When you hear the term product design, what comes to mind? You’re likely imagining the evolution of a physical object like Edison’s light bulb or the first iPhone. If your own work is design related, you may also think of the most basic definition of product design: the creation of an item, from its appearance as an idea in someone’s head through to its development as a tangible entity.
In today’s world, defining product design can be complicated. It’s a term heard in a variety of fields and referring to a range of products, both actual concrete items and nonphysical things like software. Product design therefore encompasses the process of imagining and then developing new ideas and solutions to meet needs.
So whose needs are we talking about? The answer depends on the kind of company doing the designing. Different organizations, nonprofits, and businesses meet different needs for different users every day. If you’re the designer at one of these places, whatever you create must work for everyone in your specific user group. And if you ask each user what makes a good design, you’ll probably get as many answers as people you ask.
This complexity explains why product design benefits from a streamlined workflow. After all, any successful organization serves multiple people, and time and money are always at a premium. So creating the best possible product for users as efficiently as possible is the product designer’s ultimate goal.
Extension Engine’s Principal Product Designer Kate Bagoy understands this. With over 20 years’ experience working in design and marketing for such well-known international brands as Nike, HP, and Microsoft as well as multiple startups, Kate has seen various products evolve through the many phases of design and development. She brings this knowledge to Extension Engine in order to enhance how we work with each of our projects and clients. “My background is in startups, so I work iteratively,” Kate says. “In iterative design, you do shorter bites, so you rapidly iterate, and improve and improve and improve. It tends to get you better results and saves a lot of time.” This approach is the opposite of the waterfall model, often used in technology and software development, in which groups work by planning everything out and then following that plan through, expecting things to stay the same and move according to the plan for the life cycle of the project.
Kate’s goal is to enact a more collaborative process for each custom development project from the beginning. Ideally she sees user experience (UX) as the focal point so that the strategy and information architecture of each learning experience platform or experience can be built with that at the top of mind. “[What I want is to include] best practices for product design in terms of how are we going to build this application, what is our navigation, what are our core features, and what are we going to focus on, to then build some wireframes to look at the overall architecture process, and then have a user interface (UI) or visual designer come in and think UI, and give some options for visual design.” Once a project is brought successfully to that point, depending on its particular needs, either user testing can happen, prototypes can be built, or feature development can begin.
It’s important to note that this type of process can work for all kinds of products. It doesn’t need to be different just because Extension Engine builds learning experience platforms and not light bulbs. “Particularly in product design, you can find patterns in all sorts of different software that you can use for best practices in learning experience design,” Kate says. “We don’t need to just look at [our work] as being a product and not focus on the fact that it’s tied to learning. We are designing software to learn, and we have [content] specialists on our team, but from a software design [perspective], we want to build in best practices of software.”
Kate envisions the ideal design process as involving several things:
- Adequate time devoted to research and user testing. “Designers [should be] brought in from the beginning to really help find the design strategy. We also want to build in time for our designers to do the proper research and strategy and foundational work that’s important to build better products.” User testing is already a big part of Extension Engine’s work, but more is better.
- The use of Figma design software, which is specifically for web and product design. Figma has the ability to build component-based, responsive designs and use auto-layout, which saves designers time, makes it easier to standardize a design system, and more closely aligns to development workflow. Extension Engine designers use Figma and are also invested in training to improve their knowledge of it.
- One point person at the helm of a project the entire time. “We’d [like to] have someone that owns a project from start to finish, whether that’s a project manager or an engagement manager, who owns the relationship with the client and also sets milestones along the way and can coordinate with the right sets of people,” Kate says.
The benefits that these things offer both clients and employees are huge and go hand in hand . “[Such a workflow] drastically reduces the time needed from designers,” Kate says. “It reduces errors when passing off from design to a development team that’s in another time zone. When we’re working more like how developers work, it’s a more seamless process. And it also allows for standardization, so for the clients that don’t keep us on long term to manage their projects, they have a very well-known, well-established base system that they can use to continue with it going forward.”
This workflow means more time spent on the elements of each project rather than time spent monitoring or adjusting work. Kate says, “I’d like to look at how we can run projects from beginning to end more consistently.” For her, the best project team for such a design process would comprise product and content experts, including:
- a learning strategist
- a learning experience designer
- a media and visual content producer
- a designer with a strong UX background
- additional experts as needed
All of these people are ultimately working in service to the user, as Kate points out. “That’s always part of a product designer or a product manager’s job: You should be fighting for the user. Ultimately what we are doing is trying to build a great experience for the learner.”