The Definitive Guide to Product Thinking for Designers
The age old question if designers should to learn how to code is true and tired, but without a question of a doubt, I believe designers should learn how to do product thinking. Building products with customers in mind, evaluating trade-offs, crafting strategy is table stakes moving into the new era of product design.
Level up with product thinking 🦄
One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in my career is moving beyond my cozy design thinking comfort zone (yep, I’m guilty of wearing rose tinted designer glasses) into understanding product thinking from a holistic perspective. When we talk about design thinking, it’s often thought of a design forward way of tackling big product questions but product thinking intersects both product design and product management. It lets you speak the language of business, thinking in terms of products reframes specific user needs into Jobs to be done, goals, revenue, and meaningful outcomes.
❤️ Mission—The company level statement that encapsulates the big picture problem you are solving and typically who you are solving it for.
👁 Vision — Why and where are we going? A product vision typically has just an availability to be relatable, but nothing too detailed that may hamper your imagination. Product vision is also the flag in the sand and rallying point for your product. It paints the picture of how your product will make an impact.
☸️ Strategy — The guiding set of principles and decisions informed by reality (market forces, data, target market) that you commit to, ahead of design and development to ensure the greatest likelihood of success and achieving your vision. Your strategy can evolve with new findings or data. If there’s a big shift strategy while the mission and vision remain constant, it’s called a pivot.
🛣 Roadmap — This is the manifestation of your strategy in concrete steps towards your product vision, inclusive of rough milestones and timelines. Adjustments and changes to roadmaps happen often given new inputs (data, timing, resources (I’ve overheard PMs say that a roadmap is often defunct as soon as it is published).
✅ Execution — This is the day-to-day activities along the path of the roadmap. This is where you do the hard work to build, launch, and iterate solutions, while collecting the necessary inputs (data, stakeholder feedback) to inform any changes in your roadmap and strategy
👍 Meaningful Outcomes —It’s easy to get sidetracked and work towards sheer output over meaningful changes and outcomes. But this kind of thinking creates poor experiences or features that don’t create true value for the people using them. Rather than just shipping features we need to think about how we want to achieve our business and user goals. Did we accomplish what we set out to do? Did we acquire more customers? If not, what steps can we take to reach our goals?
“Products become meaningful when the provided solution fits the uncovered problem.” — Nikkel Blaase
Problem-Solution-Fit is a beautiful concept where core problems are resolved through experiences and solutions that provides value along the way. Interaction Design and Visual Design can make a product beautiful, easy-to-use, and delightful but can’t make the product meaningful and satisfying in the long run.
Clayton Christensen popularized the Jobs-To-Be-Done framework by asking a profoundly different type of question: “What job are you trying to hire this milkshake for?”
With his fun and now famous Milkshake story, Clayton inspired a fundamentally new approach to product thinking sparked by this question:
Is your product so good that your audience would ‘fire’ their current product in order to hire yours?
You can create understanding by learning why customers “fire” products or services before switching to yours or competitors product. Going further , thinking about the “why” can help clarify the type of job that needs doing. The “fired” mental model in the Jobs-to-be-done framework can be used to reflect on how many previously successful businesses were replaced by competitors that simply did the job better.
One of my favorite examples is Netflix doing the job of Blockbuster — “I need to find something entertaining… but I don’t want to work that hard to find it.” Netflix is one of my favorite products that have embraced this way of thinking and has continued to push forward innovation.
Netflix eliminated the idea of going out and renting DVDs that might only be watched once or twice and then had to be returned, sometimes with late fees and annoying rewinding (omg the horror). Netflix’s original business model involved shipping DVDs directly to customers homes. And then they cannibalizer their own business and launched streaming which gave instant access. Netflix is successful because they continue to evolve their services and took big risks informed by identifying unique jobs to “hire” their products to do.
👩🏾🚀 Evolving Jobs-to-be-done
“With few exceptions, every job people need or want to do has a social, a functional, and an emotional dimension.” -Clayton Christensen
Extending the concept of the Jobs-to-be-done framework, Clayton identifies three different dimensions that can help understand how your product can fulfill customer needs. Taking it a step further. Instead of just asking “what job are you hiring this product to accomplish”, we can go a level deeper by asking:
“How does this this product help you transform your life?’
Humans have complex needs and behaviors that go beyond just owning/buying material things and momentary experiences. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? We’re moving into a new kind of economy that goes beyond just “doing” and talks about “being” (I’m getting existential so please bare with me). At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy, self-actualization is the zenith; becoming the most one can be by achieving one’s full potential. You can tap into people’s highest level of motivation by asking people about their motivations using your product “what’s your dream? what kind of person do you want to become tomorrow?”
Product discovery and definition
After talking with your customers, understanding the job they are “hiring” your product to do, you’ll be armed with the knowledge to answer these fundamental questions: What problem are we solving ? (Problem statement). For whom is this intended? (Target audience). Why are we doing this? (Vision). How are we doing this (Strategy) and what do we want to achieve? (Goals). Only after answering these questions can you flesh out the core user needs and plan what to build (Features).
Creating value and meaning
Launching a successful product or capturing more market share will only become realized if you’re able to tap into customers personal motivations and behaviors and help them make their dreams come true (no matter how big or small). Ultimately, it’s about helping people reach their aspirations and empowering your company & employees to use product thinking to create true value.
Product thinking is a game-changer. It’s a shift in mindset that focuses on a multitude of dimensions to create common, achievable goals through the lens of meaning and purpose interwoven throughout product delivery.
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Further reading (articles that inspired me to write this 😎):