User Experience Design Blog

Commentary on strategy and design of interactive products.

Toward an Integrated Approach to Product Strategy and Design - Part 2 of 3

October 14th, 2009 by Sergio Paluch

In part 1 of this series, I explored synergies between product development and user experience design. In this part, I write about how product development and user experience design teams fail to collaborate effectively.

How Product Development and User Experience Design Fail to Work Well Together

As described above, there are many intersections in the product development and user experience design methodologies, and where those methodologies meet, they approach the same problems and similar tasks from different perspectives and with unique competencies. This means that solutions derived collectively should be more robust and accurate. However, the two groups fail to effectively work together during key stages of the product design cycle, and many inefficiencies are introduced into the process. The following are phases where synergies should but fail to occur.

Finding Technology-Based and Market-Based Opportunities

One of the areas where great strides can be made is in identifying opportunities for new products and product improvements. Both product developers and user experience designers are adept at spotting opportunities, but they do so differently and often do not find the same ones. Sadly, combining both sets of identified opportunities is often overlooked, and new products lack the full set of potential improvements.

Product developers are particularly attuned to the industry and the general market place. They study market and industry research and have an outstanding grasp of the broad trends and opportunities present in the market. Product developers also stay abreast of prevailing technological trends, and their knowledge extends to the macro level to product testing, implementation management, and market research. Most importantly, product developers have the skills necessary to analyze market opportunities to determine which hold the greatest business potential. In addition, their expertise extends beyond the big picture to the granular level; product developers are knowledgeable with specific user types and needs as well as with the technologies particular to their product portfolio.

User experience designers are not only well aware of the general market place, but they also have an exceptionally strong understanding of opportunities at the micro level. A great part of their job is identifying customers, interviewing them, and listening to their needs and desires. User experience designers tend to have a healthy obsession with optimizing individual products or classes of products. They voraciously consume related knowledge in the form of user testing, research, and industry best practices. Beyond delving into comprehending users and their needs, user experience designers tend to strictly follow the latest technological trends and innovation, seeking opportunities to fruitfully incorporate the latest technology in their product designs. Further still, because competitive analysis is an integral part of their process, user experience designers have a very broad knowledge of competing products, the technologies they use, as well as opportunities for surpassing them.

Combining the two methodologies should lead to a holistic approach that leverages both the macro-level understanding of product developers and the micro-level knowledge of user experience designers. But even though there is great potential from the two fields collaborating to identify opportunities, they rarely do. The knowledge sharing between the two groups and cooperative brainstorming are often lacking.

Conceiving Features and Specifying Their Implementation as a Product

Although both user experience designers and product developers generate ideas about product features and specifications, the former are steeped in defining and designing the interactive elements that comprise a product. User experience designers are not only adept at identifying product features that will address market opportunities, but their specialty is designing optimal implementation of those features such that customers will derive the maximum benefits and enjoyment from using them.

For example, both product developers and user experience designers can recommend that a playlist feature should be added to a personal music player, but the latter can also specify how the playlist should look and function such that it is easiest to use and most enjoyable. Not only that, the user experience designer may be able to conceive additional sub-features that can make the playlist truly stand out from the competition.

This is not to say that product developers cannot do the same; they can. But user experience designers are specialists in this realm. They are trained in designing products and they live and breath customer-centered design. On the other hand, product developers can determine the likely commercial impact of a feature, whereas user experience designers typically are not trained to do so.

Another important part of the overall product design process is vetting unsound ideas. Product developers tend to vet them based on marketplace and implementation viability—perhaps a promising idea isn’t likely to generate substantial profit or perhaps it will be prohibitively expensive to implement. User experience designers vet ideas based on how customers are likely to respond to them. They might get rid of features that are likely to confuse users or be otherwise detrimental to the overall product experience. Both sets of inputs into the vetting process are necessary to ensure that resources are not wasted on developing ill-fated features.

Clearly, the fuzzy front end of product development calls for both sets of expertise to establish features that promise to be both viable in the market place and gratifying for customers.

Definition and Documentation

The detailed specification and documentation of the product by the two groups can also lead to a breakdown. Both product developers and user experience designers aim to define and design a product, and there can often be considerable overlap between the two. In the product development process, the final outcome of defining the product is the specification document, which is often called the product requirements document (PRD). The PRD typically contains the following sections:

  • Business objectives and scope of the project
  • Market needs and opportunity assessment
  • Target market segments
  • Use cases
  • Product objectives and overview
  • Timelines
  • Constraints
  • Functional requirements
  • Assessment and metrics
  • Additional information such as stakeholders, technical requirements, etc.

While the majority of the sections in the PRD are best defined by product developers, user experience designers can be a great resource for articulating other elements of the specification document. I have already covered above how user experience designers can lend their expertise to defining market segments, identifying customer needs, and generating ideas for addressing those opportunities. Naturally, user experience designers can be engaged in defining and documenting these sections. For example, user experience designers are experts in user-centered design practices; they are therefore perfectly adept to define and document use cases.

