A Complete Guide to Product Design

People demand a lot of products.

Different people demand different products.

These vary in shapes, sizes, color, etc.

But there’s one thing in particular that many businesses focus on.

The design of the product.

More and more businesses are demanding high-quality product design to make their products stand out.

In this article, we’ll look into what is product design, what the product design process looks like and why product design is crucial for the success of a business.

What is Product design

Product design is the process of designing products that satisfy user’s needs that align with business goals. 

Product designers work with businesses to create consistently successful products keeping the user’s needs in mind. This helps brands with the sustainability of their products and their long-term success.

Origin of Product Design

Product design is very similar to industrial design.

According to Industrial Designers Society of America:

Industrial design is the professional practice of designing products used by millions of people worldwide every day. Industrial designers not only focus on the appearance of a product but also on how it functions, is manufactured and ultimately the value and experience it provides for users.

Though the both definitions may be confused or overlap with each other  there is a difference.

Industrial design deals with a wide range of physical products for mass-production. Product design deals with the design of all products – physical and digital.

What does the product design process look like?

The product design process could vary depending on what approach you take.

Generally, the product design process consists of:

  • Defining business goals and product vision
  • Product research
  • Brainstorming
  • Designing the product
  • Testing

I’ll break down this process explaining each step along the way. But first we need to understand a term called, design thinking.

With a business mindset you think about a problem and come up with a solution whereas, as a designer, the thought process is slightly different.

When thinking about the design of a product you have to adopt a problem-solving approach. As designers, it is easy to get carried away with the design of the product. 

Interestingly, the most important aspect of the design process isn’t the actual design – it’s the thinking behind that design.

Why you do, what you do.

Design thinking is a way of thinking where the user’s needs and perspectives are put first. You can say it’s a user-centered way of thinking.

Design thinking is achieved by following a thinking process. That may look something like this:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Brainstorming
  • Prototype
  • Testing

Let’s dive deeper into how to implement these into your product designs.

Empathize

Empathy deals with understanding the user’s perspective. To empathize with your users you have to put yourself in their place.

Let’s take an example:

You’re designing an app that allows users to stream movies on their smartphones which starts with “N” and ends with “x” (wink, wink).

Now, put yourself in your user’s shoes.

What would you want in an app that streams movies? What are your expectations? What do you think would make it better from the current apps out there?

Let’s say you want to be able to binge-watch a series without always searching for the show. This means you could add a “Favorite Movies/Shows” section where you can save all the shows you want to watch.

This kind of thinking allows designers to better understand the user’s needs, which makes their lives easier and a more loyal customer to your brand.

Define

In this phase of design thinking you need to be able to actually pinpoint the main aims of the product. This will help your team stay on the right track. 

You need to be able to define who the target audience is, how the product will help them, and how it aligns with the goals of the business.

Brainstorming

Once you understand the needs of your consumers and define the product’s vision it’s time to brainstorm some ideas.

This can include the production team to use techniques such as, sketching or storyboarding to visualize ideas. 

It could also be a session where each individual member shares his ideas and hope one sticks.

Prototype

After all the ideas have been developed and the product design process has been implemented (discussed below) it is time to develop a prototype.

A prototype is a sample of the final product to test how the product performs and how users interact with it.

Testing

The prototype is then given to users to test and then receive feedback on the product.

This is done through the use of interviews, focus groups or surveys.

Product designers may ask questions to get a better idea of what users want and what they don’t want. This would help them improve the product to ensure a successful launch.

Product Design Process

Now that we know how to “think” before designing a product it’s time to understand the steps taken to create a successful product design.

Defining business goals and product vision

This stage is crucial for the design to stay intact and the team to stay focused. You have to clearly define what your business goals are and what you are aiming to achieve. 

Your product research would depend on what goals you are trying to achieve with the product design.

Ask yourself - what are you trying to achieve with the product?

Higher sales? Stronger customer base? More profit?

These will be your corporate, long-term goals.

