(Reading time: ~18 minutes + 7 minutes videos)
Everyone who works as a Product Manager, Concept Designer, or Product Owner should have some knowledge about the recent evolution of product design because brilliant ideas inspire massively. Knowing what works well and why will help you to define your purpose as a product owner. That’s why I am going to showcase a bit of the stuff that I own in my personal museum of product design at home (aka. my cellar, at least that’s where my wife puts all this beautiful stuff). 😉
Know where you are coming from and where you are heading to
We will start with some cool examples of pre-digital product design. Here, we will see what we can learn from it, and especially what made the Bauhaus Design School so successful.
Afterwards, we will speak about the issues of early digital design and the way it took from creating functional products to improved usability, up to designing beautiful user experiences, and ultimately to accessible products for everyone (not just for nerds, or digital natives anymore).
Iconic Furniture Designs
Please have a look at the two furniture designs below:
The “Chaise A” chair and the “Tolix” bar stool by Xavier Pauchard are amazing examples of good and well-thought design. In the 1930s, they started to change the look of many cafes and bistros in Paris.
Instead of heavy furniture made of massive wood, Xavier Pauchard’s designs were made of galvanised steel. This revolution in the manufacturing of cafe and bistro furniture created pieces that were durable on the one hand (even for outside use in most weather conditions), and relatively cheap to produce on the other hand. Further, the “Chaise A” chair and the “Tolix” bar stool are very well stackable. This allows restaurant owners to move the chairs easily from their outside area inside a storage place during winter. Because of their form, you can carry them easily too.
You probably have seen these masterpieces of furniture design already in many cafes and restaurants in your area too. If not, just keep them in mind, and you will start to spot them everywhere. Because even nowadays the “Tolix” bar stool and the chairs by Xavier Pauchard are still kind of the standard for interior designs of many cafes and restaurants. And when you speak with interior designers, many will tell you that these are the best pieces for most objects because they are lightweight, durable, and create a cool look and feel.
These products look amazing, provide real value, have a well-thought manufacturing process plus suitable material, and became a big success on the market.
The Bauhaus Design School
Another beautiful example and source of inspiration for me are the everyday objects by members of the Bauhaus Design School.
The Bauhaus Design School is very well-known for its motto “form follows function”.
But it’s not just the motto that makes the Bauhaus designers so successful. It was rather the curriculum of the school. Bauhaus students did not just study design, they had extensive lessons about materials and manufacturing processes too. With their holistic knowledge, Bauhaus designers were not just able to create beautiful everyday objects, but rather products that were well-thought in their total composition. This means:
- not just a beautiful form and function
- also suitable, nice, and durable materials
- finally, easy to manufacture
The teapot above was designed by Heinrich Löffelhardt and Wilhelm Wagenfeld in the 1950s. It’s 70 years old. And you know what? They still look stunning and the glass is clear like it was on the first day. And I use my dishwasher to clean them; the machine wasn’t even invented when the teapot was designed!
A good approach to product ownership needs this combination of knowledge too: Design, Material (Technology), and Process (Business).
Early digital designs
When we now look into the 1970s, we see a period that I call “early digital designs”. Here, we had some great innovations and completely new, electric products. But often their usability wasn’t as nice as the iconic designs we just looked at. People were rather happy when they were somehow working at all.
The reason was probably that this type of product was novel for everyone. There was a lot of pioneer work going on, and these products were much more complex, and not as easy as salt shakers anymore.
Below you see PONG gaming console, the first entertainment system for your home TV:
Instead of playing with a controller in your hand, you had to operate at one of the knobs. And the second player was operating at the other knob, sitting right next to you. If you think this is already weird usability, have a look at page 3 of the instruction manual. Here you see how to connect PONG to your television:
Wow! If feels like you have to be a well-trained electrician to get it working. Crazy, isn’t it?
After a while, some of us started having computers at home, or work. Just check the beautiful 486er processor with 33 Mhz below:
Nowadays, it wouldn’t even be able to display the images that you took with your smartphone. 🙂 And do you remember this beautiful product?
It’s floppy disk number 4 of the Internet Explorer for Windows 95. 🙂 Even 20 years later, web designers hated the product. 😉
But we entered a period of global connectivity which created many new business models. If you are my age (born 1985), you will remember these CD-Roms too:
It took five attempts to connect to your internet provider, and if you were online your mom couldn’t use the landline phone. If we look back, it was still very tough usability. But what is this? Have a look at the claim above! It reads already: “So easy to use, no wonder we’re the world’s No. 1”! Even though usability was still tough during the early digital time, companies began to understand that usability is a big differentiator for digital product success.
