As a business professional in 2021, chances are, you’ve heard of the term “product design.”
But do you really know what it means? Is it the people that conceptualize physical products? If you’re a strictly digital company, does product design even apply to you?
It turns out that product design is a wide-reaching process of creating consumer-centric things that foster increased revenue and brand growth – and these things can be tangible, digital, and everything in between, too.
In this article, we’ll be outlining exactly what product design is, how you can implement successful product design strategies in 2021, which product design examples you should emulate, and more.
In layman’s terms, product design is the process of creating a product from beginning to end.
Sounds simple enough, right?
Well, sort of. Because we live in the digital age where so many of our interactions, conversions and products are online, the concept of a product has transformed from a physical item you purchase in a store to something else.
“At its most basic level, a product is a solution that’s sold to fulfill a need,” says Dave Franchino, President of the leading product design and innovation agency Delve.
“To me, product design involves a few key attributes – it involves human interaction, needs to accommodate a range of users, exists in a competitive space where users have options, involves some degree of mass production or distribution, and requires considering tradeoffs between costs, features, and performance.”
So, what types of things can product designers make?
Essentially, a “product” is anything – a mobile app, a new digital feature, a tangible item, etc. – that solves a consumer “problem” and propels a business forward in their market.
And, of course, product designers are the people who conceptualize and create those things.
“The options are almost limitless, which is what makes successful product design so difficult to reduce to a formula,” shares Franchino. “Products can be durable, like appliances, or consumable, like ice cream. They can be tangible, physical items or intangible products like an app or service. They span consumer and commercial markets.”
Although the items that fall within the spectrum are difficult to define, that also means the possibilities for the products you want to design are practically endless, too.
3 Product Design Best Practices to Follow In 2021
Because product design encompasses such a wide range of industries, platforms and business needs, it can be difficult to know how to execute a successful product design exercise from start to finish.
Luckily, Delve outlined some key best practices that can help brands of all sizes, industries, and incomes develop a product that will resonate with their target demographic successfully.
1. Determine the Rationale and Realities of the Product
Before you pull the trigger and start designing your new product, take the time to understand what your product should look like logistically.
What will it solve for users? How will you create it? What features does it need? How much will it truly cost you to produce?
According to Delve, successful product design sits at the elusive intersection of “feasible,” “desirable” and “viable,” with the end-user at the center.
“Feasible” means the idea is technically possible – it works safely and effectively and can be mass-produced reliably and economically.
“Desirable” looks at the user experience and whether the concept truly fills a need for the consumer and has legs from marketing, sales, and usability perspective.
Finally, there’s “viability,” which means evaluating what will be necessary for business success, such as market size and pricing.
Of course, each of these pillars of product design are interconnected – and balancing all of these considerations is critical to success. For instance, a personal jetpack might be technically feasible and desirable to end users, but if they’re only willing to pay $200 for it and it costs $500 to manufacture, it’s going to fail.
“At Delve, one of our primary techniques to strike the right balance is using multidisciplinary teams that come at a challenge from multiple angles,” says Franchino. “We also use rapid prototyping to iterate and pressure test ideas through all three lenses (Feasible, Viable and Desirable) to gain valuable early feedback that helps direct the development process.”
2. Create a Relationship with the Product End Users
It is also crucial for brands to build a close-knit relationship with the consumers who will be using the product. This will help them understand which features consumers really desire and have a better grasp on the market, ensuring that they create products that are truly helpful and find success quickly.
“Develop an intimate relationship with the end users of your products – and don’t be overly distracted by the people indirectly interacting with your products such as distributors and sales. They are crucial to your success but not sufficient to drive innovation,” advises Franchino. “Instead, keep your focus on the end user because lasting success involves deeply understanding their needs. You also need to be able to clearly articulate your product’s value proposition in a meaningful and differentiating way.”
Plus, as we mentioned above, product design always involves trade-offs. Brands need concrete processes in place to navigate them effectively, because elements such as risk, price, features, function, time to market and other items need to be balanced strategically in order to pull off a successful product design project.
3. Understand Your Brand, Your Mission, and Your Place in the Market Thoroughly
Although not exclusively, many of the world’s best brands are built by products. And a product is one of the most intimate connections a user can have with a brand, according to Delve. However, it is also one of the least curated, meaning you can shape the experience quite a bit, but total control is unlikely.
So, before you launch a product design project, it’s important to truly understand the role, power, and value of your brand. Does the product you’re considering fit your brand’s job and your customer base?
“Throughout development, it’s important to understand the appeal of your brand and make sure the product mirrors those qualities through visual brand language for physical products, interaction design for digital, and service design,” shares Franchino. “And, of course, the overall experience needs to be designed to reinforce your customers’ positive view of your brand.”
