Product Design — how to start a product from scratch

Author Nina Tudor
Category Design
Date Oct 16, 2020
10 min read

This year’s Product Camp was hosted online just like many other great events, but we still got to enjoy and listen to some of the top names in the digital product industry working for brands like Adobe, Atlassian, Flixbus and Bornfight.

Yeah, you read that right as Elena Crnković, our Design Team Lead, was one of the speakers and her topic was a rather interesting one: “Shaping the product: How to start from a blank”. 

Since the presentation had great feedback, we decided to share it with you in the form of a blog. 

Sit comfortably and read about the process of starting a product with a real-life example we had a pleasure of working on here at Bornfight.

What is the strategy?

Starting from the beginning, we have to ask ourselves what exactly is strategy?

If we want to simplify it, we can say that strategy is a game plan. For example, if you want to succeed at something, if you want to enter the market with your new idea – you need to have a plan. 

How can you create a plan?

To make a plan, we need to connect our current state (where we currently are with an idea) to a state we want to be in. All the steps in between are our strategy of how we can achieve it.

This sounds easy and a little bit abstract, so to bring it closer to you we want to show you an example of a brief we had. For this blog post, it is a bit simplified, but it is not far away from what we usually have as a starting point – meaning this is something we sometimes get from our clients.

Sometimes we get a brief like this, sometimes our clients will share more details – like how they want to share those files, what cloud services they want to use etc. 

Now that we have their idea, you would probably think it would be the best thing to immediately start planning on how it fits into our timeline and our budget. But what we need to do here is to just stop for a minute and think about what we just read.

They mentioned their news feed, posts, sharing files – does that remind you of something? If you think about it, it feels like they want us to build a new Facebook… Do they want us to create a new WhatsApp? Why didn’t they just create a Slack group and use it for this? We ask ourselves this because all the solutions for their problem already exist. 

So before we start with the project we need to know what their goal and context are!

Let’s take a more strategic approach to this 

The thing that usually happens is that everybody focuses only on one part of the entire story and then they come up with different solutions. For our example, a solution could be a feature like news feeds for sharing posts and files. That approach is not the best as you need to look at their problem as a whole. And that is something we should always do before we try to think of different ways of approaching any kind of a problem. So if we go back to our strategy, the current state is a problem you are trying to solve in some context. There is always some kind of context that you need to be aware of, because a problem in another context is maybe not even a problem.

Only when we know what problem we are solving can we go and talk about the future state which is our vision, or the value that software needs to provide to someone. If you know these two states, you can go and start to combine steps of how to get there. Because if we don’t know where we are going, then we can’t go there… which sounds obvious, but can sometimes be forgotten.

Designers’ goals should always be to combine business needs and users goals. That is how we get a value proposition – a feature we know will create a successful product. And if we know the value proposition, if we know what we are going for, what is the value we want to give to our users and also how we are going to make money from that, then we can focus on the UX design and all the details for optimising the experience for the users. 

However, what should we do if we don’t have all the information we need to create a good UX design? 

If we don’t have much information, then we have to start with some kind of discovery. And there should always be a discovery. It could be more or less complex. It could last just a couple of hours or a couple of months – but we need a discovery to make the product the best we can.

And there are a lot of methods of how to do the discovery phase of the project. Some of the most popular methods are:

There are a lot of methods that we as designers or as product developers use to know what is the current and the future state, and of course, now that we mentioned the methods, we also need to mention the context and constraints that could be:

These are just some that are on the top of our head… but there are a lot more we could mention. To make this easier, let’s try and start with methods and try to look at them as tools. As a designer, or anyone working on developing some kind of a product (not including products in Figma, Sketch or similar digital tools), you will also always have to use some non-digital tools that are a part of research methods. Let’s put it this way – if you are a construction worker, you would use some tools for some tasks and other tools for some other type of task. If you want to assemble the wooden table, you probably wouldn’t use glue because that will not give you the best results.

So… let’s try to take a look at the design process like that. You have all of your tools. The interview, the data, field research, stakeholder interview, prototyping… and you need to know when to use which tool and when will it give you the best results. So you first need to know your tools and then how to combine them.

To help you with that, here are some of the key questions that will help you decide.

What do you want to learn?

Of course, the first and the most important question is what do you want to get out of the research you are doing. What are the questions you wand to get answers for? It could be: who is the persona, how does the company work, what is the business model… Whatever it is, you should always know what you want to learn as an output of the chosen method. 

If you know what you want to learn, then you need to think about…

What is the best way to collect the data?

Is it quantitative research, or is it a qualitative one? Is it the combination of those two? And how can you collect that data?

How can you use the product in your research?

