When it comes to building great products, the term UX Design gets tossed around a lot. But what most people are talking about when they use that term is really the elements of good product design, which has been around for a long time. We’re now only coming full circle back to it.
The term "product design" really captures the diversity of work — prototyping, engineering, researching — that designers do without ascribing it to one special individual. That's because good product design is the work of an entire team, not just one person. More and more companies are beginning to recognize that. They're also coming to the realization that design problems are business problems. The success of design-centric companies, such as Apple, makes product design the cornerstone of any successful business plan.
What makes product design so valuable is that it’s not just a process. It’s a way of solving problems. Think of it this way: rather than trying to create the best car to get you from point A to point B, product design is thinking of what exactly is the best way to move you from A to B.
You say, "UX Design." We say, "Product Design." Tomato, tomato. Let's call the whole thing off. Well, if only we could. All kidding aside, the importance of product design can't be dismissed. Here's why:
The nifty chart shows a product's technological life cycle, which is just a fancy way of saying "for how long a product still matters." As you can see, we've been moving up the lifecycle curve pretty quickly. You don’t have to be Mr. Spock to see that the technologies we have are staying relevant for a longer period of time. Which means a few key things:
Reinvent everything. Many companies are focused on reinventing existing products, taking what’s come before and making it better. Which is what innovation is really all about. Just look at what Apple did to the tablet with the iPad. Rather than creating something outrageous and new, the goal is to present existing technologies in a bold and refreshing way.
Product design is the great differentiator.
Since everyone has access to the same technology, the same equipment, it's irrelevant. What matters is the product that's used on it. We've moved into the stage where product design dominates. It's what sets companies apart and gives a real edge over competitors.
Digital product design is even more important.
For example, if a potential customer is trying to view your product or service on a tablet and things don't load correctly, they won't likely be buying what you're selling. Optimizing across all devices and designing responsively can make all the difference in getting a paying customer.
There are many types of product design. Here’s a digest of some of the different duties product designers dabble in.
Product Engineers — create hardware and software, trying to solve problems related to cost, quality, materials and performance. They work on both the manufacturing and design components of a product.
Interface Designers — find ways to make things connect and communicate, creating things like control rooms and dashboards. The recent rise of digital interfaces has further expanded the role of this particular designer.
Interaction Designers — focus on the human component, the person at the other end of the interface. With particular attention to user behavior, interaction designers shape products in order to make them more intuitive for customers to use.
Design Strategists — delve deep into why a product exists and why customers use it rather than focusing on the R&D aspect of product design. Using psychological factors and heuristics, design strategists are best positioned to recognize opportunities for product improvement.
It has been said that what is past is prologue. And that's very true when it comes to product design. What we do today has been influenced by those who came before us, our forefathers in industrial design. While product design has evolved over the decades, we continue to benefit from the innovations of the Industrial Revolution as we face the challenges of designing for multiple devices.
The Industrial Revolution marked the birth of modern industrial design, which is where the story of product design really takes off. Terms like interchangeable parts and assembly lines characterize an era when producers sought to mass-market low cost good to a burgeoning middle class.
The Model T (1908) really epitomized this era, because Ford's assembly line model allowed him to produce the world's first affordable automobile. Other key product innovations and influences included the Hot Point Iron (1905) and the counter-culture American Craftsman style, which celebrated simplicity of form and the dignity of human labor.
If the Industrial Revolution certainly sowed the seeds of modernity in design, the emotional trauma of WWI fostered it. Designers rejected self-involvement and expressive romanticism. For defined function, and simplicity was embraced as an antidote to the chaos of war.
At the time, Italy's Futurists developed aeropittura, or aeropainting, which utilized aerial landscapes for artistic inspiration. Meanwhile in Germany, the Bauhaus School of Design decided that art should meet the needs of society and developed a clean, minimal style that was distinctly marked by a lack of ornamentation.
One of our chief influences is Henry Dreyfuss, who is credited with popularizing industrial design for consumer products, such as the Western Electric 302 telephone and the Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera. His autobiography, Designing for People, is considered a classic. We keep a copy on our bookshelves and refer to it often.
Raymond Loewy, a renowned industrial designer, was also a huge influence during this period. His iconic work includes the Pennsylvania 51 steam locomotive and the Studebacker Avanti automobile.
The post-WW II era saw a return to complexity and expressionism. Greater attention to graphic design aesthetics and a renewed interest in typeface meant that organization and arrangement became key design elements.
As product design expands in scope, it's goals were more clearly defined. Designer Ladislav Sutnar encouraged his colleagues to use grids to layout content more neatly; Paul Rand published Thoughts on Design, the bible for modern designers; and Dieter Rams developed his now famous 10 rules of good design.
While some might remember the 70s as one big psychedelic rock concert, the decade also saw some significant innovations in product design. Advertisers and graphic designers made a sincere effort to humanize their work by including close-ups of people's faces and more rounded, quirkier typography.
Some of the biggest technological innovations in product design during this time seem to revolve around business and communication. For instance: 1970 saw the invention of the floppy disc, the ethernet was invented in 1973 and the first cell phones began to appear in 1979.
