6 Steps For Designing A Product With The User

By | February 26, 2015

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As you all know by now, we're big proponents of the Principles of Digital Development. One of them is "Designing with the User" which suggests the following six steps:

  1. Developing context-appropriate solutions informed by user needs.

  2. Including all user groups in planning, development, implementation and assessment.

  3. Developing projects in an incremental and iterative manner.

  4. Designing solutions that learn from and enhance existing workflows and plans for organizational adaptation.

  5. Ensuring that solutions are sensitive to, and useful for, the most marginalized poulations: women, children, those with disabilities, and those affected by conflict and disaster.

Human Centered Design (HCD) or designing with the user is “as much a state of mind as it is a process;”  this was a central thread discussed at the ICT4D principles meeting. This blog is a snapshot of my thoughts in terms of what matters in a product design decision,  drawing on insights from several industries.

If you offer a “Henry Ford defense” of “if I ask the user what they want, they would have replied a faster horse.” this is not a blog for you. Equine quips aside, Ford chose his market segment carefully and designed a product that hit the price point of this target market. If you offer an “I am creative” defense, there is plenty of evidence that business choices are a key element of artistic choices; artists make practical decisions to ensure that the show goes on, as a friend of mine - a ballet dancer with an MBA degree - recently wrote.

For a product aimed at, say, a few hundred people, one can make a design work based on gut assumptions. However,  if you want to achieve true scale, the steps described in this blog will be useful.

1) Create User Persona

Several keywords from human-centered design (HCD), like ‘empathy’ and ‘extreme user,’ require the design team to create a story to understand the life of a potential client. This step is necessary to understand the context of the problem and make sure your solution fits real people’s needs. A user persona might help you design for a wider audience than just a community of users whom you are designing with. In the 21st century, Ford creates user personas like “Antonella, an attractive 28-year old woman who lives in Rome. Her life is focused on friends and fun, clubbing and parties.”  These personas help them understand their users before designing cars that can be sold in several continents.

2) Isolate The Problem

It’s not a question of whether we are solving the problem with the right solution, but a question of whether we are even solving the right problem.” - Augusta Meill, Vice President, Continuum Design

Once you’ve gained an understanding of the user persona, it is most effective to isolate the problems that you can solve through your product. A community that lacks access to information might be suffering from poor internet access, or little or no electricity. However, an off-grid solar solution to expand electricity might be outside the purview of your company.

3) Define Boundaries

Creativity comes from limits, not freedom” - Jon Stewart.

A brief that describes the situation (persona) and the problem is necessary to inspire the design team. If the brief is too abstract, designers will wander in search of a solution. If the brief is too narrow, the product will be incremental or mediocre.

An important boundary is the cost threshold. Determining a cost threshold can help project teams set parameters for design. A beautifully designed product that solves all the user’s needs at a price that the user cannot afford is pointless. I present Apple’s 2% market share in India as an evidence that corroborates this statement. Most Indians would like to own an IPhone. Having said that, that there is an influx of multiple products that look as sleek and shiny while performing “all right” for a price that is lower by about $400.

It would augur well for product leaders to assume ownership of the need to define boundaries, taking into account price points and available technologies across target market segments, among other limitations. This is especially crucial for social projects.

4) Think About Your Extreme Users And Positive Deviance

We can learn a lot by observing similar users or extreme users. What kind of design inspirations can a person who collects recyclables on shopping carts offer for building a grocery store shopping cart? Or a person who does 100% of his shopping online? Along these lines, I recently  wrote a blog on lessons for a software products team from supply chain industry.

“...Certain individuals or groups (the positive deviants), whose uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers.” - The Concept of Positive Deviance

Often, there are users who have a workaround for the specific problem you are trying to solve. In one powerful example of the impact of observing users, observing six families in Vietnam helped address the issue of malnourishment beleaguering thousands of children in the country. Positive Deviance might just be relevant for a unique cultural context and often cannot be extended outside a specific situation.

5) Consider Your Value Chain and Supply Chain

Remember, you cannot create your success alone. Think about which partners can help you and what’s in it for them.” - Ole Kjerkegaard Nielsen, Novo Nordisk on scaling pharma

Users don’t exist in a vacuum. Understanding the value chain you operate in is necessary to ensure that your product is being used as intended. If you are disrupting an industry through your product, wider stakeholders might benefit from the product while others might lose their jobs. As Revolution Food discovered, the food service administrator who served healthy organic food to school students was as much a customer as those students themselves. It is effective to understand your product’s ecosystem in addition to your user base.

6) Iteration

Getting the prototype in the hands of the user is invaluable in terms of learning how your product behaves. This “minimum viable product” lets you get something out there - but then you have to see what works and what doesn’t. In the chaos of product testing, product leaders must establish key metrics and track it over the testing phase. Wisdom from D-Rev’s CEO Krista Donaldson on testing:  “Know your mission, Measure the right thing, Measure it well.”

"Innovation in Silicon Valley is all about iteration and experimentation," says analyst Frank Gillett of Forrester Research. “This iterative process means that products are not completely ready for prime time. So the idea is to figure out the minimum viable product that will let you experiment with an idea, develop it and see if there's something there - and then figure out how to improve it, iterate it, and make it better."

PlayPumps, a system where children's merry-go-rounds also pumped water, was a ‘cool product’ that failed to live up to its expectation because it did not track the right metrics. The Guardian wrote, “in order to meet the recommended minimum daily water requirement of 15 liters per person, children would have to “play” nonstop for more than 24 hours every day.”

Product Leader

Finally, behind every good product is a strong product leader. Among other responsibilities, Leaders have to build the right team, set the bar for execution high, establish processes that are flexible to accommodate creativity, and emphasize on output. Here are other traits that team leaders of creative teams should possess.

First, empathy. It’s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective- to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Second, they tend to get very enthusiastic about other people’s disciplines, to the point that they may actually start to practice them.” IDEO CEO Tim Brown on his approach to talent management