Product development and user experience design are two fields that should, but rarely, collaborate effectively to design and define products that consumers will find delightful to use. There exist many natural synergies between the two disciplines, and each field’s strengths complement the other’s weaknesses. Despite this, product development and user experience teams often work in siloed circumstances with insufficient communication and collaboration and sometimes with quibbling. The current modus operandi leads to loss of productivity, longer time to market, higher costs, and products that fall short of their full potential.
User experience design is a relatively new field that has gained mainstream recognition in the past decade, and consequently, there has not been a lot of time to establish best practices for product development and user experience design to work most effectively together. The good thing is that it does not take a huge paradigm shift but rather an evolution of the current model to attain a more integrated approach to product strategy and design.
How the Process Works Right Now
Currently, the product design and development process typically starts with a product developer or a team of product developers being tasked by the executive management to conceive and oversee the production and distribution of a new product or suite of products. The product management team will conduct market research and competitive analysis, engage in fuzzy front-end brainstorming, conceive features, and will compose a long document specifying the product.
The specification document will then usually be passed on to the user experience design team, which will further define the product by designing how features will work and elements will be structured. The user experience designers will recommend new features, improve others, and redact a few. Their designs will be articulated in specialized formats that are great for capturing elements of the design, but are not easy to understand for executives.
Subsequently, mock-ups or working prototypes of the product design will be created and tested by the user experience design team or a related team such as usability researchers. Once data and feedback have been gathered, the product developers and user experience designers will work to refine the product design. Usually, the designs produced by the user experience designers will be incorporated into the initial specification document.
At this point, or in conjunction with the user experience design, the product developers will formulate a strategy for making and selling the product. Finally, they will then manage the implementation, marketing, and distribution of the finished product or suite of products.
This process is usually quite linear, and the constituent parts tend to be quite discrete from on another. Knowing that they only have one go at it, both the product development and user experience design teams fight for influence. Consequently, there tend to be many missed opportunities, inefficiencies and bruised egos along the way.
How Product Development Is Related to User Experience Design
The product development and user experience design fields are very related. In effect, they address the same problem—that of designing successful products—from slightly different angles. The main difference is that product developers go about the process of designing and defining products through a formalized process backed by marketing theory while user experience designers employ user-centered design methodologies. Another main difference is that product developers not only define the product, but they also manage its creation, distribution, and support.
Product development is largely grounded in business theory. It seeks to identify market opportunities and to find specific and profitable ways to address those opportunities. Beyond identifying opportunities and defining products, product development also includes actually bringing those products or services to market. The Product Development and Management Association (PDMA) defines new product development as
The overall process of strategy, organization, concept generation, product and marketing plan creation and evaluation, and commercialization of a new product. Also frequently referred to just as “product development.”
The process of product development consists of three main phases: discovery, development, and commercialization.
The discovery phase begins with searching for and identifying opportunities, whether technology-based or market-based. This includes identifying customer types as well as their particular needs and challenges. This is followed by the “fuzzy front-end”, a formal period where ideas for meeting those needs through features and functions are conceived and screened to eliminate unsound concepts. Further, these features are synthesized into a concrete product and defined within a formal product specifications document, which also includes all of the planning and strategy to bring the product to fruition.
The second phase is centered around clearly defining the product and bringing it into being. Product developers expand on the product specification document and seek to further detail and refine the product. A big part of this is market and beta testing to gauge viability of potential features and to identify any design problems. After some iterations of testing and refinement, the product is defined in its final state and is ready for inception. Also, a sketch of market possibilities starts to emerge from competitive analysis and testing; rough ideas of price and market size are defined. Product developers then plan how the product will be made through detailed resource, engineering operations, and logistics planning and management. They then oversee the product’s inception. This phase concludes with the commercially available product.
The commercialization phase is primarily about selling the final product. This begins with marketing and introducing the product to the prospective market. Product developers also manage effective distribution and support.
User Experience Design
The field of user experience design is mostly based on user-centered design, which aims to design products that are effective and easy to use—two qualities that are certainly key to commercial success. With the same goals as product development, it is perhaps not surprising that the user experience design process is quite similar to that of product development. Although there are many ways to break up the total user experience design process, it can be considered as also consisting of three parts: discovery, development, and implementation.
The first phase consists of defining the problem by determining business objectives and identifying opportunities. In user experience design, identifying opportunities almost always involves defining various user types and investigating their needs. This step may also include competitive analysis, market research, and testing of existing products. After identifying opportunities, user experience design then aims to come up with a broad strategy articulating how to address the users’ needs. Those ideas that are detrimental to the product experience are excluded. The final strategy usually includes an outline of the product including organization, features, and rough design goals; it is captured in a user experience design strategy document.
In the development phase, user experience designers seek to precisely define and design all features and interactions that will comprise the final product. Designers architect the structure of information, the relationships of features, and the specific way the features will function. These designs are manifested in information architectures that map the organization and relationship of information and features as well as in wireframes (blueprints of interface) that map each user and system interaction. From this, prototypes or mock-ups can be created and tested for appeal, usefulness, and ease-of-use. The detailed design is subsequently refined and updated; this cycle can go through many iterations. The culmination of the development phase is the final documentation articulating the full design, which includes information architecture, wireframes, and user flows.
The user experience design is not the end. There remain two critical components, which admittedly are missed by some designers: transferring knowledge and ensuring accurate implementation of the design. The entire user experience design must be presented and explained to all the stakeholders involved in the broader process of creating the commercially available product. In addition, user experience designers should remain engaged in the product implementation to ensure that the design of the final product is not altered without merit.
Product Development & User Experience Design Practitioners
As should be apparent from the above summaries of the product development and the user experience design processes, there exist tremendous similarities and overlaps between the two disciplines. However, practitioners of the respective fields approach their tasks with very different methodologies. This is primarily due to their education and background.
Many product development professionals have MBAs or other business learning, and those that don’t usually have extensive real life business training. User experience designers usually have very different training. In fact, user experience professionals tend to possess varying foundations since the field itself is based on principles from such diverse academic disciplines as human-computer interaction, psychology, graphic design, information science, and cognitive science among others. However, they all are well versed in user-centered design principles and are usually trained in usability testing methodologies. The critical difference is that few user experience designers have strong business backgrounds.
This is a very important fact because the disparate training and dissimilar foundational philosophy of the fields means that practitioners of each field have very different strengths. Fortunately, their strengths complement each other and leveraging each at the right times can lead to great strides in their combined effectiveness.
An aside: Since user experience design is a relatively new field, it is still taking shape, and there are many sub-groups and factions within the profession. However, whether they are called user experience designers, usability engineers, or interaction designers, they do essentially the same thing: they practice user-centered design methodologies to architect and refine products. For the purpose of this article, I will just refer to them as “user experience designers.”
Check in next week for part 2 of this series. In parts 2 and 3 I will discuss:
- How the two fields fail to work together - Part 2
- What can product developers and user experience designers do better - Part 3
- Product experience development - Part 3
- Further reading and resources - Part 3