The incredible success of the iMac and '97 Volkswagen New Beetle demonstrates that this period was largely about making technology accessible and fun. Curvature and rounded edges became popular and handwritten fonts emerged in a big way. (Incidentally, Comic Sans, which was released in 1994, still retains the dubious honor of being the most recognized typeface in the world.)
This was the era that saw the rise of the Internet. The role of interface designers rapidly grew as businesses quickly realized that having an online presence was necessary.
It's harder to characterize trends in present day product design since we're living in it, but it's certainly fair to say that it seems to have split within the last few years. About half of product design is user-centric, while the other half seems to be more feature-centric. While the latter isn't necessarily a bad thing, solving a user's particular problem should be paramount.
With the popularity of mobile and tablet devices, one of the biggest challenges that product designers face today is design responsively across all platforms and, as technology advances, to keep products intuitive, simple and effective.
Sometimes, people falsely assume that great design means simplifying your product. Less is more, or something like that right? Well, not exactly. Really great products don't remove features — they manage them. Even if you have a complicated product, great design clarifies the product so that you're able to get a pretty good feel for how to work things just by looking at 'em.
In fact, stripping your product of features you don't think you need can alienate customers who value them. Instead, one way to manage your product's many features is through layered complexity thorough a tiered-pricing system. In this way, you can offer customers a more customized product that has only the features they're interested in at a price point they're comfortable with. Win. Win.
Yet when it comes to defining great product design, everyone has different ideas on how to achieve this. We have some key differentiators that we prioritize in our quest for great product design (and world domination).
Product design is an iterative process that relies on design thinking. Always be ready to go back to the drawing board and brainstorm new ways of building things. Don't get fixated on creating something perfect right out of the gates. Start prototyping early, and don't get too attached to one idea. Your final product is never a finished one, only the launch pad to something even more awesome.
The amount of devices that can access the web is growing exponentially, day after day, year after year. Every one of us that designs digital products must rise to meet this challenge. If not, we risk being left in the dust. The pixel is dead, and designing with specific screen resolutions in mind renders you obsolete as well. We're desiging for four corners, no matter the size. Since you don't know what device a potential customer is using to view your site, universal optimization for all screen sizes gives you a significant competitive advantage.
Greatness doesn't happen when a team works in little self-contained pods. Great design is born out of discussion, connections, collaboration and partnership. There are no bad ideas and by including everyone, you foster a sense of collective ownership, tapping into the most valuable resource — your team. In the end, you'll come away with the feeedback and insight you need to move a project forward.
We're certainly not the first to consider what it takes to achieve awesomeness. Dieter Rams, the influential German industrial designer we mentioned before, developed his own guildlines for good design, which hold up even in the matrix of digital product design. The work we do today isn't so different from the physical products developed in Dieter's days.
Technological innovation creates opportunities for innovative design. Take advantage of it.
The products we use every day affect us and our well being, so design with beauty in mind.
When a product's design is tasteful and subdued, it leaves room for users' self-experession.
Designing based on current trends will only make you look anachronistic in a couple years. Be timeless.
Conserve your materials and resources to avoid visual pollution.
Design in such a way that your work highlights just how useful the prodcut is.
Clear design makes the product easy to understand and intuitive to use.
Don’t manipulate users into thinking a product is more innovative, powerful or valuable than it is.
Your product design should be deliberate and thought out. It shows that you respect your users.
Keep things simple and clean. Don’t burden the product with elements that aren’t essential.
Product design isn't only the domain of a designer. Everyone in a business can contribute, from marketing to business development, to ensure that a product achieves greatness. And there are a few ways that can be done. We've touched on a few of them already with Dieter's guidelines and the notion of collaboration. Let's put some other in sharp focus.
What are people gravitating towards? The first step to improving your product design is recognizing and applying current patterns and trends. Gather data and conduct market research, while keeping in mind that customers don't always know what they want themselves. Trust what customers do, not what they say.
Focus on the big idea in a clear and impactful way so that your audience "gets" it. Embrace your core. What is your product? Why do you make it? Before you sell your product, you need to first sell your mission and values. After all, people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. Make yourself memorable.
This translates especially well for digital products, where you can easily communicate with customers using a clear visual hierarchy. Convey your product clearly and eliminate psychological noise. Don’t be nervous about getting feedback and iterate constantly to ensure that you are offering your customers only your best work.
For most of our lives, we are taught critical thinking skills. You know how to work on an idea until it’s polished, which is great and all, but what happens if that one idea fails?
When it comes to improving your product, design thinking is often a better place to start. Design thinking opens up problems instead of closing around them, embracing brainstorming as a creative exploration, rather than some sort of chore. For example, if you've found one solution to your problem, that's great. But don't stop there — come up with more. By examining as many possible perspectives you can, you ensure that the solution you finally select is truly the best way to resolve your challenge.
Be bold. The real key to success is to keep pushing forward. One of the pitfalls of design thinking is that people lose sight of the big picture. Drive and putt. Hole-in-ones are rare, and you shouldn't be aiming for them anyways. Instead, follow through and work hard to get the ball in the hole. The eighteenth flag awaits you.