What Is Product Design and Why It Matters

Masha Panchenko

Surely product design is not a new thing for you. We all use this term here and there, but the moment when you consider hiring a product designer, you need to know more. As a SaaS design agency, we know a lot about product design. So let's start from the beginning.

What is Product Design

Product design is the process of developing a usable product that meets customer's needs by defining the users' problems and finding creative solutions for these problems. The term is also used to refer to the result of this process, the design qualities of an existing product.

Product design is based on design thinking (we’ll get to this term later).

Where Does It Come from?

Most common views trace product design back to the mid 19th century, when mass production took off. However, there are always people who would say that product design was always there, as long as humans started using tools in prehistoric times.

What is meant by product design nowadays? When we say product design, we typically refer to software products. Yet sometimes it is used to describe material objects, such as furniture, electronics, dishes, or something else. In these cases, the term industrial design is also used. If you see a person with a university degree in Product design, it is likely that the specialization is industrial design.

Now that we know the origins of the term, it is clear that the design approach has way broader applications than just software development. It is not just some trendy concept without proven efficiency.

What Is the Difference between Product and UX Design?

product designer vs ux designer

Product design and UX design are sometimes confused. If you have only one designer working on the product, you probably don’t have to worry about those details. However, if you consider hiring a designer or outsourcing, you will be faced with a wide variety of designer backgrounds, including UX and product and many more.

The is no clear divider between the two, but there are some nuances that you need to understand if you want to know what each of them can contribute to your project.

Remember what was said about product design being a process? Process is the key here. UX designers conduct research and develop products, but their work is finished when the product is done and ready to run. Product designers continue the work after the initial launch, analyzing the performance of the product, fixing the bugs, and improving it in the long-term.

UX designers tend to focus on improving usability, flow, and accessibility of the product. Product designers keep in mind all of this, as well, but they take a stronger business approach to the product.

If you struggle to decide whether you should hire a UX designer or product designer, here we have explained all the differences. And if you are already considering hiring one, check out these examples of product designer job description.

Product Design Process

The first thing you need to understand about the design process is that even though it consists of several steps it is not linear. During the work process, the design team will have to return, make changes, and probably repeat one and the same task more than once.

With this in mind, let's figure out what stages of creating a product are there.

Research

The first step in the new product planning is research. Of course, before start working on the project, it's essential to know why the product exists and who will use it.

In order to answer these questions, you have to carefully examine the market and potential users.

The brief

The first thing the design team does is study the brief. This document helps to learn the client's requirements and understand the client's vision of the project.  

The brief provides important information from the customer's viewpoint. It includes the company background, the company's goals, target audience description, design requirements, deadlines, budget, etc. Check out these examples of good design briefs.

User interviews

A user interview is a quick and easy way to understand how users feel, what they think, and what they believe to create a design that satisfies their needs. It allows to find out the customers' problems and pains as well as come up with effective solutions to these problems.

User interviews were a key element when we worked with Gridle.  Having been on the market for several years already, the company had its loyal customers. We conducted six user interviews to understand what they expect from this product. It helped us to discover what the customers wanted to see in the new version of Gridle.

Visual research

The goal of visual research is to gather ideas for the user interface and learn the market trends to be able to create not only appealing but also usable and competitive design.

Competitor analysis

When analyzing competitors, you can find the strengths and weaknesses of their products. This will help to determine the direction of the whole product design concept and understand how to develop a better design solution.

You can divide the competitor analysis into the following steps:

  • Create a list of the main competitors
  • Research the market taking into account the design, usability, content, and functionality of competitors' products.

During rival analysis, the task is to find out why competitors made certain design decisions, what they wanted to achieve, what goals they pursued.

Moodboard
moodboard
Example of moodboard created by our team for LittleDate mobile app

Moodboards are a kind of preview of the future design. It helps to present and coordinate the visual components of the project:

  • Photos or illustrations
  • Color schemes
  • Fonts
  • Slogans or headlines
  • Logos
  • Icons, buttons, patterns.

In general, mood boards include all the graphic materials that will communicate the concept and mood of the project.

After you've gathered the information at the research phase, it's time to identify key user's problems and develop a strategy to solve them.

Strategy

At this stage, the product team has to generate a lot of ideas and form them into a consistent strategy.

