In 1764, cotton weaver James Hargreaves designed a hand-powered, multi-spindle spinning machine to decrease the need for labor and increase thread production. Hargreaves’ design of the spinning jenny revolutionized the cotton industry. His success sent a clear message to entrepreneurs: A well-designed product that solves a problem for a target audience can find success.
Product design is a key part of the product development process and lays the foundation for how a product will look, feel, and function. Product design is just as important for digital products—such as websites and apps—as it is for physical ones. For any entrepreneur with a big idea for a new product or service, here’s what you need to know.
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What is product design?
Product design is the process of ideating, creating, and iterating a design to develop a final product that meets a specific user or market need. At this stage in the product development process, you can expect to assess functionality and aesthetics, and make sure that the product meets both business goals and user needs.
You and your design team would start by defining the vision for the product, and depending on the product and industry, continue to fine-tune and make ongoing improvements throughout the iterative design process, which typically involves UX (user experience) designers, graphic designers, market research analysts, engineers, and other collaborators.
A codified design process ensures that communication across team members is effective, improves product quality through testing that ensures the product works as designed, and reduces time to market with efficient and automated workflows, as needed.
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6 stages of the product design process
The stages of the product design process can vary from industry to industry, and they’re never a linear process. Consider how luxury pet accessories business Supakit approached the six key phases of the product design process:
Vision is the big-picture reason for, and motivation behind, creating a product. It identifies a problem, clarifies objectives, and sets attainable success metrics for stakeholders such as your design team and customers. Examples of questions asked at this stage include: “What problem does this product solve for our audience?” or “How long will it take us to build it?” or “How will the product evolve in three, five, or seven years?”
Whether breaking into a new market or improving a previous design, it’s necessary to clearly define the final product so your team is on the same page about key metrics. Key performance indicators, or KPIs, such as cycle time and yield are measurable success criteria in manufacturing and design.
The vision of Supakit was to create a comfortable, breakaway cat collar with natural materials to enhance safety.
In the user and market research stage, you are exploring the product’s viability through field studies, online surveys, or user interviews to identify customer needs and competitors, and to assess market demand.
When looking for a collar for their own cat, the Supakit founders discovered a gap in the market for quality, well-fitting cat collars. “We researched, ’How do you get your cat to keep their collar on?’ and realized that loads of people had the same problem, and that collars were almost considered semi-disposable,” says Supakit co-founder Kevin White.
The ideation phase of product design involves brainstorming the product’s key features to solve a problem. This step might include creating user personas, which are reliable and realistic representations of the target user, and user stories describing how the product provides a solution.
When brainstorming product feature ideas for the Supakit collar, the co-founders chose to produce luxury collars using high-quality leather instead of cheaper materials. “As cat owners and lovers, we made a decision we’d want for our own pet,” says co-founder Leili Farzaneh.
A prototype is an early version of your product under development. Creating sketches and prototypes is a critical stage in the product design process. A product prototype can identify design flaws and determine whether the product meets user needs. Design teams often build a minimal viable product, a version of a product with just enough features to conduct early user analysis. Incorporating user feedback can reduce the risk of costly changes later in the product development process.
For a physical product, getting a prototype made might involve making a digital mockup, then making a DIY prototype or outsource prototyping to a supplier or manufacturer. For software development, you might hand-draw sketches of key user flows and/or create wireframes, which are blueprints for the structure of a software program. The process differs by industry.
For example, Supakit’s co-owners created a cat collar prototype from a simple band of leather to try on their kitty, Lola. “I had loads of scraps of leather and other materials lying around, so we just started experimenting,” says Leili.
Testing is crucial to determine if the product functions correctly. Usability testing can help designers identify issues and make the necessary adjustments before the product is built and shipped. For digital products, this step can include A/B testing, as well as security and compatibility testing between various devices and platforms.
When Supakit designed its cat harness, it relied on a test group of cats and their owners.
Design iteration continues after a product hits the market. Product management teams monitor the performance of a product, while product marketing teams might employ net promoter score surveys or A/B testing to plan improvements, new features, or even create new products. After its cat collar launch, Supakit customers requested the company manufacture a cat harness.
5 key elements of product design
There are five key elements of product design that ensure a product meets user needs and finds success in the marketplace. These include:
The functionality of a product is central to its design. A functional product meets user needs and can enhance the user experience, reduce costs, and increase product value. A well-designed software application, for example, is easily navigable and quickly performs tasks.
Visuals determine how consumers perceive products, and they play a significant role in the purchasing decision process since consumers make judgments in a matter of seconds. If a product meets the functionality needs, design aesthetics can help it gain a competitive edge.
A visually appealing product can also strengthen your brand identity and reinforce your brand values by incorporating key brand elements such as color scheme or sustainable materials.
A quality product meets customer expectations and industry standards. Factors that help determine quality include product performance, durability, and reliability. Quality products can generate positive reviews, build customer loyalty, and boost brand reputation.
Sustainable design principles increasingly drive the product development team’s process. If you want to create products that have a positive impact on the environment, then incorporate sustainable materials and energy efficiency into the manufacturing process for your product designs.
5. User experience
The user experience (UX) is the overall experience users have when interacting with a product. An easy-to-use product that solves a problem can lead to customer satisfaction and, in turn, increase the number of customers and revenue. In the design process, designers should focus on usability and consider ways to make an emotional connection to enhance the user experience.
Product design tools and techniques
Product designers can use a variety of tools and techniques to aid their process.
Popular design tools
- 3D printing. Utilizing 3D printing can aid designers during the conceptualization and prototyping phases of the product design process.
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- Computer-aided design (CAD). When prototyping products, designers can use computer software to create 3D models. Prototyping tools like this save time and help designers identify opportunities to improve products.
- Collaborative web apps. Web applications like Figma or InVision can support designers collaborating on interface design processes. Product managers, designers, and engineers can organize all the project components on the app, making their workflow more efficient and improving communication.
Popular design techniques
- Design sprints. Product teams use the five-phase design sprint technique for problem-solving. The five steps are to empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.
- Usability testing. Conducting usability testing can help determine necessary modifications to improve the user experience throughout the design process. Involving real users in the testing process can provide designers with insights into how users interact with the product, determining its ease of learning and efficiency of use.
- User journey mapping. During the ideation phase, product design teams often apply insights from research to create user journey maps, also known as customer journey maps. These visualizations outline how key user groups will interact with the product.
- Wireframing. A wireframe or a sketch is a visual outline of a product’s structure and functionality. This design technique might include the key elements of a webpage, or provide a blueprint for content. Designers use wireframes as cost-effective prototypes to test ideas for digital products.
Product design process FAQ
What are some common mistakes in the product design process?
- Insufficient research. Without conducting the user and market research to fully understand the needs of potential buyers, it can be challenging to design a product that will be successful in the marketplace.
- Focusing too much on aesthetics. Putting too much focus on aesthetics in the design process is a common mistake that can sacrifice functionality if equal attention is not paid to usability and product performance.
- Not considering the manufacturing process. Research the manufacturing process early in the product design process to better inform your production plans and costs.
Why is user experience important in the product design process?
The user experience (UX) describes how a user interacts with a product. A successful product design process focuses on the end user throughout the research, prototyping, and testing phases to improve usability and increase customer satisfaction.
How can a product design process help ecommerce business owners?
For ecommerce retailers, a comprehensive product design process informs the product development process and can improve sales. Online consumers cannot touch or try products, so product designers must optimize the visual representation of the product for the website experience to convert visitors into paying customers.