As I was hurtling back to San Francisco across the Rockies, the backbone of our country, after spending a couple days at the Colorado Springs Startup Week, I was struck by the changes in my profession.
I was asked to speak to a group of entrepreneurs about product development – that’s product with a big “P.”
In other words, they wanted me to speak about things, tangible things.
Having lived and practiced in the Bay Area for the last several years, I’ve become used to having to parse out exactly what “product design” or “product development” means when I’m having a conversation.
In the not so distant past, the word “product” didn’t create confusion. Industrial designers used the term product design to differentiate themselves from graphic, digital or interior designers. The term helped to frame the gap between engineering and art. We were the creatives who designed tangible products. It was a much simpler world when I graduated from design school in the late 80s.
But the descriptor “product design” has been hijacked to define software design. The roles and application of design thinking and the design process have been broadened to the design of everything. The definitions have once again become blurred, just in new ways.
As an industrial designer and design strategist, I think it is time to reclaim “Product” design with a capital “P.”
As strategic designers, we design beyond the tangible shape and form of products. We start with the needs of multiple users and stakeholders and slowly design our way toward the tangible, the product. The thing in the middle, the product of today, can be anything — a service, an experience, an app, a hub, a thing or all of the above.
This fuzziness around what the product is and how to design “it” became the focus of my challenge with the startup entrepreneurs: how to communicate that product design is similar and different than “Product” design. I ended up having a great dialogue, highlighting Design Concepts’ capabilities and sharing some case studies of past experiences with startups, both big and small.
Defining and limiting helps design
At the Colorado Springs event, I was specifically asked to talk about creating a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and the Product designer’s role in the process. Setting limits for collaborative teams can be challenging and it is often the role of the designer to help facilitate criteria setting and decision making.
Limit has a dual meaning in this setting, as it also pertains to both time or effort. When developing an MVP, resources and time are often finite and the team must work together to create a viable MVP within very real constraints.
The roles and application of design thinking and the design process have been broadened to the design of everything.
As a designer, I think one of the hardest tasks is to define “what is good enough” and when to stop designing and just “make it already.” Stop is a four-letter word to a designer because the very nature of design is to learn, iterate, improve and evolve.
Determining the limits involves four words: Now. Maybe. Later. Never.
Now = The bare minimum my product must incorporate to deliver value to my users.
Maybe = The features, technologies, services, and qualities that I may be able to incorporate into my MVP. These attributes would make for a better experience or product but the MVP can stand alone without them.
Later = The features, technologies, services and qualities that I will include in later iterations but that may be too expensive or complex to solve “now” and are not necessary for a launch.
Never = This category is for the features, technologies, services and qualities that should never be included in the product. Items in this category may be contrary to cultural beliefs or norms, government regulations or long-term brand or corporate strategies.
The image above is a framework that I created that can be applied to the design of digital and physical product. It was designed to help teams define and limit an MVP.
I want to thank the organizers of the Colorado Startup Week for including me. I was honored to be asked to share a window into how designers think about “Product.” If you would be interested in learning more about this framework, please feel free to contact me. I am always passionate about discussing design and innovation.
My name is Eva Lutz, I am an industrial designer, and I design strategies and products with a capital “P.”
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