From UX design to Product design: A UX journey

As designers, people used come to us to ‘make stuff pretty.’ That evolved into a period in which we were tasked with creating beautiful things that were useful and usable. Nowadays, that perception has evolved further into ‘how can we make something that is beautiful, usable, profitable and that solves a real user problem?’ It is an evolution from a focus on surface-level design to holistic Product thinking.

Product thinking is the cross-pollination of Product Management and UX Design.

“When thinking of User Experience, we often think of a simple, beautiful, and easy to use feature-set of a product, that makes the user’s life easier. But as a matter of fact, features are merely a small, fragile part of the product. They are only a few of many thinkable solutions for a user’s problem the product tries to solve. Thinking in products means thinking in specific user’s problems, in jobs to be done, in goals, and in revenues. (1)”

In a previous job, I had the opportunity to exercise some Product thinking. I now believe product thinking should be practiced no matter how big or small the project. It is a process that should be followed for any product today because we no longer speak in terms of features, we speak in terms of products.

The following process that I discuss is one I have found leads to success in product design. I understand that processes evolve, change, & become outdated, but so far this approach has brought me success, which is why I felt it was important to share it with others. Please leave your comments if you find that this process can be improved or simply share it if you find it helpful. :)

Design phase 1 — Defining the problem

This is the most important part of the entire process. Remember that you don’t design for yourself, you design for your users who are diverse and unique. When presenting the customer/user need or problem to be solved, everyone at the table needs to agree on this and the product team needs to be able to clearly articulate answers to the following questions:

  • What user problem are we trying to solve?
  • How do we know it is a problem?
  • Is it worth solving this problem? (remember you work for a business that needs to make money)
  • Have others tried to solve the same problem?
  • How are we going to solve it?
  • How are we going to measure success?

These questions form the premise of every design project. If everyone on the product team doesn’t believe in the value of these core questions, the odds of product success tend toward disaster. Defining the problem will unfold the subsequent steps of the creative process. If there isn’t a problem to solve but you already are working on “solutions,” you should reconsider what you are working on.

Personal learnings

On a past project — a project that I will be using to articulate my learnings through the different design phases I will be discussing in this article — we all had an idea of what we were trying to solve, but we never formalized this to set expectations and resolve our differences in thinking. Without all stakeholders agreeing to the same definition of the problem, we ran into problems down the road when we tried to define scope and feature prioritization. Some stakeholders had a square in their minds, some imagined a triangle, and others a circle. No one had the ‘right’ answer because the team had not taken the time to collaborate and come to a consensus.

Make sure you clearly articular the problem, and that everyone is on board with the problem definition. This will save you a ton of time and effort down the road

Design phase 2 — Understand the landscape

In the past project I have been using as an example, we first wanted to understand the industry landscape by doing a thorough competitive analysis. Competitive analyses are useful for a variety of reasons:

  • Identifying current trends in patterns, color palettes, design choices, & layouts.
  • Identifying how people consume information about products
  • Understanding the underlying conversation a competitive product has with the user, and how people may understand the product
  • Understanding what intent the site elements are communicating to the user

In my experience, there typically isn’t a point in trying to reinvent the wheel. User’s familiarity and comprehension help define the wheel, and designers help solve problems using those “wheels.” In other words, it is very important that we understand what our users consider common denominators as far as patterns, layout, and interactions. Then we can deep dive on solving core problems that go beyond the surface of that collective knowledge.

In this project, we analyzed the industry patterns and techniques that were available until we felt we had a grasp on the major trends in the industry. That helped us narrow our focus and allowed us explore different and potentially improved user experiences.

Personal learnings

After the process of identifying the industry landscape, we explored a variety of different user experiences for our product. This exercise surfaced many concerns that we ultimately needed to bring to our V-team — a small, temporary group of people brought together to solve a particular problem — about the content we wanted to display in our listings — UI component that we used to show our products. We found ourselves struggling with the content that was currently available and fighting for the content we actually wanted. These conversations were initially unfruitful due to the huge design debt the product had accrued through years and years of testing. We realized that there was no point in discussing the infinite number of use cases if the content we currently had available was not useful for our users.

After a week of unfruitful meetings, we agreed that going under the route of a “clean slate” was a better approach. However, a critical component of this direction was a test plan to mitigate the potential risks associated with stripping down the content, along with a hypothesis of what may work and not work for the user.

Another big learning from this process was that sometimes it is OK to start exploring design directions without knowing every piece of the final content. Once we agreed on the user experience we wanted to follow, we continually asked ourselves “what is the content we are going to display?” “what is the hierarchy?” “how many permutations?”. While it is true that content should dictate design, sometimes the process doesn’t have to be followed as linear as you may think. It is OK to explore layout, structural elements, and patterns if it will keep you moving forward. In the end, content and patterns need to have a shared conversation with the user.

