Serial technology entrepreneur. Currently, CTO of EarthLink.

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Companies looking to deliver great products and services and great business outcomes — and who isn’t? — need to have a company driven by design. Instead of believing that the technology should drive your offerings, pivot your focus to the customers’ experience and needs.

The Benefits Of Design-First Approaches

There are many examples of products on the market that neglected, or completely skipped, design due to the pervasive idea that the sooner something is launched, the sooner it can succeed. But, in many cases, products will have to be redesigned, rebuilt and relaunched before achieving real, lasting success. So, proper design upfront actually shortens the total development time and leads to quicker financial success.

For example, early consumer Internet of Things (IoT) companies often didn’t take design into consideration — just function. As a device-led industry, companies created security cameras, motion sensors, smart lights and more but failed to consider how these devices could be easily set up and how they would seamlessly work together to solve specific user problems. Now, major technology companies have simplified customer experiences, benefitting from the failures of other, earlier products. So, we’re seeing wider adoption of consumer IoT products.

Tech first, design second is a mistake. For many IoT companies, it resulted in an extra decade or so and billions of development dollars before consumer IoT products enjoyed broad adoption. The technology graveyard is littered with companies that employed a tech-first, design-second approach.

Consider The Entire Customer Journey

Design goes beyond the product or service offering. Most products require some sort of upkeep, so think through the infrastructure needed to provide that support. Will this require repair services? Will you need monthly subscription billing? Are upgrades available? Is there a secondary market?

Design-first thinking considers the entire customer journey from the time they become aware of your product to purchasing it, to the unboxing or download experience, customer support and beyond. If the experience at each level hasn’t been accounted for, then the entire process hasn’t been designed with the customer experience in mind.

Four Steps To Design-First Thinking

To achieve this, the order in which you create your product or service matters almost as much as what you’re offering. I’ve broken it down into four steps based on a simplified version of the McKinsey braided design model. For businesses working to pivot to design-first approaches instead of technology-first, start here.

1. Understand the problem. First, understand the problem you’re solving by knowing your customer. This goes beyond defining a target audience or breaking down demographics. Test prototypes or ideas with your audience to be sure that there is a problem and that you’ve found a solution. Your target audience might not see any issue with the way things are, or they might already have other solutions for that gap. At the very least, the learnings during this step will help shape your design.

2. Define the potential financial outcome for your business if you solve that problem. You’ve successfully defined the problem, but what does that mean for your business? Determine if solving it is going to be financially viable for your company. Create your initial business model with appropriate, testable assumptions to ensure there’s a viable ROI for your product or service.

Test the assumptions in your model as much as possible. This step will require three or more teams working together: the business development or strategy team to define the opportunity and build the initial business model, the design team to think about the problem from a user perspective and the technology or IT team to explore what technology is appropriate or available.

3. Design a solution for that problem. Working together, these three teams can create and document strawman ideas that evolve into a high-level product or service outline. Before going further, now’s the time to get additional user validation to ensure you’re on the right track before investing more resources. The customer must associate the cost with enough value to justify spending that money, which won’t happen unless the product or service is helpful and solves the problem.

Designing a solution should be a collaborative process but, ultimately, everything — including the product specs and engineering requirements — should flow from the user experience. This is an agile, iterative process that must be thought through carefully and well documented. Without something like wireframes or sketches, there likely isn’t a real idea to work with here. Documentation is a way to ideate, track progress and build on the concept in a more tangible way.

4. Develop a solution for that problem. Once you’ve designed a solution and shown it to potential customers for feedback, start to truly develop the solution. This stage should involve further refinement (including the go-to-market and financial models), continuous user feedback and a product trial. Here, teams can get down to details, establish timing for the launch and develop a roadmap for planned or potential product enhancements.

The order of these steps matters, but you can always go back a step if you need to revisit the drawing board.

Make Design-First Thinking Part Of The Culture

So, how can your company make this a more intuitive part of the entire business instead of a box to check when starting a new project? Everyone needs to understand the importance of design-driven product development. It’s a business and culture shift that must come from the top.

Your leadership team must communicate the design-first approach as a priority to the organization, and you’ll need the personnel to back up that goal. Instead of taking pointers or direction from company leaders from other disciplines, design should have a seat at the senior leadership table.

Design-first approaches may seem like they would take longer to result in a usable, tangible product or service. But, if implemented correctly, this process can speed up the time it takes to go from ideation to truly solve a problem and create real value for the customer and financial value to your company.


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