our efforts on problem-solving. The remaining 10% is the prototyping phase. And when we do design, it’s NOT for the sake of stunning customers with flashy layout gimmicks. Our task is more valuable than just making things pretty.

So how do you start making sense?

Value Proposition Canvas inside the Business Model Canvas (image taken from Value Proposition Design)

Facilitate a solution-finding process where all members of the team can participate. One good way to do this is to create a Value Proposition Canvas. It’s based on two key elements of the Business Model Canvas: the customer segments which identify the type of people whom you give value to and the value propositions which describe the kind of value you intend to give. What’s helpful is that you can map out the details of your value and customers on a granular scale, finding the “fit” between what you offer and what they want.

The Anatomy of the Value Proposition Canvas (credits to Strategyzer)

There are two parts that make up a Value Proposition Canvas. On the right is what we call the customer segment profile and it’s further divided into three areas. First, the customer jobs are the list of things your customers want to be done in their work and in their lives. Next, pains are the undesirable outcomes that they would like to avoid. It should specifically answer the question, “what pains are they experiencing in their lives that they would consider adopting your product/service?” Finally, gains describe the benefits that your customer wants. Particularly, “what advantages can they get from adopting your product/service?”

But, of course, not all points are equally relevant. You may find that some are more essential, others may just be nice-to-haves. And it actually matters so you know what to prioritize!

Panning our attention to the left, we have what we call the value map and it’s also divided into three. The products/services pertain to a list of what you offer. It could be physical, intangible, digital, financial or whatever form of value you wish to offer. Pain relievers explain how exactly does your product/service alleviate customer problems. It should correspond to the pains presented in the customer segment profile. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a 1:1 ratio. No need to come up with a pain reliever for every pain point. Gain creators, on the other hand, describe the positive outcomes and benefits your product/service create for your customers.

Again, same as before, these points have different relevance and it’s important to prioritize.

Now it’s time to validate your assumptions

Yes, those are still just assumptions! The next step is to get out of the building and start talking to customers. Because unfortunately, this isn’t something anyone can Google search for a quick and effortless answer. You need to get out there and find out if what you wrote down is correct. The more people you interview, the more insights you gain and the closer you get upon revealing the truth about your customers. Go back to the drawing board and apply the necessary changes to your canvas.

Remodeling your canvas is not a one-time thing, though. It’s an iterative process. You don’t settle until the features of your value map perfectly match the characteristics of your customer segment profile. This achievement is called product-solution fit. Consequently, when your target market actually agrees to your value map, you then achieve what we call product-market fit. And that is the ultimate goal when I said finding the “fit” between the value you offer and the wants of the customer.

Pro tip: Obsess over who the customer is and the problem you want to solve. That way, you’ll have a better understanding of the context and ideate solutions that will actually work.

Prototyping, finally!

This is the part where I talk about the “designing” phase we’re so familiar with.

So, once you know the value of your product/service, the problem it’s trying to solve and the representation of your customer, you begin to work your way towards a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). The MVP is a product having just enough features that customers can appreciate and provide feedback. The purpose is to exploit design flaws and correct them as soon as possible with minimal effort. You don’t want to simply dive into implementation, test it only to receive feedbacks that might take you days(or weeks) to revise. That’s a huge waste of time and energy.

Luckily, Alexis taught me two prototyping techniques namely, low-fidelity and high-fidelity wireframing. The term “fidelity” refers to the closeness of a prototype to the actual product. For instance, if I try to sketch out a website on a napkin, I’m actually doing a low-fidelity wireframe because it’s far from how it would look like in the end. High-fidelity wireframe works the other way because now, we’re concerned with the actual colors to use, the elements included and etc. It’s like looking at the real deal, but not quite. On a side note, I found a neat article about Top 22 Prototyping Tools for UI and UX Designers. Check it out!

Either way, these are great to test your value propositions to customers and to see if they understand the problem you’re trying to solve. If not, that’s okay! Even prototyping is an iterative process. You can’t really expect your MVP to work successfully right off the bat. It’s a matter of trial and error, and the best way to improve is to never be satisfied even if you land upon a “good design” for your product/service.

Some more key learnings

  • To effectively communicate solutions to customers is one of the most crucial things you could ever do.
  • Make your customers tell their stories.
  • Learn how to influence people.
  • Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerabilities because that’s part of being true to yourself.

I had an amazing learning experience listening to Alexis. You surely do know how to quench my thirst for knowledge. This goes the same for all other workshops I’ve attended during the JFFC event.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank Junior Form, Function & Class and all partner organizations for making this event happen. Until the next web conference! #JFFC2019 #FutureForward

User Experience Society — DLSU

The first organization in DLSU focusing on UX, HCI…