As Product Managers, our jobs involve iterating an existing product or launching a new product from the ground up. Improving an existing digital product is usually a smaller challenge when compared to developing an entirely new product. Existing products have well-defined markets and known pain points which make it relatively easier and there usually is a pre-existing backlog to work through. New product development, by contrast, presents an entirely different challenge. There are too many unknowns with getting a good product-market fit correct when the product is released to market. Startups, in particular, are particularly vulnerable to failure as a short funding runway means the product needs to be primed to gain quick adoption.
With so much at stake, it could be well worth the effort working on a well-tested product design framework. Having a Product design framework can dramatically improve the chances of success of a new product by ensuring a strong product-market fit so that money is spent on developing the right product.
I’ve put together my version of this framework. It consists of 5 horizontal stages – Strategy/Vision, UX research, Design, Dev and Measure. Through each stage, I’ve identified some of the best methodologies and approaches. The framework progressively helps uncover new opportunities, identifies risks as well as allows for a strategic course correction through the stages.
1] Strategy canvas / Vision
Market research provides a helicopter view of the operating landscape. Whitepapers and industry research are a great way to get a good overview of the market you’re operating in. It lays out risks, opportunities and trends that determine where the industry that you’re working in is headed.
Keeping a close eye on the evolution of technology is vital as technology trends change rapidly. While every technology has a lifecycle, understanding the players in the software business and its market penetration helps to predict the future of a particular technology. Picking the right technology stack is critical to ensure you have a product that can scale while also keeping costs low with the availability of large development pool to tap into.
Begin with a simple list of steps or actions that a hypothetical user does in a typical day. Come up with as many ideas as possible on post-its and place it under the timeline where the product or service could affect or interaction with a users life at this point in a day. Once all the post-its are done, vote for the favourites.
Brainstorming can be done with a cross functional team, this helps stimulate divergent thinking as well as create a sense of ownership of the final product. Most ideas may end up in a holding pen but the ones with the most votes can be synthesised, crystallised and prioritised as features at a later stage.
A SWOT helps identify all the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in a solution and helps prevent costly blind spots, identify new opportunities and any strengths that could be leveraged. Adding in points to each quadrant helps build a picture of where your intended product will sit.
2] UX research / Discovery
To begin the process of user research and pain point discovery a very useful technique is ‘Immersion’. ‘Immersion’ as the name suggests involves immersing yourself into the habitat of your target personas. Live and breathe their worlds as they go about their lives in their target environment. Observe the technology they are comfortable with, the apps they use and their daily habits. This allows you to build both a richer level of insights as well as empathy for their lives. This are where you will begin to envision how your product will fit into their daily lives. It will give you vital clues on best practices to gain new customers as well as keeping them engaged. The key is to learn how you can fit your product into their daily lives rather than the other way around.
User interviews are a richer form of user research. The best user interviews are through open-ended questions where you get a deeper insight into their world. They enable you to get feedback directly from your intended audience in their actual environment. An average of 5 user interviews would cover up a lot of information and you’ll find a lot that you can actually use to build a persona type that you can leverage for Product design.
Personas / User empathy maps
Personas are a representation of a typical user that you intend to target. Immersion and user interviews should give you a lot of data that you can already use. Having a persona gives you a solid understanding of the kind of user you’re planning to target. You can flesh all levels of details for a persona type from their typical day through to Myers Briggs profile. It really depends on the product type that you’re hoping to build and where it would fit in a users world.
Customer value canvas
The customer value canvas is an incredibly useful tool to leverage the work completed in a user research and use it to create an optimal product-market fit. To find out how to use the Customer value canvas as a tool for this exercise refer to this post. The customer value canvas finds alignment with your own product offering and the pain points, gains and jobs that are being done by your customer. The more product alignment the better is your product-market fit.
Impact mapping / Story mapping / Feature prioritisation
Once the features and the product-market fit is finalised it’s now time to prioritise the features as well as flesh out the user stories to go in the backlog. There are a number of feature prioritisation techniques that you can use to prioritise which features should be part of the roadmap. In addition to feature prioritisation Impact mapping and Story mapping allow you to do both prioritisations of features as define the stories to go in the backlog. You can choose the one that works best for your particular product.
Once the features are well defined a Product roadmap sets the long-term evolution of the product across multiple channels. This is a high-level timeline of the features that will go into each product release.
3] Design / Lean UX
The design stage is where all the product comes to life in a more tangible way. Working with a lean UX approach allows for many tiny experiments over increasing fidelity levels from sketches through to high def prototypes that are user tested in increasingly wider circles from stakeholders through to team members and then to actual users. The feedback accumulated through this process helps create a much more refined product through the elimination of bad ideas and the improvement of the good.
