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Design is the New Black

Michael Peach // December 10, 2015

Product Managers should harness design principles thinking for better alignment with UX and development

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It’s hard to escape discussions around design these days. Design thinking is being broadly embraced by large (and small) organizations across industries, and not just by their design departments. The September issue of Harvard Business Review featured a cover article on “The Evolution of Design Thinking”, and recent articles in major newspapers have featured the design transformation of IBM, GE, and others. Organizations see the key principles of design thinking: empathy and user-centricity, rapid prototyping, and appetite for failure, as a way to manage both the growing complexity of technology, and the rapid pace at which they need to execute in the marketplace.

This new interest in design principles is something that deserves attention from product managers. Design in a product management context isn’t just about how a user interface is created. The principles of design thinking can be applied across the product management discipline.

Guiding product development, based on user empathy, aligns roadmap and good experience design

At its core the Product Management discipline is about either creating, or improving an experience that solves a customer problem. Traditionally the product manager breaks this experience down into a series of features or functions that are passed to a development team to build, and a UX team to wrap an interface around. Design-centric thinking turns this around. Rather than thinking of a product as a set of features, it looks at the holistic experience, and the emotional response of the user.  

Apple speaks constantly about user “surprise and delight” as their overriding goal. Building towards an emotional response requires a deep understanding of users. Visionaries like Steve Jobs could intuit this, but for most product managers this means data – taking quantitative details about user behavior along with qualitative / observational research and building an end-to-end customer journey map. The journey map doesn’t just look at how a prospective customer navigates through an interface, but encompasses the complete customer interaction with a product from discovery, through purchase, and use.  

Using data and a complete understanding of user needs, product managers can know which elements will have the most emotional resonance with users, and hone their product experience around them. They can align with UX teams to build out that experience, and embrace greater simplicity by paring down cluttering features and functions that do not provide an emotional return.

Rapid prototyping harmonizes solution experimentation with agile development cycles

The past few years have seen a marked shift towards agile methodology in product development. Agile has helped development teams deliver more quickly and consistently, but it hasn’t always been a boon for product managers. Managing process around agile cycles can consume the operational aspects of their job, pull them more closely into product development, and away from a customer focus. The key design thinking principle of rapid prototyping can help product managers better align their work with the development cycles – without being consumed by development processes.  

The design thinking approach stresses constant iteration – building multiple possible quick solutions to a particular user need. These prototypes are developed, tested, and refined or rejected quickly. The act of building out multiple possible iterations helps product teams evaluate ideas in the context of functioning solutions, rather than attempting to prioritize based on abstract ideas. Prototype experiments can be sized to align with agile cycles – allowing Product Managers to continuously implement and test new solutions.

While this approach allows teams to efficiently build out and test new ideas, the speed and volume of rapid prototyping is only successful with the right feedback mechanisms in place.  Teams must be able to quickly understand how users interact with new capabilities, and automatically capture qualitative reactions from the user cohorts that test the prototypes. Without this data teams will struggle to properly evaluate experiments.

Setting expectations for design-driven product management – data is a differentiator

Design thinking is great for innovation, and can help product teams align their priorities with their users, but it will not take the place of operational legwork. Product managers still need to effectively prioritize product roadmaps, deliver products on schedule, and measure performance.  Adding design thinking elements in the mix will actually increase the burden on measurement. Feedback loops from (quantitative and qualitative) users are critical input into customer journey maps, and absolutely necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of rapid prototypes.  Without this data, teams will struggle to realize the benefits from embracing design.


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