The Fundamentals of Great Product Design

By BrainStation August 1, 2017

There’s a common misconception that product design focuses purely on aesthetic; making things look nice. Yet in reality, good product design is all about creating value for the user and serves a purpose to solve a problem. Consequently, Designers have a significant impact on the strategy that drives a business forward.

So what are the key considerations for great product design?

Have a beginner’s mindset

Designers can approach a new project with a beginner’s mindset; this is a Zen Buddhist concept that focuses on openness and a lack of preconception when encountering new ideas. As humans we tend to take a “the way things are” approach; we’re used to how something works and stop questioning it. Our brains practice “habituation” as a way of creating free space in our brains, so once we’ve seen or done something a few times, we get used to it. Yet when it comes to product design, this mentality needs to be challenged and shifted to notice problems so that we can focus on opportunities to innovate and challenge. We can do this by asking questions and shelving our expertise mindset.

Always perform User Research

Part of the role of a Designer is cultural; this means emphasizing the need for user research and getting your entire team on board with it. Equip your team with the right questions needed to ask users. Work with the data that you have and figure out how you can get prototypes and ideas out of an internal conversation with your team in front of users. Identify what the consumer needs, their motivations, what makes them tick, and their pain points. Focus on solving their problems through observation, interviews, and make it an authentic interaction. Get them to tell stories to provide detailed information on their experience.

As a researcher, be curious over methodical. Let the insights flow naturally as opposed to digging in too much. Your goal should be to identify a solution that is even better than how humans are going about solving that problem right now, and figure out how this solution can fit with your business goals. User research should take place throughout the product development lifecycle, too. You’ll learn new things, ideas will be validated, you’ll experience failure, and learn how to tackle issues like maintenance.

Put effort into creating great chemistry within your design team

The skill-sets and seniority within your design team should compliment each other, i.e. a mix of skills and a mix of juniors (do-ers) and seniors (leaders). If you’re a smaller team, designers should be able to work closely with marketers, product managers, and engineers, and be able to empathize with them to develop a shared respect.

Focus on building internal relationships between engineering, product and design teams; you can assign tasks within team tools like Asana, but at a certain point having teams sit together on a product is highly valuable and develops empathy; everything is viewed as a task versus collaboration.

Finally, don’t be protective of the design process; open up the design experience to other areas of the company, like sharing work regularly, broadcasting in-progress updates, etc. Designers have incredible tools at their disposal to showcase their ideas and prototypes; by demonstrating different ways to provide great user experiences you can facilitate better communication.

Have a launch or hand-off deadline

Even if it changes, it can help you move things forward. Designers notoriously want to work on “polishing” a product, which could be a never ending task without a deadline. Identify a shared definition of what “quality” work looks like, and ensure this quality guideline is met at said deadline.

Make incremental changes

Think broadly and long term with your vision, then break it down into iterations that your users can digest. We live in a society that is obsessed with innovation and growth, yet incremental innovation provides huge value, though it often goes unnoticed. You don’t want to overwhelm users with large interface changes that may negatively impact their experience – even if these smaller improvements lead to smaller growth. Two examples of this are the iPhone and Nest; both have had many iterations over the years, but they have been very calculated, small updates aimed at improving efficiency while maintaining the user experience.

Be flexible

If a project doesn’t feel right, or the user experience is suffering, be okay with killing a project – just do it tactfully. When teams work independently and are siloed with distinct, hard goals, it can lead to tunnel vision. When product, design and marketing teams come together, this collaboration can make for a better product development experience, and if a project needs to be killed there will likely be less push back because team members aren’t so caught up on their specific, individual goals. To achieve this, focus on creating a company culture where the team feels like they are constantly evolving together.

Skills to nurture

Empathy is a foundational skill in product design, which means understanding what it means to connect with people through launching a product. When it comes to problem-solving, successful designers shift their thinking from focusing on the problem to the solution. Learn how to look at problems as opportunities for change. Be curious, investigative and challenge norms.