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The Five Ws of Product Design in Modern Application Development

NearForm enterprise application design workflow

It’s been a few weeks since I started as a product designer for NearForm and I feel super lucky and humbled to share the same space with a group of amazing and talented designers as well as the talent of all the NearFormers—I know, it sounds much better than being a Googler, doesn’t it ? :). Because I was getting familiar with how we work at NearForm and the experiences we had with clients, I wanted to write a short post answering the Five W's of product design and how it comes about to our design vision when we consider modern application development or modernisation of legacy software:

  • What is product design?
  • Who is product design for and how you do it?
  • Why you need product design?
  • Where you need product design?
  • When you need product design?

So, without further ado, let’s crack on with this baby.

1. What is Product Design as it relates to Software?

Let's start with what product design isn’t as it might be a better starting point to get the misconceptions or first impressions out of the window.

Product Design

  • is not just making something pretty, shiny or beautiful to the eyes.
  • is not your mom saying how great you are at design.
  • is not that pristine weather app on Dribbble which uses loads of gradients and sparkly animations.
  • is not an object of admiration by a selected few that manage to understand what you are doing.
  • is not art.

I could go on, but I think you might be getting an idea where I'm going with this. If not, read on...

So, what is it then? Running a google search you’ll find many similar definitions with different levels of details, but in essence, product design is solving product problems by putting people first to find out problem scenarios, generate alternative solutions and creating a value proposition—or a set of them—overviewing the entire process from start to finish. It's an iterative and collaborative process done as many times as needed to learn from customers' behaviour patterns, and you do it until you can spark as many smiles as possible from them.

Take 3 minutes of your time to watch this short clip from the movie 'The Founder' as it does illustrate blissfully what I'm talking about the process of product design. Go ahead, we'll wait here.

Pretty awesome, isn’t it? Product design is just that: It’s trying one idea, studying it, prototyping it, finding out with users what works and what doesn't and you repeat this process until it is polished enough that becomes something beautiful and frictionless.

As product designers, we sometimes struggle to define our role, since we are involved in many parts of the process of product development. We don’t sit in any single realm within design but cover all of these areas:

  • UX (User Experience)
  • UI (User Interface) & visual design
  • Interaction Design
  • Motion design
  • Usability Testing
  • User Research
  • Content Strategy
  • Business Strategy

With all of these skills, we use a human-centred and design-thinking approach to understand people's behaviours, define problems and find solutions. In short, we are in the business of crafting beautiful experiences by putting humans at the forefront.

This leads us into our next section where we explain in a bit more detail how this happens and the ways we do it at NearForm.

Who is product design for and how do you do it?

So far we’ve said the fundamental role of product design is solving problems for people. Now, how do we do this and who do we serve best at NearForm with product design?

One of the core ways NearForm designers have been tackling this very effectively is through design sprints —you can find more from the link since we have written a few things and we even have a handbook. In a nutshell, it’s a 5-day approach to answer important business questions through practical team exercises to build the best idea and to put it into customers hands for testing.

We, as product designers, love design sprints. However, from client to client, approaches change and we adapt based on our client's needs and situation. These are some of the common challenges that we face:

  • There isn't a plan. Just a brilliant product but a lack of direction on how to sell it.
  • Sometimes clients have found a solution but the execution is not adequate and they need some direction.
  • Our clients already know the problem but they can’t figure out how to approach a solution.
  • Often clients have been so involved in pursuing a solution that they missed discovering, or rediscovering, the problem. In some cases different stakeholder demands have crept in, blurring the focus on the initial objectives and the highest impact proposition.
  • Other, more logistical issues can get in the way too, such as the difficulty to assemble the right team in the right time frame to accomplish a design sprint.
  • Budget and time constraints are also common.
  • Or dealing with, and adapting to, people, culture, and organisational issues.
  • And in some cases, they just need a design resource to help them design and work along with their engineering and product team. Someone that will be able to communicate well with these teams and translate it into a proper design.

As you can see, the gist of it is that, on many occasions, clients, teams, and companies have part of the problem figured out but they need the right resources to solve the rest. And of course, in many others, it’s just a problem that needs a solution. There is no limit to how product designers can help, no matter what the size or scope of the project is.

How to Approach Product Design: 7 Practical Steps

To tackle the challenges, there are a number of methodologies that we use to uncover and explore solutions. One, as mentioned earlier, is design sprints. But sometimes there are small units—or a combination of them—in the product design toolkit that we have available for specific scenarios. For now, I'll mention some of them as we'll dig deeper in follow up posts.

  1. Defining the vision of your product These are some preliminary questions before taking any project such as the team, goals, users, strategy, tasks and scenarios, success measures, dates and milestones risks.
  2. Research and validation Finding and getting user input to reveal the actual problems you need to solve.
  3. Understanding the ecosystem of your product We do comparative and competitors assessments from other products your customers are likely to find as well as to find usability principles and patterns.
  4. Ideation techniques Sketching, user flows, prototyping—see our comparison table of prototyping tools— to understand and study how the product will perform with users.
  5. Understanding users Building personas to create empathetic and customer-oriented thinking of your users without statistical data.
  6. Wireframing some initial designs Here we start the process of wire framing your product and start building a skeleton of how it'll start to look like.
  7. Designing and building it. You have to define elements such as typography, colours, layout, flows and at this point, engineers start to devise the best way to build the product.

These methodologies help deepen the understanding of the product, business goals and the customers. We are constantly analysing and running retrospectives where we explore what worked well and what didn’t. We constantly improve our processes for optimal implementation.

3. Why Product Design is so important to success?

Product design is about business strategy and competitive advantage and it lives at the core of NearForm. It digs deep to understand clients’ business goals and to comprehend the business value behind every decision. It iterates and finds the right partners—within NearForm and within the client’s organisation—to pull off the savviest and best outcomes. Product design stays with you from start to finish, until it finds the right solution. At NearForm, we don’t offer just a product design/development service, we help you achieve successful results and a learning experience for your team that you can carry to other projects.

4. Where you need Product Design?

We are a distributed team of designers —we go to you or you can come to us. We are all about building great relationships, partnerships and about designing and building great experiences for our clients and their customers. Where shouldn't be a question? We can be everywhere we are needed.

5. When you need Product Design?

By now and if you’ve reached this point—thank you for taking the time to do so, by the way,  you probably learned when product design is essential to crafting successful products. Whether you know when or not, NearForm is here to help you figure it out.  Contact us and we'll be happy to help you out and work on potential solutions for your business.

Insight, imagination and expertly engineered solutions to accelerate and sustain progress.