Brainstorm

Image credit: gohighbrow.com

The most effective way to start generating ideas is to brainstorm. The essence of the brainstorming method is that a group of qualified experts gather in the meeting to think about various solutions for one problem. The team is divided into two groups: the first generate ideas, and the second analyzes them.

Customer journey map

One way to visualize the ideas the team developed while brainstorming is to create a customer journey map.

The customer journey map displays the points between the customer and the product that needs to be designed. The map also helps to understand what emotions customers experience, and what difficulties may arise during the customer journey.

A customer journey map helps to develop a design strategy targeted at your customer.

It may look simple or complex. Customer journey maps outline customers' steps and describe their thoughts and feelings.

Customer journey map designed by Eleken
Image credit: dapperapps.com.au

It's better to create a simple, linear customer journey that clearly shows the way of the user to their goal.

User flow

While the customer journey map aims at the user experience design of the whole process,  user flow focuses on the process of using the product.

For example, a prospect searches for a file hosting service. He/she needs to research different variants, choose one of them, purchase a service, and then use it. It means there are four stages the customer goes through before they reach the goal. You can create a user flow for the stage of purchase (until the customer buys a service) or the stage of using the software.

Therefore, user flows are diagrams that project the possible paths the user goes through when using the product until they achieve a certain goal.

Here is an example of a user flow designed by our team.

This user flow was created for Handprinter, a unique startup with the mission to make positive impacts on the environment. To make Handprinter easy to use, we simplified the user flow to only three steps (read the case study).

Here is one more example of a simple user flow designed by Eleken. Due to its simplicity, it ensures a consistent experience for users.

Wireframes

A wireframe is a low-detail representation of a design. It must clearly show:

  • main elements of each page
  • their structure
  • user interaction with the interface and its approximate visualization.

Consider a wireframe as the skeleton of your design and remember that it must represent all the important elements of the final product.

Wireframes should be quick to build and the best variant is to build it in a team while discussing each step from idea to product.

The wireframes should be aesthetic, but simple. Black-gray-white is a typical wireframe color scheme (you can add blue to indicate links).

Here are some examples of wireframes that our team designed:

Wireframe for TopVet, a cloud platform to manage the veterinary practice
Wireframe for CongressBookers
Example of a wireframe for Pomocup (a device for ski tourers)

Design

A strategy helps to create a clear vision of what the team is going to build. So the next stage, the design, covers the visualization of all the ideas and strategic decisions.  

Prototype

The prototype is the basic layout of the product that visualizes all elements and functions. It allows you to visually illustrate all ideas, as well as make edits with minimal effort and cost.

Prototypes may have different forms.  It can be a drawing on a piece of paper or a complicated multi-page structure created in Adobe XDSketchFigma, etc. Still, all prototypes do the same job - they synchronize the client's and the implementor's ideas about how the design should look.

Here is an example of how Eleken developed a product prototype for LittleDate.

Here is a list of problems and tasks that the prototype helps to solve:

  • Visualization of the idea and understanding of how the product will look like at the early stages
  • The ability to make changes and refine the vision at a minimum cost
  • The ability to more accurately estimate the timing and budget of the whole development process
  • Understanding the direction for the future development of the product.

When creating a prototype, it's very important to validate and refine it.

As we were working on Textmagic, a customer experience platform, we needed to create a user-centric design. We were building the prototypes in Figma and Textmagic's team showed those prototypes to users. They collected clients' feedback and analyzed them to learn how we can improve the design and develop new ideas for a better problem-solution (check the case study).

When the prototypes are ready, it's time to pass them to the development team and start the testing of the product design.

Test

This stage is important as it allows the team to understand if the concept they've developed works well.

Dogfooding

The phrase "eat your own dog food" defines the practice in which the team uses its own product to check its performance, usability, ease of use, etc.

Imagining yourself as a client allows you to find obvious bugs that are revealed during the operation phase and are not visible during development. Dogfooding allows you to see and evaluate your own product or service from the client's point of view.

Usability testing

Usability testing is a method of evaluating an interface in terms of usability and efficiency of its use. To perform this kind of testing, you need to engage representatives of the target audience of the product.