This is something that we understood for non-digital products already a long time ago. But it took a while for digital, and electric devices. Probably, because they were much more complex, and a lot of pioneer work was going on (and, of course, neither companies nor engineers were testing most of their products with real users).
Ok, one more: If you were just laughing about the old storage units above (floppy disk, CD-ROM), please have a look at this “Product Information System” entry:
Prehistoric, but beautiful, isn’t it? Imagine storing the product data of an e-commerce shop that way. 😉 I really don’t get why my wife always hides my treasures in our cellar!
Focus on Usability and early UX
After some years, digital product design was not anymore just about “to make it somehow work”. It was about to make it more understandable and to make it work better. Because companies realised that this competitive advantage counts as well in the digital world.
A pioneer of Usability and early User Experience optimisation for the web is Steve Krug:
If you are looking for a good read: His book (in the new and revised edition) is still something that I suggest to all Junior Product Managers, or Assistant Product Owners working in or entering the digital space.
Iterative Design & User Research
Moving even a step further means not just understanding your users, and testing your existing products in Usability Labs. It means rather understand that products are very likely to fail when you don’t involve the actual user in its design process already – as early as possible. A well-written collection of useful user research methods is the book “Validating Product Ideas Through Lean User Research” by Former Google UX-Researcher Tomer Sharon:
He explains how to discover and uncover user needs to create products with a beautiful market fit. It’s a very nice read that I highly recommend to everyone working in Product Design, or User Research. Because uncovering user needs is not as easy as it may sound. Because, normally, people don’t know what would help them, or what they need. You may have heard of the famous quote that is attributed to Henry Ford:
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.The quote is attributed to Henry Ford
And this is perfectly true. That’s why I enjoy and like the methods provided by Tomer in his book. They are perfectly useful to drive innovation. (We will cover some easy user research methods in step four Know your tools too.)
We went the way from tough usability of products that just nerds, or electricians understood to products with improved usability, and optimised user experience up to products that were designed by actual user research – which means: born out of the real user’s need. Here we are now. But one big idea is still missing as you will read below.
Accessibility & Inclusive Design
There is 100 % something more that we can learn from non-digital product design: accessibility. You can spot it on this photograph:
In architecture, accessibility is already a very common thing. Above, you see a house entry that is perfectly accessible for people who can walk normally (they may take the two stairs) as well as for people with disabilities/walking issues (the sloped pathway without stairs).
But you know what’s the interesting part here? By actually designing the house entrance for people like wheelchair users (it leads to an orthopaedic surgery), the entry became more accessible for another audience too: Just think about parents with baby buggies. The sloped pathway will help them too.
And this is the magic of accessible/inclusive design: When you add the specific needs of a wider user audience to your design considerations (in the example above: adding people with walking issues to people who can walk normally), your design often becomes more accessible and easier to use for other people too (in the example above people pushing baby buggies, bicycles, and so on).
In the video below you find another example for accessibility in architecture:
You may have realised that you enter the elevator on one side, and you leave it on the opposite one. Now, think about it: Which user groups benefit from this design decision?
- People in wheelchairs don’t struggle anymore as they don’t need to roll out backwards
- So do people with bicycles and baby buggies
- In total, it’s better for everyone, because you just go in, and you walk out (no need to turn around anymore)
Further, you can hear a voice telling you the direction of the elevator and giving warnings that the doors are closing/opening. It tells you the current level too. This helps people with low vision.
And did you spot the large buttons? They help – for example – people with tremor and are easy to spot. Besides, they work with symbols at some points too which helps children or user who speak a foreign language. Further symbols, icons, and letters on the buttons are in 3D that even blind people can feel and read them.
If you look further, you will easily spot more details like the pole where – for example – older people can rest their hands. In total, all these design considerations were done to help just small groups of users with special abilities, but they are beneficial for the overall product experience and have a positive impact on all users.
Accessibility in a broader meaning
When we talk about accessible solutions, people often think just about products for so-called “disabled” people and imagine users in wheelchairs or people who can’t see or hear. Somehow, this is strange and a much too narrow focus.
I mean, probably you know someone who is left-handed, don’t you? Maybe even you are. If not, just imagine you were left-handed and think about how it is to struggle with a tool like a pair of scissors that is optimised for right-handed people. 🙂 Around 10% of all humans are left-handed, this makes more than 750 million humans around the globe. The actual problem is: If we are not left-handed, we may forget to design for left-handed users and create products that are not well accessible for them. And there are many other examples of fellow humans with special abilities.
Did you know that 8% of all males and 0.5% of all females have red-green colour blindness in Europe? That’s quite a lot, isn’t it? And you don’t even need to be colour blind to experience issues in situations with bad lighting conditions and badly designed smartphone apps or printed brochures where you suddenly can’t read anything anymore. I bet, you know exactly what I mean!