It is the functional requirements that tend to present the most challenges in the dynamic between product development and user experience design. Often product developers believe that it is their duty to fully define what features should be included in the product, how they should work, and in some cases, how they should look. However, it is the user experience design team’s expertise and responsibility to define how features should work. This means that by defining how features should work, the product development team has already set an expectation that may be difficult to overcome if alternative solutions are proposed by the user experience design team. This also means that those most qualified to design how the features should function are not doing the work, and productivity suffers as a result.

Just as product developers short-circuit the process by attempting to perform design tasks, user experience designers cause inefficiency by being unaccommodating to business requirements and needs, which are often at odds with an optimal user experience. User experience designers can become dead-set on a particular solution and be unwilling to veer from it, despite business-driven input from the product development team. User experience designers sometimes forget that their major stakeholder is the business and not the user. This means that the optimal user experience must, at times, be compromised due to business considerations.

To illustrate this point, allow me to use a classic example that I often mention. Advertisements in online and mobile applications are often detrimental to the overall user experience. In general, users dislike advertisements and would much prefer to avoid them. However, advertisements commonly are incorporated into a product design based on high-level business goals.

Another point where the process breaks down is in the immutable nature of the specification document. There should obviously be a lot of collaboration between product development and user experience design, and there should be constant refinement to the product specification. However, the PRD is sometimes considered an unalterable document. This is a mistake because the design process also generates many new ideas and excludes others. The PRD should be a living document that changes as refinements are made.

Conducting Testing

Many product developers have experience with market and product testing methodologies. They have the know-how and experience to conduct market testing that includes such activities as focus group research and customer surveys. At the same time, most user experience designers are specifically trained in usability (product) testing methods and have extensive experience in designing and moderating tests as well as interpreting findings and coming up with solutions. User experience designers are also best qualified to interpret test results and find optimal ways to improve the functioning and design of specific product features.

It turns out that many of the questions asked in usability testing are similar if not the same as those asked in market testing. In many cases it makes more sense to incorporate market testing in the usability testing protocol.

Once again, although both groups can benefit from each other’s competencies, collaboration and sharing of findings is rarely sufficient in the testing phases of product development.

Collaborating Frequently and Intensively

The central theme that runs throughout the above examples is a lack of collaboration in many key phases of the product design process. This is primarily caused by the fundamentally rigid and linear nature of the product development cycle. In the current process, the product development and user experience teams have strictly designated parts that marginally interface and occur linearly in scant proceedings. In other words, each team functions within a defined phase that is discrete from the other, and they occur separately and in a predefined order. Typically, the product development phase occurs first, followed by the user experience design phase, followed by testing, followed by a revision phase, followed by implementation.

The result of the current process is segregation of the two teams and the synergies that exist between them.

    Standard Product Design and Development Process with User and Marketing Testing (This abstraction does not include iterations and testing during implementation.)

Standard Product Design and Development Process with User and Marketing Testing (This abstraction does not include iterations and testing during implementation.)

This methodology also leads to inefficiencies caused by long periods of design and definition where one team embarks on a direction that is ultimately not viable or at odds with the work of the other team. This means a ton of wasted effort that could be avoided by a more dynamic process with shorter phases as well as more frequent communication and feedback.

For example, one would think that user experience designers would be a tremendous resource in the fuzzy front end of product development, but they are not typically a part of this stage. Rather convention dictates that they are integrated into the process a lot further on, once most of the features and specifications of the product have been defined. This presents many lost opportunities. Perhaps the initial product specification has missed some features that could have been true winners or introduced some that are not viable from a usability standpoint.

At the same time, once user experience designers are included in the product specification and design, there is rarely enough of a feedback loop to establish that designs are viable from a market perspective. This can lead to lost productivity when user experience designers work on elements of the experience or directions that could have been immediately disqualified by the product developer.

Summary of Shortcomings

Overall, the breakdown in an effective partnership between user experience designers and product developers occurs in a handful of instances. The two groups tend to

  • Not collaborate when searching for technology-based and market-based opportunities
  • Work independently when identifying consumer types and their needs
  • Not cooperate to conceive features and their implementation to address market needs
  • Vet feature concepts at separate points in the overall process
  • Separately define, design, and document the product
  • Conduct marketing and product testing independently of each other
  • Disjointly refine product design based on test findings and feedback
  • Redundantly do each other’s work (e.g. product developers creating wireframes of functionality)

The failures in the process phases coupled with a rigid, linear methodology introduce the great majority of inefficiencies in product design and development.

Check in next week for the final part of this series. In part 3, I will address

  • What can product developers and user experience designers do better
  • Product experience development
  • Further reading and resources


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