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How Do Design Thinking & Product Design Correlate?
You may have heard about a process called “design thinking” in passing – particularly when people discuss product design. So, how do these two ideas relate?
“Design thinking represents a really powerful and structured methodology for attacking product design where there’s not one single correct solution,” says Franchino.
Essentially, design thinking is a way of viewing a project from the consumers’ perspective – whether that’s designing a new product, overhauling business operations, developing a marketing campaign, or something else.
This shifted point of view aims to naturally place a higher emphasis on user experience and functionality. When executed properly, it results in successful campaigns and products.
“Design thinking involves a discovery phase where the designer intentionally tries to distance herself from preconceived notions and look from a fresh perspective. The process supports recognizing the possibilities to reframe a challenge – that we might not be thinking of solving the right problem,” says Franchino. “Reframing can lead to innovative solutions that are more meaningful to users. The next steps in the methodology involve a rapid succession of ideation, prototyping, and testing with users to quickly iterate concepts. This is how we bridge the gap between the great idea and producing the reality.”
If you’re thinking of testing out product design within your business, stepping into the design thinking process listed below could help you release a better, more well-rounded product on the first try.
Empathize – what are your users’ pain points?
Define – what is the problem you want to solve?
Ideate – what features and functionalities will solve the problem?
Prototype – build the product.
Test – does the product work well? Make adjustments and continue testing until it’s ready for market!
Measuring the Success of Product Design
No matter what product you design – whether it’s digital or tangible or anything in between – you can measure its success and determine if you created a product that is beneficial to your target audience. But it takes an ongoing commitment.
“To succeed over time, it’s critical to stay in touch with your users,” shares Franchino. “Be willing to bypass the traditional channels, such as distribution and sales numbers, and figure out how your products are truly resonating with the users that buy them.”
Franchino states that communicating with customers may require some formal effort, particularly through ethnography and observational research.
And unfortunately, the expensive realities of re-tooling and manufacturing changes make physical product development after launch more difficult.
The automotive industry is a great example of this in action. They addressed the need for change and evolution through vehicle model updates – every three years, there’s a refresh and every six years there’s a major redesign.
It is much easier to change digital products after launch to improve the experience, Franchino says.
Brands can also use a tool called “road mapping” to help a product evolve to continually meet users’ needs.
“Road mapping involves having a vision and planning for how your product evolves over time – features, functions, tooling, and manufacturing by understanding the need to update products,” says Franchino. “For a company like Tesla, it involves keeping the bulk of the physical end of the product the same but updating the digital experience. It feels like the product is new again without trading out the physical design.”
Finally, successful product design is a team sport and requires not just great products but distribution, sales, support, advertising, marketing, and other assistance. It’s not just a one-department job. In the digital world, products need the support of several teams across many departments in order to thrive in the commercial ecosystem.
For instance, according to Delve, packaging is often an important part of the process for many products. Thus, testing it right along with the product can make for a better product experience.
Additionally, marketing departments should be consulted with early in the product design process to ensure that they fully understand the product, are on the same page, and are enthusiastic about promoting it.
“Many great products wither on the vine because they lacked organizational and marketing support,” warns Franchino. But this can be avoided with strategic collaboration from the get-go.
Why is design thinking critical for business growth?
Delve worked with Dexcom to design a continuous glucose management (CGM) system.
This product tracks and provides important data that helps people with Type 1 diabetes better manage their condition, which can ultimately prevent complications and prolong lives.
“The process of applying the sensor used to be scary and painful,” says Franchino. “But we worked closely with Dexcom and users to design a one-button, quick and painless application.”
2. The Ascender from Ciari Guitars
"A cool-looking travel guitar that fits into a backpack that can be easily stowed in an overhead airplane bin was the dream of an entrepreneur,” shares Franchino. “The engineering that Delve executed – which involved in folding a guitar in half without it completely going out of tune – was tough enough, but we also had to consider the aesthetics, the physical feel of the guitar, and its manufacturability at a price point that would be appealing to musicians."
Of course, digital platforms can comprise product design as well. Delve collaborated with SafetyNet to create a direct-to-consumer payment security insurance product.
This product filled the need for working-class people who worry about the ability to pay their bills should they lose their job, get sick or injured.
This was a crucial niche to fill, as around 40% of Americans currently can’t come up with $400 to cover an emergency expense.
All in all, product design is an essential part of many businesses' revenue models. Whether it is a tangible item or a digital platform, modern brands need to build custom products that captivate consumers and facilitate growth.
By following the basic tenants of proper product design – identifying goals, learning what consumers want, and building user-friendly products that achieve objectives – businesses like yours will be sure to find long-term success in the market.