The Ever-Evolving World of Product Design
The realm of product design is currently undergoing a major shift, as technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and spatial computing drastically transform computing experiences. While AI may have a minimal impact on interface design, it will significantly alter the overall product or ecosystem experience. On the other hand, spatial computing has the potential to completely revolutionize human-computer interactions and reshape our understanding of what a computer is.
This era of innovation highlights the need for a broader perspective in product design, encompassing platforms and the interconnectedness of technologies. This calls for close collaboration between technologists and designers throughout the process.
The Never-Ending Quest for Innovation
For successful products and businesses, innovation is a constant pursuit. There is an ongoing search for the next big thing that can enhance user experience, expand product reach, and increase revenue. Product design plays a crucial role in making this process less daunting and increasing the chances of success. It is a multidisciplinary approach with frameworks and structures to inspire innovation. Technologists also play a pivotal role in this process, beyond just validating the technology or concept, as is traditionally expected of them. Before delving into their unconventional involvement in product innovation, let’s first explore the concepts of innovation and product design.
The Concept of Innovation
The word “innovation” has a straightforward meaning – to introduce something new or a novel approach to doing something. However, it is often inflated to imply something magical, grandiose, and world-changing. In reality, innovation can also manifest in mundane and simple ways. The key aspect is that it must be “new.” This novelty can be focused on a team, product, process, or business unit. It can also encompass established practices that have not yet been incorporated into a workflow or product. Sometimes, innovation can result from small adjustments and is not limited to a “eureka” moment.
Product design involves a process, rather than being a specific discipline or output. It is easy to limit the scope of product design to surface-level elements such as color choices, content layouts, and aesthetics. However, it goes much deeper and encompasses a broader realm than just visual design assets. For instance, product design can provide direction and focus to business strategies, user experience plans, and technology explorations.
The product design process acts as a guide throughout any innovation endeavor. At its core, it involves making informed decisions at the most opportune time. This reduces risk and leads to more effective innovation through quality decision-making.
Technologists in the World of Product Innovation
Technologists have a strategic role to play in product innovation, requiring them to bring not just their technical expertise but also a metaphysical perspective. Our job is to communicate the essence of a technology and think strategically about its application to problem spaces. We are most valuable when we can translate technical details, such as “how to make X do Y,” into tangible products and services.
For most technical leads and software developers, this requires a shift from a tactical, hands-on approach to a more abstract and strategic one. This context switch can be challenging but is crucial for the development of successful and innovative products. We have a unique position in translating dense technical information into strategic insights that drive innovative business cases and product experiences.
A technology innovation must solve a specific business problem, whether it is improving operational efficiency, growing revenue streams, or creating new ones. It could be a customer-facing issue, like how to deliver a new feature, or an internal challenge, such as streamlining a process. Regardless, the problem should be the top priority. The specific technologies or innovations used to solve the problem are often secondary. Therefore, it is vital to never lose sight of the business needs, as otherwise, the process can become too theoretical or merely a hobby.
Here’s a simple analogy – hanging a picture at home. The size of the hole, bracket, or tools used to do so are insignificant, as long as the picture is straight and on the wall. Similarly, the specifics of the process and technologies used in product design are only crucial in terms of how well they solve the problem, their costs, and the overall user experience.
As digital technologies are akin to materials like paint, stone, or wood, it is crucial for artisans to understand their properties and potential creatively. For example, painters must be well-versed in the differences between oil, acrylic, and watercolors, as they all have unique qualities that affect the final result. In the same way, technologists must “find the grain” of a technology to become an intermediary between the abstract nature of design and the intricate nature of technology. This philosophical perspective is particularly crucial in the growth stage of a product or when using emerging technologies.
Including Technologists in Product Design
Integrating technologists into the product strategy and design process enriches the final outcome, whether the product is in a growth or stable stage, and uses established or emerging technologies. There is a technology-focused perspective that goes beyond the technical operations and mechanics of the code “factory floor,” which inspires innovation. This can lead to game-changing moments of innovation, or even small but impactful improvements.
It’s easy to get caught up in the current hype of AI and use it as a mere box to tick off in product development. However, the real challenge for technology and product executives is finding meaningful ways to incorporate AI into a product. Instead of forcing a technology onto a product, the design process should flow towards the technology. In this way, the technology becomes a natural solution.
Finally, it is essential to acknowledge that product innovation is experimental and may not always result in immediate success. It requires patience and a willingness to learn, as the outcomes can be uncertain. This may be difficult for business leaders to grasp, as it is indefinite in terms of results and timelines, making it challenging to translate pure technology innovation into value creation. This can create a divide between technology and product teams, where technology teams struggle to articulate the value and capabilities of a technology innovation, leading to unfulfilled promises and the perception of “technology for the sake of technology” or comments like “a solution looking for a problem.” However, by involving technologists in the product design process, this gap can be bridged.