Bringing UX Principles to Product Design

December 11th, 2018

In some ways, it’s a bit strange that UX design and product design are treated as distinct jobs. Both are ultimately concerned with meeting the needs of users by developing products and services based on feedback and observational research, but a quick look at the way employers describe these roles reveals that there’s clearly some important distinction between them.

So what sets them apart?

There’s going to be a bit of variation from company to company, but generally product designers have a wider range of responsibilities that go beyond basic questions of usability. Take affordability, for instance. Designing a product that meets every user need won’t amount to much if it’s so expensive that nobody can buy it. Product designers have to consider market forces that could impact cost and availability, as well as how to make products stand out in a hyper-competitive environment. They also need to think about how to translate the latest great UX idea into a viable reality, one that not only makes sense for users, but also for the company itself. What’s the point of building the most user-friendly product ever conceived if the company can’t produce it cost effectively enough to turn a profit?

UX Principles in Product Design

If product design refers more to the “big picture” agenda for any design project, UX principles can be extremely helpful. In the first place, companies need to know what sort of products they want to deliver to customers. The only way they can answer that question is by understanding and empathizing with those customers to find out what they need and want from those products.

These fundamental questions are traditionally the purvey of UX research. Through a combination of surveys, observational research, and continuously iterative usability testing, UX researchers are quite good at identifying customer pain points and drawing forth insights to create a picture of what people want from products and services. It’s up to the product designers to decide whether or not these concepts are viable, but having the data available is tremendously beneficial to the overall design process.

With iterative prototyping being a key aspect of the design thinking process for UX designers, product designers can extend this concept to well beyond the research and testing phase. Digital products like mobile phone apps or computer software have evolved into a unique market position because they’re never really “finished” in the traditional sense of the term. These programs are continuously being changed according to user feedback, new user interface methodologies, and security considerations. The average successful mobile phone app, for instance, is updated 1 to 4 times each month. While some of these updates are minor tweaks to coding that users barely notice, they can sometimes be substantial, fundamentally changing the product’s core user experience.

In the digital space, today’s product designers are more akin to product curators, engaging in continuous improvement based on accumulated data measuring user behavior. No amount of usability testing can truly replicate the conditions of actual use by actual customers. With digital-based products, designers have the opportunity to extend UX-style research beyond the product’s release date. Not only can the product be altered to better serve user needs, it can also be redesigned on the fly to meet new needs as they arise. This gives many of today’s products an “evergreen” quality that allows companies to continue delivering the services their customers want without having to go back to the drawing board every year.

Even physical products are subjected to a similar design cycle. While many consumers complain about companies continuously releasing newer versions of the same product (smartphones come to mind here), the truth is that each iteration of the product addresses some usability concerns customers had with the previous model. For technology products, software updates make it possible to expand usability features beyond the product’s original conception.

By adopting a UX perspective on design, product designers can deliver better experiences to customers while also helping companies to efficiently get the most out of their existing products. As the line between UX designers and product designers continues to blur, users will be the ultimate beneficiaries as they choose from a range of products that are continuously being adapted, refined, and reiterated to meet their changing needs.

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