And who knows the word presbyopia? It’s something that was first described by Aristotle, 4th century BC. To experience it, just take a random product out of your fridge and try to read its ingredients without a magnifying glass. If you can read it without a magnifying glass or without holding it like 1 meter away from your eyes, you are definitely under 40 years old. Because difficulties with seeing things clear that are very close/in a near distance to our eyes is something that very likely all of us will experience once we turn 35 or 40 years. And I spot issues about it all the time! Probably, because most digital products and printed ones are designed by people in their 20s or early 30s who don’t have any issues with presbyopia (yet).
All the conditions above are somehow related to functions of your body (your legs, eyes, hands and so on) and I think they are definitely something that comes to your mind at some stage when you think about accessibility deeply.
But, now, what about these following ones? They are a bit more subtle, aren’t they?
Tech-savviness: Is my user a computer freak or not? Hase someone here ever explained the functionality of an app or smartphone to her or his parents? Or a TV remote control to grandparents? Well, there you go.
Literacy: A big question is also: What language do my users speak? Do they get what I mean when I use technical terms in my app? Even they are clear to everyone in your organisation, do user testing and find out how they work in the real world!
Cognitive load: Is my user accessing the website at home on her sofa or rushing through it at the bus stop in the morning? Further, this is a question of time perception. And as we are experiencing a moment always in relation to our total lifetime, for a baby, one day is 1/365. And when you are 80 years old, one day is 1/29200 – and time flies. Designing a clear purpose, and hiding unnecessary options will help here massively!
All this affects our User Experience, and probably broadens up the topic of accessibility now – in your mind.
And this is why personas – that we are sometimes seeing in Marketing or Product Design – like “Susi, 50 years old, single mom, office worker, high income” are useless for actual user experience design as long as they don’t take into account abilities like “proficient IT user, early tech adopter, extraordinary literacy, likes to access our website from her iPhone on her way home in the train, thinks everything is possible when you work hard for it”. Because looking at possible users like this opens up the problem space and will guide you through actual design decisions that are necessary to create cool products.
And thinking about accessibility helps here to create solutions that can benefit all of us and create to better and more usable designs. It helps us to think about the needs of real users/of our actual target audience. In short: Fake personas don’t have abilities, aptitudes, and attitudes, good ones do.
And this is always the point to start: Your actual user in her real-world problem space. Otherwise, you are tackling just the surface and will create content or products for you and your co-workers, but nothing that is grounded in the real world.
The Idea of a Digital Bauhaus
In Germany, we have a movement for a Digital Bauhaus. And I think it’s a beautiful idea. Because we have seen in the beginning that the Bauhaus Movement was so successful, because its members were not just trained in design, but also had distinct knowledge about production methods, and materials. In the digital space, we often find the issue that the disciplines are separated, often even separate departments. But it’s definitely beneficial if designers know about tech (what’s possible and easy to create), and techs know about some rules of design. What was missing a bit in the Bauhaus school, were ideas of user research and user testing. We will check them later in detail.
Make products fun for everyone
And, you should never forget to think about accessibility. This will help you to ground your products in the real world. A brilliant read about the topic is this book:
Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery make a brilliant point for accessbility and inclusive design in their book “A Web for Everyone – Designing Accessible User Experiences”. I can highly recommend it to everyone, not just to Product Owners in the digital landscape.
Purpose & Responsibility in Product Ownership
I hope my little overview of the recent developments in product design inspired you to think about your purpose. Because as a Product Owner, you create products which should
- Help the business to make a sustainable profit/gain a competitive advantage
- Are cool and fun to use by providing real value for all relevant user groups
Your decisions will affect which features will be developed first and how the first Minimal Viable Product will look like. The product is your responsibility and it’s about you to make it work and a great success on the market.
And you know what, it’s a position where excuses stop to matter. In junior roles, if something went wrong, you may have said: “Yes, it went wrong because of x”. Now, business and product success lies in your hand. Excuses stop to matter, it’s no testing anymore, your decisions are rather like making a bet (because it’s about real money, and products in the real world). Steve Jobs told this to all new leaders in his company.
What matters is that you are prepared, that you keep ownership and responsibility. Even the actual development process is done by another department, unit, or even by external partners, real product ownership means: Keep tracking the process, see where you can help, have some fallbacks (Plan B/scenarios) ready if needed, that your product becomes, and stays a success.
That’s why we will cover some leadership topics later in detail too. Further, we will read through some important knowledge like design laws and user research methods that every product owner should know. But what will follow next, is the importance of networking and the first steps that you should take within your organisation when starting a new role as a product owner (COMING SOON).