Another useful technique I love to use to go from concept through to a design is using a design sprint, this especially when you need to break through a difficult problem to crack. In particular, the use of GV design sprints. GV sprints involve a cross-functional team and time boxes and fast tracks the process of problem definition through to a working prototype. I have used this in past and I can’t recommend this highly enough.
Information architecture is the organising of information into a structure that makes it logical and easy to find. A popular UX technique that assists with IA is card sorting.
Once the features of the product are well defined and conceived. An interaction designer can now come in an start translating how the flow will occur. Storyboarding consists of a series of boxes that guide visually map the journey of a user, from the onboarding through to the actual usage of the product. This high-level mapping allows an early glimpse and identification of potential friction points.
Sketching as the name suggests involves simply drawing on paper a visual representation of how you visualise the product. As a UI designer who was comfortable going directly to screen, I had a tendency of giving this a miss in favour of doing higher def prototypes right from the get to. I’ve now subdued the temptation to do so and prefer sketching. The advantages of sketching it allow you to create a lot of low def prototypes and you can also run them by your team for feedback without being too emotionally invested and defensive since the effort put in it is minimal. This helps weed out bad ideas early in the process.
Wireframes are monochromatic versions of sketches. They are accurate to scale but intentionally low fidelity to allow for examination of the visual hierarchy and to allow for changes. It is a higher definition version of sketching and is generally something that can be tested on a wider team to elicit feedback. They are a true representation of what the final product will turn out like.
Wireflows are a holistic look at all wireframes and interaction points which indicate the flow and navigation of the product. This is very useful for developers as well as the team as it indicates the interactive portions of a wireframe as well as maps the entire flow in a single document. This can be kept for future reference.
High fidelity prototypes are rich full coloured versions of the product. These are to scale and represent the final product. These are ideal for testing from a wider user group to elicit feedback from. I can’t stress about how important it is to user test in this step. The more user testing that can be conducted the better. There are some excellent tools like Invision, Adobe XD that allow for full simulations of what the real product will turn out, this gives teams an excellent opportunity to flesh out and refine the product through multiple iterations prior to handing this over to development.
Once hi-fidelity prototypes are ready and pixel perfect they are ready to be handed off to the developers.
Agile is an excellent methodology for software development. Value is delivered in small increments as opposed to waterfall which was historically how software was delivered. Agile allows you to deliver and measure increments of value. This methodology has now changed the world by enabling software delivery to be nimble and react quickly and even be able to change and adapt to market conditions. There are a number of adaptions to agile including sprint refinement which can be set up depending on the team size which is generally determined by CTO.
User stories are stories that go in a developers backlog. Generally written with a format : ‘As a [role], I want [some feature], so that [reason for the feature] followed with an acceptance criteria that defines the criteria that the story must have. For example, As a user, I want to upload photos, so that I can share photos with others. This structure gives excellent definition to the developer to understand the context of a user story.
This is a weekly or biweekly prioritisation of stories to go in a sprint and usually conducted with stakeholders who hold the final vision of the product.
This is a weekly or biweekly session where the stories in a sprint are fleshed out and estimated. This gives the ability for stories to go in a sprint. Sprint generally contain a Kanban style process where the progress of each story goes through the process till it’s completed and addressed in QA.
Retrospectives are an excellent way of optimising a sprint process. It generally covers a format of ‘What when right’, ‘What didn’t go so well’ and ‘What can be done to improve’. This helps uncover issues discovered during a sprint and serves to improve future sprints proactively.
Post-release of the product to market the next step is to measure the feedback. This is critical for being able to know how well the product was received in the market and what are the next steps of evolution or possibly even a pivot. The feedback can be measured in multiple ways.
Feedback can come directly from users which is generally one of the best ways to get it. It gives you a glimpse of a user’s actual pain points and where the product fit lacks. It requires a little bit of weighing against your target persona to eliminate a lot of false positives that can send you in a wrong direction. So to prevent solving the wrong problem, a lot of companies have begun to allow for customers to vote for features in addition to eliciting feedback. The quantifiable element paints a much more realistic picture of what needs to get fixed as a priority.
User testing an MVP allows you to track of how well the goals of the product were met. This feedback will help in evaluating what improvements or features need to take priority and can potentially alter a roadmap. This is probably one of the most important things to get done after launch.
Tools like Hot Jar allow you to get everything from full videos through to funnels, heatmaps and more giving you a richer picture and insight into what customers are doing.
Google analytics and similar tools give a complete all-around picture and are an excellent source of quantitative analytics. When merged with qualitative analytics gives you a fuller picture of the usage of your product.
This framework has served me very well by being able to pick, choose different approaches and methodologies in developing new products. This framework will continue to evolve over time as I continue to improve my approach through trial and error.
Thanks for spending time reading this. I’d love to hear from you and get your feedback on how I can improve my framework.