When you define those, your product vision should align with those goals. This will ensure a results-driven approach rather than guessing.

Are you targeting beginners? Then the product should be intuitive and have a very basic easy-to-understand design so the users don’t end up confused.

Are you building an advanced model for experts? Then you should focus more on functionality.

This difference is due to the fact that beginners and experts look at items differently.

You’ll rarely ever see “normal” computer users use Linux computers. That’s because Linux has a complicated operating system and you’d have to be a tech geek to figure it out.

You might think that, since the Linux OS is hard to understand, doesn’t that mean they have a bad product design?

No, because they have clearly defined their business goals and product vision. 

One such goal is that Linux targets more advanced computer users like hackers and programmers. 

Linux achieves that goal through its advanced operating system.

Product Research

With your goals defined you have to conduct product research.

Product research is essential for your product design as you won’t be wasting your time trying to guess what users want if you conduct good product research. 

This would save you a lot of time and money down the road.

Product research can be broken into 2 main parts: user research and market research.

User research

User research deals with studying and understanding user behavior. You’ll look into how users interact with a product, their expectations, and their problems.

When it comes to user research, product designers have a few techniques which they can use:

Interviews

Conducting interviews with potential users are great to have a direct and clear idea of the users’ feedback. 

These interviews are a one-on-one conversation with the interviewer and the user and are usually conducted for 30 mins to an hour.

During these interviews, the researcher would want to ask questions related to the product vision defined above. Failure to do this effectively would waste a lot of time and resources and cause the product design process to take a wrong turn.

Focus groups

Focus groups are group interviews where a number of different users are interviewed altogether. It is an effective research technique as it gathers data quickly from a number of users.

Different people have different opinions and the more you know the more chances you have in making a product that resonates with your audience.

Online surveys

Online surveys are a great research tool for reaching a wider audience. They allow you to collect data from users by providing them with a questionnaire and then analyzing the answers.

Online surveys don’t cost a lot to make and manage. Nowadays, many business owners might choose to conduct online surveys through Google forms – which is a free online survey maker.

This is ideal for small businesses and start-ups.

A major downside to this research method is that there isn’t any direct dialogue between the researcher and the users. This means that even if you do get a good list of answers from users it would be difficult to interpret their responses.

Market research

Market research deals with identifying demands, patterns, and trends of the target market. You take a look at your competitors; see what they are doing, what’s working and what isn’t.

Knowing who your competitors are and what products they are providing is necessary for you to do well. You need to know what products are already available in the market so you could find an opportunity for your product.

The “opportunity” here is going to give you a competitive advantage over your competitors and would ultimately be your unique selling point (USP).

Having a competitive advantage would make sure that you aren’t lost in the sea of the competition.

To implement this in your product design you need to conduct competitive research.

Competitive research

Competitive research is a detailed analysis of your competitors to identify market demands and trends.

Competitive research includes 2 types of competitors:

  • Direct competitors – These companies offer a product similar to yours and compete for the same target audience e.g. Pepsi and Coca Cola.
  • Indirect competitors – These companies offer a product that can be used as an alternative to your product but isn’t directly related e.g. Coffee and mineral water.

When conducting competitive research you should take into account both types of competitors to minimize the risk of your product’s success.

Brainstorming

The brainstorming or ideation phase is where the production team sits down and starts generating ideas for the product design.

In this stage it is essential to know that no idea is a bad idea. The main purpose of brainstorming is to throw out as many ideas as you can.

When brainstorming the quantity of ideas matter - not the quality.

The production team might also use visuals to convey their ideas. This makes it easier to interpret the idea and its practicality.

Since product design requires a user-centered approach you not only visualize design ideas but also imagine how users would interact with a product.

Sketching

One way of presenting your ideas can be through sketching.

Sketching allows the production team to visualize what the layout of the design would look like and analyze how users may interact with it.

It is also inexpensive and fast to do making it effective to generate different solutions for a design.

Storyboarding

Storyboarding involves creating a narrative in which you show steps of how users would interact with a design.

