Defining Product: Is UX Design missing something big?

This article explains why User Experience Design should only be considered as part of the overall product definition and execution, and why the UX practice needs to broaden its reach outside its natural boundaries.

I won’t start by telling the “Great Tale of User Experience Design”.

UX Design has been heavily documented by many of us, inside out, with infinite variations. Conferences and keynotes have exhausted the subject. All UX designers (including myself) have, one day, build a diagram that explains how UX design works, or should be approached, or should be processed, or is different from UI, IxD, User Centered Design, is better, greater, etc.

Fight for your rights

And I understand. UX Design, as a practice, had to stand up and fight for its rights. In 15 years or so, UX designers have integrated many different types of environments — companies, agencies, start-ups, organizations, schools, conferences… — and it hasn’t been always easy. Building a UX team in an marketing agency, for instance, is a tough one. We all had to build tools, try different methods, improve processes. In large companies, UX designers are usually placed — not to say lost — under Technology departments, or Marketing Divisions, or what have you.

Most of the time, and for many years, they had to, not only do their job, but also explain their job, both to clients and internal managers.

Yes, Sir. No one had ever asked a Marketing Director to explain its job to the boss. No Creative Director ever had to go and convince the board of the agency that Creativity needs a Direction, or been asked to build slides about it. UX designers have done that, multiple times, ad nauseam.

Many agencies don’t know how to execute Digital Products (despite what Gartner says…)

So why did UX designers had to force the door, change the way people work and think, and explain their job? Because digital is still new, and despite what the Gartner Magic Quadrant for Digital Marketing Agencies 2016 claims, the large majority of agencies has little understanding on how to define and execute Digital Products properly. You heard me, dear clients… Depending on their legacy work & culture, companies and agencies handle product design in various way, trying to adapt the work to their existing structure.

If you’re lucky, your organization has a natural match with Digital Product Design, and things can move forward, but if your company comes from… Let’s say… Traditional advertising, for instance? then the organization and the process to generate and execute Digital Products is going to be flawed. Heavily flawed.

Thanks to UX Design, we can build and use digital products

In all those environments, UX Designers have improved things tremendously. They have rationalized and improved the design process, have understood the importance of content organization, integrated user and customer research upfront, built tools to map customer experience, invented and refined the process of prototyping, built frameworks and best-practices for UI interactions, etc.

Actually, let’s be clear, without the work the UX Design community has done in the last 15 years, the State of Product Design would be in despair today. So, Thank You for that.

UX Design is “just” a part of it

The collection of tools, frameworks, methods for User Experience Design is getting richer every week (this list is great, btw). Talking UX has become a thing, and talking UX in public is the mandatory rite of initiation for all UX designers (you can see mine here, from 2010) — like a church, where adepts gather on Sunday and share the Truth. Am I exaggerating?

The practice of UX design has now reached a level of maturity that leads the UX designers to think they can work in isolation — and they can, to some extend. But in short, UX Design ≠ Product Design. In fact most of UX deliverables are not product deliverables, they are “only” documentation made to contribute delivering a product. 
In this context, the UX community seems to have forgot that UX Design is just a step in the creation of a digital product. There’s stuff before, there’s stuff after. A lot of stuff, actually, like…

  • Marketing studies
  • Data mining and analytics
  • Business research & analysis
  • Technical assessment
  • Product strategy
  • Creative and design strategy
  • Organization & workflows
  • Product roadmapping
  • Content creation
  • Content management
  • Production
  • Visual Design
  • Front-end development
  • Back-end development
  • QA

And all of this is NOT handled by UX Designers but has to be done anyway. Otherwise, there is no product.

Too much Control, not enough Perspective

In UX Design, we went from an extreme to another. During roughly the first half of the “history” of web design (1995–2005), it was quite difficult to carve out some funding from a project scope for user research and usability testing. UX designers had to justify WHY this was an important and a valuable step in the process of design, and also why jumping from a brief directly into visual design was not a good idea.

Building a useful, usable, desirable product following best practices is simply better design and absolutely necessary. Design Thinking practice has, over the years, developed a large set of tools and methods to better empathize with, and design solutions for users: personas, expectation and affinity maps, journey maps, service blueprint, service roleplay… It’s so fun, it’s actually very easy to lose oneself in it.

Fast forward in 2015, we have reached the complete opposite situation: no one will bouge nor make any decision in product design unless everything has been processed through research and testing. What did the blimp happened here? In the quest for Control, we are losing Perspective. In other word, we — UX Designers — are becoming nerds. Nerding with flows, nerding with wireframes, and nerding with prototyping, even nerding with Lean UX, which is quite ironic… We’re losing the perspective that designing is only about creating value, creating business.

Unless you want to be a shoemaker, Product Definition matters

Every morning, while we use those great Design tools, we must remind ourselves : When you build a product, you build a business — and this is what fundamentally distinguishes advertising from product design: advertising generates awareness, while product IS the business. Product

Design is about building an engine that sits at the core of the organization and at the center of user’s interests, and generates revenue directly or indirectly.

Before we start asking WHAT we’re going to build, we have to constantly remind ourselves WHY we’re building it in the first place.

As the value of a product is not generated by the intrinsic qualities of the UI, may they be excellent, defining product value is the critical piece that is usually overlooked (even by startups who should actually be obsessed about it, instead of nerding out on cool apps).

More concerning, the thinking of Defining Product is absent from the teaching of UX. Schools and training programs concentrate on the making of UX design (some even pretend you can do it in one week), and forgot to teach the strategy of product definition.

Mastering a prototyping tool, and being good at sketching is not going to make you a designer, it will make you a shoemaker.

The process of Product Definition is a balanced approach of user-centered research and thorough business assessment. Design Thinking gives us the methods and the practice that traditional Consulting companies can’t provide, (and that’s why they’re all acquiring Design shops,) in order to assess business requirements and generate value, while creating products that actually work and perform.

Author: matthieu mingasson

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