You walk onto the stage in bold strides.
The hall is packed with people; bright lights from camera crews blind you momentarily.
You hold in your hand the new product you and your team have created.
As soon as people see you they erupt into mad cheering, applause, whistles, waving foam fingers, the works.
You lift up the product and the people start screaming with ecstasy. You smile a confident smile and launch into a tirade about the blood and sweat that into making this thing.
You have succeeded and you’re going to make millions!
No doubt you’ve had that dream. Whether you’re a startup founder, an entrepreneur, a product owner, or a product designer, creating a digital or physical product, the dream of creating something wildly successful must have crept into your daydreams at least once. And while getting that kind of reaction is relatively rare, designing a successful product is an achievable end.
But like many goals, it requires a process.
That’s where we come in with 5 steps that’ll put you on the right track to creating the next (hopefully) Earth-shattering product.
Product Design 101
So, what should you focus on when designing an amazing product?
Many product designers focus too much on the product itself. That might seem like a good thing, but the fact is: most products will be used by humans. A product can be very sophisticated, with a lot of elegant technicalities, but unless it’s appealing and smoothly usable by humans, it will end up in the trash or the back of a shelf, collecting dust.
That is why product design is really about user experience (UX) design.
Embrace discipline of human-centred design.
How to design a product in 5 steps
Full disclosure: The title is a bit misleading. We present to you a process for product design summarized from Jesse James Garrett’s 5 Planes of Design. They’re not really linear steps, as will be made clear.
The planes start at the bottom, with each plane being based upon the one before it, and all start with an ‘S’. They move from the more abstract to the more concrete and can be applied to physical products (a new type of broom), digital products (a website or app), or a mix of both (a refrigerator with a digital interface).
Plane #1: Strategy: “Why will the product exist?”
Before you build a product, you must first have a reason. Since you’re building for people you need to identify their needs. Why do they need your product? What will your product do for them? Who has those needs? You might need to conduct user research through focus groups, ethnographic studies, psychographic studies, etc. to find the answer to this question.
Tools that might help you include creating personas and empathy maps.
If you’re building that product as a business endeavour (and we’re assuming that you are), then you’ll also need to find the reasons for your business to create it. Why should we create this product? Why is it a good thing for our business? What are we achieving through it? What is our brand and how will this tie in with it?
A very critical question to ask in “Strategy” is: How will we measure success? What metrics do you observe to identify how our product is doing? Do we want people to spend more time using it (like Facebook) or less time (like cooking with a microwave oven)?
Answering these questions will give you the first plane, upon which you’ll build your product.
Plane #2: Scope: “What are you building?”
This is the actual first conception of your product. What is it going to do? What is it NOT going to do? This description should contain all the features and functions. You should write it all down in very specific terms. This will allow you to avoid what is known–especially in digital products–as the dreaded “feature creep”. Each feature should correspond to an item in the strategy that it fulfils.
You can then prioritize features according to the importance of their corresponding strategy items, their feasibility, time constraints, and other conflicting features.
You can use storyboards as tools to draw out how users will use the product.
Plane #3: Structure: “How are you going to build it?”
How much info are you going to present? How will you organize elements? How will people flow through the product? How will they interact with it? What will they be able to do? These are the questions that will give structure to your product.
Here is where you will design the interactions that will take place in your product. The user-centred design will shine most brightly here, because people will expect certain behaviours and reactions from your product, and will become very confused if they don’t find them, so you need to pointedly consider them.
Plane #4: Skeleton: “Where will everything go?”
At this plane, you will lay the foundation for how things will look in your product. Where will you place the buttons and controls? Where will there be text? Should these buttons be next to each other? How big is this? Is this too small? Too central?
Here, you’ll probably need to sketch out your product. It doesn’t matter whether it’s physical or digital, you can always use a pencil and paper, which also happens to be the fastest and cheapest way.
For digital products, you can create wireframes in tools like Axureix and Balsamiq. You can attempt to build physical prototypes of products using cheap materials, like cardboard, wood, plastic, etc. Or you can always 3D print it!
Plane #5: Surface: “What will the user see?”
This is the final layer of your product. What colours will you use? What fonts will the text be in? What animations will you employ? Any and all decisions pertaining to visuals and materials will be made here. These decisions will be informed by the lower planes.
Things to Consider…
The lower planes may also be informed by the higher ones. A decision in “Surface” might cause you to reevaluate something decided in “Scope”. You can always go back and forth between planes. Garrett suggests that you don’t even wait until you finish one plane to start on the next, but rather don’t finish one plane until you’ve finished the one preceding it.
The LEAN methods teach us to always test and validate any assumptions before investing time and money into creating them. Create a prototype of your product and expose your target audience to it early on in the process. This may show you errors in your assumptions or design and will allow you to remedy them at a much lower cost than if the first time they see it is after you launch.
And finally, you need to be passionate and driven to create your product, but don’t get too attached to your ideas and designs, or else you won’t be able to objectively evaluate and criticize. Learn to let go of your ideas–even your best ones–if they don’t ultimately serve the strategy, fall outside the scope, or conflict with more important elements.
The stage is set and the crowds are waiting.
Go out there and make your dent in the universe!