If you are at the beginning of product development, then you don’t have a product yet, so you can’t use it in the first phase. If that is the case, you can start with some sketches, some prototypes, some concept testing… and later on with analytics and other methods.

Okay, so now we know what we want to learn, we have some idea on how to collect the data, and we know how to include our product in our research. What we can do next is testing, but we also have to remember that in design there are always more solutions to the same problem. So, if we go back to using it as a toolbox, you can pick different tools that will get you pretty much the same result. That is why you have to try to use your tools smart!

Try to compare the value you will get with each method and effort you need to put in. Look for quick wins – something that will take the least effort and give you more value. Maybe something that could answer a couple of your questions in one shot. That could be something like a workshop that can be done in a couple of days and can provide you with a lot of insights.

Okay, now let’s try that on a real example we mentioned above. In case you forgot what the brief was about, here is it again:

“We want to improve communication, so we want to build an app that will have news feed, private and group chats, you can share files, images and posts and have a contact list of everyone in the company.”

The first thing you want to do when you have this kind of a brief is to ask all the questions you have at the moment. With this brief, we got something like this:

For pretty much every word in this brief, we had a question and everybody on a project could think of different solutions in their head, but we need our team to be in sync as that will make the project much easier from the beginning.

So what exactly should we do with this?

We have a lot of questions, and we need to find some answers. 

For you to understand this example better, here is the context behind the brief:

  • This was a big international corporation
  • Factory workers, fields workers, office workers
  • Multiple hierarchy levels
  • They had a lot of problem with losing a lot of information
  • No one reads info boards
  • Poor collaboration between countries
  • KPI – connect and improve communication in just one region (teams in 8 countries) where they speak different languages
  • Strict brand guidelines
  • Internal app for 2000+ employees
  • Strict security protocols

So now… when we put the context into the brief, we can agree that it looks much different.

We can now go back to the methods we mentioned earlier.

With each project, we have some constraints and some context that could also be very different from the list we put above, so we can go over the list and scratch everything we don’t need to use for the further research. And it should look something like this:

It is an internal application for a company, so it will not be sold to any customers outside and that is why we don’t need a business model for this project. We are building it up from scratch, so we don’t have legacy technology. We can’t do analytics for now or A/B testing because we don’t have anything to start doing it with etc. You get the point.

This enables us to narrow down our choices. And we can also mark what we already know from the brief.

We have a deadline, team size and experience. We also know that they have long-term and short-term goals for that company, we know what is the target and what users they are targeting…

Now we can adjust other methods to fit better for this particular project.

We don’t need an industry study, but we do need to know the company structure and we need to put more effort in understanding their processes and how it is all combined, who is communicating with who. We also need to know how the team is structured, how teams in those 8 countries currently work together and so on.

And we could maybe switch surveys to questionnaires.

So going from that what was our approach?

Step 1: pre-workshop questionnaire

Step 2: stakeholder discovery workshop

This is what we focused on because it gave us the needed insight into the company:

  • Company structure
  • Internal processes and communication
  • KPIs
  • Content types, creators and admins
  • Low fidelity app flow
  • Security questions and requirements

Step 3: summarizing insights and developing the concept

Step 4: sprint planning, detailed screen design, development

And what we got at the end of the workshop was something like this:

Let’s summarize this blog

So, if you remember, we started from a very broad idea where we didn’t know if they wanted us to create a new social network or a new WhatsApp… and we ended up with a really simple application because we got to the point where we understood their problem, their communication, and had an idea of how to solve their problem.

We always have to remember that it is very important to have everyone on board with the idea and with the strategy of how we plan to do it – both with the members of the board and with our team members. 

This was just a simple example to show you how we do it, but in most cases it is not this straightforward. Regardless of the case, the important thing to remember is:

Do not be afraid to start again or pivot your idea if the data you collect identifies a better opportunity. “

Because in the end, what we want to do is give the best value for the users and the business, and create benefits for both of them.

There are a lot more methods to discover because if the ones mentioned above don’t give you good enough results, you can always try something else. Maybe another workshop, design sprint, or any other discovery method… 

What I would like you to take from this blog is that you have options, you have methods… so try to use them it in a smart way. Know your methods and then you can learn how to use them and combine them in a way that will give you the most value with the least effort. In the end, we can go and say that strategy and product design is connecting the dots. It is not reinventing something that exists or waiting for a good idea to just appear. It is connecting the dots, learning the context and linking everything to be in a place where it needs to be. 

Do you want to stay in touch with Elena?

EMAIL: elena.crnkovic@bornfight.com

TWITTER: twitter.com/crnkovic_elena

LINKEDIN: linkedin.com/in/elena-crnkovic

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