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Product Design: why Design Thinking is the best product discovery methodology

Discovery processes aren’t just about products. It is a broader framework that involves investigation, hypothesis validation, and refinement.

As product design moves into the digital age, companies are finding it challenging to keep up with industry giants. We can even say that, in practice, there is no specific process for products or services once discovery processes (guided by a mix between market, design, and UX research) will have pretty much the same output.

In this context, the Design Thinking methodology still appears as one of the main guiding principles of discovery processes. Read on and find out how to build evergreen products with Design Thinking.

What is product design?

Product design is the process of imagining, creating, and iterating products to address the needs and issues that customers have within a given market. The trick to good product design is keeping the end-user in mind at all times. The most useful tools at your disposal in this quest are data and empathy.

The data is necessary for product designers to fully understand who their end-users are. This information will include things like age, gender, race, and employment, among many others. You can use this data to create a persona, to better understand your ideal customer. But this information alone will not deliver what you’re really looking for: insights.

To get those, you’ll need a secret ingredient: empathy. This is what product designers use to go from “who the customer is” to “how does the customer feel.” Empathy allows designers to understand the reason behind customer habits, frustrations, behaviors, wants, and needs.

Ideally, this takes place without anyone even noticing. Users should be able to intuitively discern how your product functions. Product design should take their needs into consideration and anticipate the way products will be used and why.

Good product design should weave itself through the entire product lifecycle. That means including designers in all states of production, from conception, user research, and development all the way through prototyping and usability testing. It’s not something that teams complete during inception but rather a continuous improvement process (even if that means going back to the drawing board to get it right).

But what is the best way to go about making sure your product design sticks the landing? And how is this concept different from service design? The former we’ll get to later, but the latter we can talk about right now.

What is Service Design?

When you have two coffee shops next to each other who sell the exact same coffee at exactly the same price, Service Design is what makes you choose one over the other. This concept is even more important in the current situation we find ourselves in. One where user experience is hailed (by users, no less) as more important than functionality and cost.

After all, it doesn’t really matter if you sell a better product than your competitors. What matters is how your customers feel when they use it. And the number one tool for this job is, once again, empathy. You might be starting to see a trend here, but we’ll get to that later.

Service Design is becoming more and more relevant. No wonder consumers expect their entire shopping experience to be satisfying. New habits and forms of consumption emerge every day, produced mainly by technology. The product itself is still important, but it’s no longer sustainable to sell quality products without a quality customer experience.

Whether you’re buying a product, leaving the house, or talking on your cell phone: all of our daily experiences are designed (or should have been). The service journey is made up of a series of touchpoints that, together, result in the user experience.

Designing this experience is no simple task. The first thing you need to understand about Service Design is that services and products are not the same thing. Products are tangible; you can see them, touch them, and define their limits. The service, not so much.

When we talk about services, we are talking about performance. The value of a service is in its proper execution. Companies need to ensure that the planning behind their services reaches users efficiently.

PSS: The future of products

There’s one more thing we have to touch on before getting to the meat of this article, and that is Product-Service Systems. It’s what some (us included) would call “the future of products” it’s tacky, I know, but that doesn’t make the statement any less accurate.

PSS is a term used to describe the process of servitization, which is transforming a product-based business model into a product-as-a-service ecosystem, which works by aggregating high-value services related to those products.

A Product-Service System starts from the premise that companies must offer the function of their product, not the product itself. This concept is based on developing the real needs of the consumer, who does not necessarily want to own things but to benefit from using them.

The transition to product-as-a-service works in harmony with the transition from ownership to access. It’s considered to be a natural business decision, mainly because of the increasing relevance of digital marketplaces.

This is the concept that ties Product Design and Service Design together. If the future of products is to turn them into services, then you need to make sure that the execution of that service produces an excellent user experience. But that doesn’t mean that the product itself isn’t included in the design process.

You need to design your products to be intuitive and need-fulfilling, and you also need to design the service where that product is embedded. Think of it as a restaurant, the food is a meticulously designed product, and the environment you’ll be eating it in and the way it is served to you is your service.

Okay, so companies are turning their traditional business models into PSS, and design is important for the development of both products and services. But how do I make sure that the process behind designing them delivers actual results?

Why Design Thinking is the best approach to product design’s discovery process?

Let’s start this section with a little information about what product discovery is and how it’s used. Product discovery is the process of planning the entire roadmap of a product. It defines the value proposition, target audience, go-to-market strategy, market fit, prototype-building, and any other aspect capable of securing the creation of a useful, valuable, and viable product.

In practice, product discovery uses pretty much the same approach as Design Thinking. In general, there are five phases: Definition, Immersion/Research, Ideation, Prototyping, and Refinements. Below, we’ll define each phase in terms of product discovery and Design Thinking.

1. Definition

Considered to be the pre-project phase (or something similar to a: phase zero). Without guidance and consensus, the chances of success are much smaller.

During the first phase, it’s time to align objectives and expectations about the strategy and discovery process results. Here’s where the stakeholders must establish quick wins and performance indicators derived from OKRs to measure progress.

This stage is specific to product discovery.

2. Immersion & Research

This is when you want to get close to the problem. It’s the moment when the team seeks to dive into the implications of the challenge, studying it from both the company and client’s perspectives. In this phase, quantitative and qualitative information is collected and analyzed to give a deeper understanding of the research topic.

In Design Thinking, this phase is separated into two stages: Immersion and Analysis. The Immersion stage is where empathy takes center stage. Designers will conduct research ranging from simple internet searches to in-depth interviews with prospective clients.

Once the Immersion is complete, designers will take the research-generated data and move on to Analysis. This data is then sorted using a variety of different techniques. One of these techniques is generating personas.

These theoretical user stand-ins are what design thinkers will be referring to throughout the discovery process. Personifying the user in this way helps designers better understand their motivations and feelings.

3. Ideation

Ideation is the moment to brainstorm, co-create, and develop a solution concept. No judgments here. This is what people really think about when they think of product discovery.

First, separate; then, prioritize. It is important to have a good variety of profiles involved in ideation as it generates more adherent ideas. Don’t shy away from using tools to encourage creativity and participation. Remember, there are no wrong answers at this stage in the game.

The process is the same when it comes to Design Thinking. Just like with Immersion, where we produce as much information as possible to get a full picture of the end-user, Ideation is less about funneling ideas and more about creativity and innovation.

4. Prototyping & Validation

Finally, it’s time to assess whether the knowledge obtained in the previous phases will be sufficient to validate a business idea, value proposition, proof of concept, product, service, or feature.

The key to Prototyping is failing fast. Don’t try to make the perfect product/service the first go around. It’s much better to develop a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and test it out to try and validate it. Make sure to bring back your personas to identify the perfect participants for testing.

This step is virtually identical in DT and Product Discovery.

5. Refinement

As you can imagine, in a product-service system, continuous learning cycles and solution improvements are constant. That means new testing and validation sprints, in addition to plenty of quality assurance. This is especially true for PSS.

Don’t be afraid to start the discovery process from scratch every once in a while. The information gathered from Immersion is priceless, but the data collected through extensive use of a product/system that you have already put out on the market is even more valuable.

Closing thoughts on Product Discovery

The path towards creating more adherent products and services is far from linear. A whopping 95% of all new products fail upon launch, so don’t be afraid to mess up the first time. The final piece of advice we have for you is to seek specialized help.

If you’re struggling with your product discovery, we might have the solution: check out our Ebook, “Fly or Die: craft (and test) unique, failproof value propositions.” Keep innovating and remember, you don’t have to go it alone.