Sometimes a product is so good, it’s hard to imagine its absence. Consider something as simple as a coffee mug: Its design allows you to drink a hot liquid without burning your fingers. What would you use without one—a bowl? The standard coffee mug design evolved over centuries, but efficient product design can fast-forward this process. Learn how to use product design to make physical goods, as well as websites, apps, and other software.
What is product design?
Product design is the process of researching, ideating, developing, and iterating a successful product that meets precise user needs. It encompasses the entire journey of a product, from conceptualization to manufacturing and beyond. Good product design results in a product that’s not only functional and aesthetically pleasing, but also profitable for the business producing it.
Consider Peloton’s bike: It provides users with studio-quality cycling sessions in their own homes. Since the product caters to a specific user need and has a unique selling proposition, users are willing to pay a premium, including ongoing payments to access the company’s workouts. While not as commonplace as a coffee mug, the Peloton bike is designed to meet a need in users’ day-to-day lives.
5 steps to create effective product designs
- Define the general product vision
- Research and understand your target audience
- Brainstorm specific designs
- Create prototypes and mockups
- Test and iterate designs based on user feedback
The product design process involves five phases, each of which refines a product idea until it’s ready to produce and debut to consumers.
1. Define the general product vision
Begin the product design process by creating a broad vision for the product. Define what the product will do and who it will do it for. This is your value proposition—a simple statement that describes how your product will benefit your target customers. Set some preliminary success criteria: What business goal does the product meet, and how will you measure progress toward that goal? Determine key performance indicators (KPIs) to evaluate the product’s success.
2. Research and understand your target audience
Understanding user needs from the outset can save money down the line, minimizing the chance you’ll have to redesign your product. Research also enables you to evaluate the market potential for your product; it helps create buy-in with internal stakeholders, whether they’re in sales or the C-suite, by demonstrating the value and potential of the product.
Use the following methods to understand your target audience.
- Online surveys. Surveys are great for conducting user research at scale. Try to keep them simple, and use rating scales to turn customer opinions into quantitative data (“On a scale of 1–5, how likely are you to …”). Round out your surveys with a few open-ended questions (“What features would you most like to see in a new product of this type?”).
- User interviews. In-person interviews with members of the target audience allow researchers to observe behavioral cues and ask follow-up questions. Conducting market research by talking directly to consumers can help you hone your product’s value proposition.
- Buyer personas. Buyer personas are fictional representations of your ideal customers that represent segments of your target audience. Create buyer personas based on research and analysis to help you understand user needs, motivations, and behaviors. Give your buyer personas names, jobs, and concerns, and then walk through the process of how and why each one might come to your product. This process can make abstract market data accessible and help you tailor your product development to your ideal customer.
- Competitor analysis. Study similar products offered by your competitors. What is their value proposition, branding, and target market? Do these differ from yours? If so, how and why are they different? Once you know what you’re up against, you can identify gaps in the market that your product can address, and create a product strategy to differentiate your product by emphasizing its unique features or design elements.
3. Brainstorm specific designs
Use the brainstorming process—a creative group discussion for generating ideas—to refine your product vision based on the results of your user research. There are no bad design ideas at this stage: The freedom to pitch ideas without fear of judgment creates an environment where participants are comfortable being creative. Set a limited time for the session, and focus on quantity over quality. Once the brainstorming session is over, refine and organize your ideas until you’re left with only the best. When the team is aligned on the best path forward, it’s time to test the hypothesis.
4. Create prototypes and mockups
The process of creating prototypes and mockups varies depending on the kind of product you’re making. If you’re designing an app, for example, you may want to create a wireframe—a low-fidelity, simplified outline of the interface’s layout and structure—that you can test with real users.
If you’re making a physical product, create a functional prototype—a working model of your product showcasing its design and functionality. You can build one yourself or outsource the work to a prototyping supplier. Creating a few different prototypes at once lets you gather feedback on multiple versions of your potential product.
5. Test and iterate designs based on user feedback
Testing typically involves a broad range of users from your target audience to get a sense of what works and doesn’t work. Watch real users interact with your product and have them answer identical questions about its functionality, usability, and aesthetics. Usability testing helps gauge product viability—the feasibility of its success and its sustainability.
According to one study, 85% of core usability issues can be uncovered by observing five people using a product. You can also run product tests internally with members of your design, development, and marketing teams. The key here is to iterate based on results; it’s always OK to move back to any earlier steps in the process if something isn’t quite right.
Once you’ve thoroughly tested your product and are satisfied that it meets target user needs, the design process is complete, and you’re ready to begin production.
Common mistakes to avoid in product design
If you follow the above steps closely, you’ll be well on your way to producing a slam-dunk product that aligns user needs with business interests. Still, it’s worth safeguarding against failure by avoiding these common mistakes.
- Failure to iterate. If your testing with users indicates that something about your product isn’t working, move back as many steps as necessary to correct the issue. Make adjustments to your prototype and continue to test it with users until you’re confident it perfectly addresses user needs.
- Vague business objectives. Fuzzy goals prevent you from evaluating the success of your product. Before you finalize your product design and commit to bringing it to market, set clear key performance indicators (KPIs) that will show whether or not the product meets your business goals.
- A selling proposition that isn’t unique. Never create a product that’s similar to a competitor’s product without adding value. A unique selling proposition (USP) is the one thing that makes your product better than the competition. Study your target market, and use your product to address unmet needs.
Product design FAQ
What is product design?
AProduct design is the process of researching, ideating, developing, and iterating a successful product that meets precise user needs.
How can I ensure that product designs align with my brand?
Establish clear brand guidelines that define exactly what makes your brand distinct, then stick to those guidelines when designing your product. Involve your design team in the brand development process, and provide them with feedback and direction as they test out product designs.
What types of tools do product designers use?
Product designers use various tools, including computer-aided design (CAD) software, prototyping tools, and 3D printers.
Is product design the same as UX design?
Product design and UX design are related disciplines, but UX designers focus more narrowly on user interface design and the user’s hands-on experience, whereas the product designer’s role also involves developing business KPIs, audience research pathways, and project management.