Often, usability testing is carried out in two stages:

  • The user passes a certain number of tasks (quantitative or qualitative tests)
  • The user takes part in the interview or fills out a survey (qualitative research).

As a rule, you should carry out usability testing when the software interface is ready and you want to understand what problems arise during the interaction. As well, it helps to check if the product meets user expectations.

Measure and refine

As we've mentioned earlier, the process of product design is not stable and linear. When the product is launched it doesn't mean you can breathe out and relax. The team needs to constantly track product performance and make in-time improvements to keep up with market requirements and meet the customer's needs.

Monitoring the right metrics (link to Key SaaS Metrics) will help to understand how people interact with your product.  

Of course, you can't measure success only with analytics. That's why never forget about user's feedbacks. Conduct surveys, user interviews, analyze customer support requests, etc. It will give you enough insights into customers' behavior to be able to provide reasonable improvements to the product.

Design Thinking

“Human-centered design thinking—especially when it includes research based on direct observation—will capture unexpected insights and produce innovation that more precisely reflects what consumers want.”

Tim Brown, Design Thinking (Harvard Business Review)

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation. The roots of this concept go back to the creative industry of the 1950s, but it has evolved since then and is now applied to a wide range of issues, not always design-related.

The basic principles of design thinking, according to Tim Brown, are the following:

Design thinking principles
Image credit: maqe.com
  • Empathy. To focus the solution around people’s problems, we have to understand them well first. Design thinking departs from the research of the problems of people and is not finished until the product is tested on them and thus proves to have solved the initial problem.
  • Optimism. To find a good solution, you need to believe that there is one.
  • Integrative thinking. To come up with an innovative solution, sometimes we need to go beyond regular rational thinking to have a different perspective.
  • Experimentalism. Willingness to try something new when nobody knows if it would work is not as common as it sounds, and it is even more treasured when you consider that you have to be ready for many experiments.
  • Collaboration. It is proven that crowdsourcing problem solution brings up great innovative ideas from people with the background lying in a different field than the problem itself. The design thinking process is more productive when it involves a diverse group of collaborators.

If you want to see how design thinking is applied in real cases, check out our list of examples of design thinking.

Business Value of Product Design

The value of good design is as obvious to some people as it is completely unclear to others. And, as you know, the obvious things are the hardest to explain rationally. Luckily, there are researches that bring substantial arguments to the importance of design in business value. McKinsey followed 300 companies in different countries and industries for 5 years to find out how design approaches correlated with financial success.

They measured the McKinsey Design Index (MDI) that reflects the strength of design in companies. The graphs presented in the research demonstrate that companies with higher MDI have the percentage of annual growth twice higher compared to the average.

Graph. Annual growth rising by 10% of design-oriented companies
Image credit: McKinsey

The same research shows that the companies that truly stand out tend to have better financial performance than the competitors. If design helps big established companies to stand out, it means it is even more important for emerging businesses that have to thrive to attract and retain users.

Best Product Design Examples

  • Uber. An app that combined two things that already existed: a system of taxi ordering through operators and a market of self-employed taxi drivers on the streets.
  • Airbnb. A product that changed the whole tourism industry by connecting short time renters with their clients directly.
  • Highlighter marker. This beautiful and simple product brought as simple as a genius solution to the need to highlight parts of texts, making it fast and easy to notice, just by broadening the tip and using bright colors.
Image credit: jakob5200 / pixabay.com

So, basically, most of the popular things that are simple but genius, easy to use, and, consequently, have success on the market are the products of applied design thinking. Once you know the design thinking principle, you understand that it stands behind so many things that we use daily.

If you want more, check out these lists of great design examples:

Best SaaS Websites

Human-Centered Design Examples

3 Things You Have to Know about Product Design

If there are just 3 things you will remember from this article, let it be the following:

  • Product design is a complex process that includes a variety of tasks, ranging from research to prototyping and testing.
  • Product design is human-centered (as all the good things are), but involves more consideration of the needs of the business and market situation.
  • Product design is never-ending (or almost so). You cannot say it is a clearly defined set of steps. Everyone follows the structure they consider the most suitable and efficient, but the process may include an unexpected number of iterations that are crucial for understanding the problem and finding the best solution to it.

If you want to learn more about product development, check out our guide to building a product roadmap.


Read more about SaaS design