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Designing products – A relentless focus on the customer

Posted 3 years ago in Small business by Amy Sheppard
Posted by Amy Sheppard

Amy Sheppard is Head of Design at Xero.

I’m fascinated by the interplay between people, technology and business. No digital product will succeed and sustain unless these factors are carefully balanced. And that balance is incredibly tricky to strike.

Corina Enache’s new podcast – The Human Show – explores how some of the biggest players in tech are taking this on. She talks with social scientists, designers and innovators from the likes of Facebook, Microsoft, and Visa. I was thrilled to be her guest and chat to her about design at Xero in this week’s episode. Here are some key takeaways from my conversation with Corina.

Create empowered and durable teams

Built of a bedrock of candor, trust, and understanding, empowerment is the key to high-performing teams. Teams thrive when there’s diversity of thought and expertise. But diversity can create its own tensions, so people need to be curious, open to other ideas and evolve their thinking in light of new information. You want team members to both challenge and support each other – and be in it for the long haul.

The ideal is that you create a team where each member – product manager, product designer, engineering lead – brings their own skill set, expertise and perspective into the mix, but work together to come up with a solution to solve a business problem. Atlassian calls this dynamic ‘sparring’ – a kind of positive friction that leads to new ideas and better outcomes.

Get to know your customers and help them solve a problem

In the broadest sense, we use technology to accomplish various tasks and to extend our abilities. That starts with understanding people’s unmet needs and/or what problems need solving. This is the crux of a product designer’s role. Being clear on the problem we’re trying to solve is what enables designers to create products that people love.

But we can’t build products purely based on customer needs. In reality, customer needs can’t trump what’s feasible and viable for the business. Finding the sweet spot, the balance between these needs, is the hard part. And it’s a challenge that everyone working on digital products must face and embrace.

Human-centred design opens up the idea space on what to make

Design research, co-design (participatory design with your customers), and prototyping are some of the different methods which enable us to learn more about our customers and what works for them. Deeply understanding who will use your product (as well as how and when they’ll use it) provides invaluable information to the design process. Couple this with knowing how your product fits into the rest of their lives and you’ll inevitably design better solutions.

I find it’s key to identify your hypotheses (hunches and assumptions) and find a way to quickly test them and iterate on your findings. It’s difficult to know if something that seems like a good idea will manifest into something customers will actually use. Taking your initial design solution that is built around solving a customer problem, testing it early and often means the better the chances are that you’ll find product-market fit.

However, it’s important to be aware that you need to start with an idea that is already good. Erika Hall puts this really well in The 9 rules of design research: “The danger in prototyping too soon is investing resources in answering a question no one asked, and ignoring the opportunity cost. Testing a prototype can help you refine an idea that is already good, not tell you whether you’re solving the right problem.”

Make sure you check out the podcast for more of my in-depth musings about design and technology. I hope you enjoy!

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