Innovation and features are important, but so is product design - maybe even more so.

The tech titans of today - Facebook, Google, Apple - were neither the first to offer a new product or service to the market, nor the most feature-heavy in their offerings. Their success comes down to their mastery of product design. They designed products for users, creating compelling value propositions that added to people’s lives, and just felt right.

Winning by design

At Altitude Labs, we design digital products for household names around the world and impacted over 100 million internet users. More importantly, we help our clients deliver significant business impact with our approach to product design.

From working with Meyer to launch their next generation smart cooking devices to creating prototypes for startups that have led them raise successful venture funding rounds, we have learnt valuable lessons on how to design products that have business impact.

In this article, we share how we help our clients deliver business impact through our product design process.

The stages of product design

We believe good product design can be achieved in 5 stages:

  1. Identifying a problem and seeing how design can provide fresh perspectives
  2. Streamlining your value proposition
  3. Understanding how your product will be used
  4. Designing for users, but not letting your users be designers
  5. Building systems to last

Stage 1: Identify a problem and see how design provides fresh perspectives

Before we consider product design, we must have a product that is useful and addresses a problem in its users’ lives. To brainstorm about how to create digital products that have utility and are natural to use, you can observe how things are done in the physical world, and see how technology can improve on that.

For instance, Trello, an online project management platform, mimics the way people paste post-its on whiteboards in its use of ‘cards’ in the interface.

Recreating an offline experience in your product means that its jargon and workflow is immediately familiar to your users, smoothening out the learning curve.

When we worked with Lynk, a platform for experts to share their knowledge, we considered how product design could provide another angle to the traditional way of getting expert opinion. Typically, people consult doctors, lawyers, or bankers in person.

After speaking to a handful of users, we realised that there was demand for a way to speak to experts on the go, prompting us to create a mobile app for Lynk. Creating a mobile app disrupted the way people approach expertise by cutting down barriers to communication. The starting point of product design is identifying how we can use the tools and technology we have to improve on the way things are done.

Stage 2: Streamline your value proposition

After you have identified a problem your product addresses, you must decide how exactly your product is going to help users. What is the value you add to your users’ lives, and why would people want to use your product?

Identifying a clear value proposition is important, because your features should be decided around that. Adding extraneous features creates bloat that detracts from the core purpose of your product, and leaves users confused as to how to use your product.

When wireless headphone manufacturer Bragi debuted its first product, the Bragi Dash, they crammed it full of features - it had 23 sensors to detect heart rate, it could count steps, it was waterproof, it had on-board storage, it had touch sensitive strips. However, as a pair of wireless headphones, it stumbled at its core value proposition; its audio connection was unreliable. Realising its misstep, in its second product, Bragi pared off those features and instead focused on improving audio quality and connectivity.

Our work with OpenRice, an online dining guide with over 10 million users, involved us honing in on their core service, and prioritising the features that would create business impact.

We consulted with users and looked at past data to identify key features that were used most often, and removed features that were too complex or context-specific. This allowed us to create a more streamlined interface that is welcoming and where users can find the information they want easily.

When it comes to features, less can be more.

Stage 3: Understand how your product will be used

Before you can finalise your feature list, it is important to consider how your product will be used, and what kinds of users you are targeting. If you aim to target a large user base, consider tweaking your product design for the various user segments.

For instance, video games like Sid Meier’s Civilization allow users to configure game difficulty based on their experience and confidence level. Casual players will not be discouraged by a steep learning curve, while professional gamers can seek the challenge of pushing their limits.

We worked with Riot Games, the creators of the largest and most epic game in the world League of Legends, create a mobile experience for their Chinese gamers who collected their merchandise.

This required us to understand the nature of the mobile format. We had less screen real estate on mobile devices, so instead of cramming in all the features and information present on the desktop version, we included only key features that users were most likely to use. Additionally, we had to consider the internet speeds in China and the type of user experiences that users were accustomed to.

Stage 4: Design for users, but don’t let your users be designers

There is a difference between taking your users’ feedback into account, and letting your users’ feedback dominate your decision making process.

Neil Gaiman expressed this idea perceptively when reflecting on his process of writing ‘American Gods’:

When people tell you there’s something wrong with a story, they’re almost always right. When they tell what it is that’s wrong and how it can be fixed, they’re almost always wrong.

Gaiman’s message is that you should listen to users when they tell you that your product is too hard to use, or that they cannot understand how to use a feature. However, you should always maintain the big-picture perspective of a designer, and not yield to the cacophony of user opinion. If you try to please everyone, you will end up pleasing nobody.

When we spoke to C-level executives, product managers, salespeople and other stakeholders at OpenRice, we realised that they received much feedback from users on how to improve their platform. The challenge was not idea generation, but prioritising which ideas to implement, and finding the best way to implement them. While many of the ideas suggested were good, the most important thing for us was seeing how each suggested feature fit into the overall structure and value proposition of OpenRice.

Stage 5: Build systems to last

Good design is scalable and timeless. While not immediately visible to users, the back-end support of any digital platform is essential. Design your systems to support the kind of user base you aspire towards, not for the kind of user base you have currently.

Our work with Lynk involved us digitising processes by building a customer relationship management (CRM) system to handle what was previously done by Excel sheets and stock email clients. This placed Lynk in good stead to manage their growing database of experts, clients, and projects. Design in this aspect can be thought of as an investment for the future, and should be done early in the development phase before old, inefficient methods are ingrained into the system.

Over to you

In today’s crowded marketplace, good product design can be a strong competitive advantage over your competitors. We hope our sharing on product design has been informative.

At Altitude Labs, the journey to turning your ideas into reality starts with a product design sprint. This is a two week process where we understand, ideate, create and test your idea. It starts with an idea and ends with clickable prototype in Adobe XD.

Here’s a quote from a recent product design sprint we completed for a Hong Kong based entrepreneur:

Altitude Labs worked so well and so closely with us that we felt that they were part of our team. We had a big idea when we went to see Altitude Labs and through the product design sprint process they helped us map it with clear and concise logic, by the end of it, our idea felt far more reachable. Most importantly, they always knew how to ask the right questions - one of them changed our business forever. I strongly recommend the product design sprint program to any aspiring entrepreneur or company looking to ideate a product!

Ross Yip, CEO, QXYJS

If you are interested to work with us on a product design sprint, please feel free to contact us here.