These are usually rough illustrations of what a typical user would think before, and after using a product.

Wireframing

A wireframe is a template that presents the structure of the overall design. Wireframes are becoming an increasingly popular idea generation choice amongst designers. These visual guides give a clear idea of where the main elements of a design would be placed from images to buttons.

These are usually created digital using web/app design software such as Adobe XD or Figma.

Designing the product

After brainstorming numerous ideas, the production team need to pick the best ideas and refine them. These ideas are then analyzed, criticized and developed to make up the final design.

In this phase of the product design process the design team will now start working towards the problem and develop concepts to provide a solution.

Prototyping

A prototype is a sample of the product that is used for testing purposes. It is created in order to experiment with how users would interact with the product.

A prototype usually starts off small where the designer designs core functions of the product, sends them for testing and refines it according to the feedback.

Prototypes are helpful for learning how users interact with the product, what they like, dislike, and what to improve on.

Design system

Another great method used for designing the product is creating a design system.

A design system is a collection of different design elements that align with your brand’s theme and message. This makes sure that all the designs remain consistent and follow a similar theme.

For designers, it is really helpful as it maximizes efficiency. You don’t need to go back and forth trying to find which font, color or layout to choose as everything is already pre-set.

After creating a design system, you can re-use it for other future products or prototypes.

Testing

After finalizing your prototype it is time to test it out with users.

There are different techniques to test your prototype. Here are 3 of the most common:

  • Usability testing
  • Guerilla testing
  • Dogfooding

We’ll break these down to get a better understanding of which one is most suitable for your product design.

Usability testing

Usability testing is a qualitative research technique – one that focuses on quality of answers rather than numerical data.

Usability testing is often conducted in a formal setting with a moderator gathering data from the users. This data is in the form of verbal and non-verbal feedback. This collection of data is then analyzed and used to refine the prototype to offer a better user experience.

The Nielson Norman group also suggested that if you are going for one type of research method – make it usability testing.

Guerilla Testing

Guerilla testing is an informal research method where the researcher approaches people in public and asks them to test their product.

This kind of research is cheaper compared to usability testing as it doesn’t require a moderated environment and professional researcher (though one might be preferred).

Guerilla testing allows you to collect data quickly which can be beneficial if you are on a tight deadline.

Dogfooding

Yes, I know, it’s a weird name.

The term “dogfooding” comes from the phrase “eat your own dog food” and is a popular product testing technique.

Dogfooding is when the design team passes the interactive product to in-house members and get feedback on it. Testing like this creates empathy between the team, promotes a good work culture and a comfortable work environment.

The in-house members might be able to provide insight that “typical” users might not be able to provide. This is because members of the production team might be able to explain their problems clearer than average users.

Meaning, users may feel discomfort with the product but, they might not be able to put it into words.

This is quite a popular technique for product testing and usually gives good results.

What is the difference between Product Designer & UX designer?

The main difference between product designers and UX designers is that:

Product designers are responsible for the entire product design process whereas, UX designers are responsible for just providing a satisfactory user experience.

It should be noted that, UX design isn’t totally separate from product design.

We discussed the product design process above and saw that product designers also work towards providing a pleasurable user experience.

However, the difference lies in how many responsibilities the designer takes on.

A product designer is responsible for not only providing a good UX but also focus on customer satisfaction, market research and the overall feeling of the product.

Because of the increase in responsibilities a product designer is typically paid more than UX designers.

In an article where I discussed the 11 highest-paying graphic design jobs I pointed this out.

The average annual salary of a product designer in the U.S. is $104,138. Compare that to a UX designer that earns $89,027 per year on average.

Conclusion

This article should give you a clear idea of what a product designer is and what the product design process is like.

Product designers work with businesses to create consistently successful products keeping the user’s needs in mind. More and more businesses are requiring product designers to get an edge over their competitors and improve their branding.

The product design process contains 5 stages which align together to understand what users exactly want and make it into a reality.

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