Design phase 3 — User scenarios

Choosing the layout and UI components is a critical step in the design of a product because these elements will underlie most of the scenarios your users will encounter in your product. Go outside your comfort zone of your “known direct competitors.” Look to other products that may support similar journeys with their customers. Try to identify their strategy and how they were able to accomplish the user scenarios they support. Other companies are often trying to solve the same problem even though they may not necessarily be in the same market as you.

In this phase is very important that designers and stakeholders share a vision of the story you want to tell to your customers. If that vision is not shared, you are going to run into multiple variations in the design that will waste time and effort. Having alignment and direction from the beginning will reduce churn and unnecessary explorations.

Once the team has agreed on the story that they want to tell the customer — how the product will solve a problem for them — you can then move into exploring and selecting the design patterns that will support the story your design will communicate.

Personal Learnings

We started exploring all kinds of user scenarios we saw in the market place. In hindsight, this was probably a poor decision we made because we wasted a enormous amount of effort trying to conquer every scenario in the industry.

It is important to understand what the business goals are. What are you trying to accomplish? What are the priorities of the business and, most importantly, what is the user problem you are trying to solve? The problem you are trying to solve needs to be tied to the business goals. If these two are not aligned, you are going to run into problems like we did. We were solely thinking about the customer and we forgot the link to business value. You always must remember that without revenue, there won’t be a business or a product to be built.

Design phase 4 — The jobs to be done

This design phase goes in-parallel with the user scenario phase. I would argue that it is almost impossible to break these apart. While this phase helps you understand the business goal and value, the previous one helps you anchor those values with the customer problem. These two strategies need to walk hand-in-hand.

As a reminder:

“When we buy a product, we essentially “hire” it to help us do a job. If it does the job well, the next time we’re confronted with the same job, we tend to hire that product again. And if it does a crummy job, we “fire” it and look for an alternative. (from Know Your Customers’ “Jobs to Be Done”)” (2)
“Job” is shorthand for what an individual really seeks to accomplish in a given circumstance. (2)
If you don’t know what jobs your customers are trying to get done when using your product, then for whom is it designed?

These premises will help you find the right patterns that will function as the foundation of your user story. It looks overwhelming when it comes to choosing the right pattern if the jobs-to-be-done of what we are trying to design are not well defined.

There are millions of patterns but the reality is that if you know what you are designing for and what problems you are trying to solve, the task shouldn’t become that complex. In fact it should be pretty straightforward.

Personal learnings

Define the jobs to be done before you open a Sketch file, otherwise you will have 2 million iterations that will turn into churn.

Be smart about spending your time articulating the jobs to be done of the patterns and artifacts you are choosing. Ensure your team agrees on these first. Ensure every aspect of your design supports the job your user is completing, down to the color palette. It will save you an enormous amount of time keeping your audience focused.

Choose the right tool or design in sketch with the right fidelity otherwise your audience will get derailed criticizing colors vs “Is this design doing the job for the user? Is this design articulating the user story?” “does this flow make sense from a user standpoint?”

I decided to put colors too early in the process and ended up with so many explorations that my sketch file collapsed AND I started to intertwine the problems of “the-jobs-to-be-done” phase was solving for with visual design problems.

Design phase 5 — Detailed design

This phase is the last step in your process that wraps all of the previous steps into a cohesive piece. Detailed design accounts for visual hierarchy, typography, icons, symbols and colors. If your user stories and jobs to be done are focused and scoped properly, you should be able to avoid a thousand iterations.

This phase can turn into an absolute hell if it is not scoped and well defined. Imagine playing with a grid and multiple font sizes and multiple colors. It can easily turn into a nightmare. And remember that the perfect design doesn’t exist.

As long as the design is effective, reflects the right tone, reduces friction, and is visually appealing, you are in a good spot. Don’t waste your resources up-front creating the most pixel-perfect product possible — remember, there’s always a backlog. :)

In a nutshell, “good design has more than what meets the eye; it’s not just about how it looks, but a combination of a series of thoughtful decisions that are made with the end user/viewer in mind (3)”.

Personal learnings

We did not scope this phase well and we did not define the amount of time that was going to be invested in this phase. I ended up having 2 sketch files that were so heavy that only my machine was able to open. We went to the extreme of looking for perfection and didn’t want to face that perfection does not exist.

We also forgot that design changes over time and your perfect piece of art will someday be outdated. You have to live and embrace this attitude in an industry that progresses rapidly.

Design phase 6 — Measure success

This design phase will be an entire article by itself. I will discuss how we created a plan to measure the success of our new product and I will share learnings and successes.

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P.S: This article is dedicated to my UX warriors Amy Diehl, UX Designer, and Claire Lyles, UX Designer. Without you, none of these could have ever been possible.