“Make something people want” is the motto of Paul Graham’s wildly successful product incubator, but the simple phrase hides the devilishly difficult process of getting people to tell you want they really want. Flying cars, for example have existed for nearly as long as they’ve captured imaginations!
Product design is a very external process. Designing happens only after understanding a system, and is quickly interlaced with specifying the product vision. Even Steve Jobs interacted more with customers than he let on. I’ve brought an intense user focus to every project I’ve been on, including dozens of hours of interviews of the stakeholders in an academic biology lab.
Understanding and Improving a System
The first thing that we learned in Sustainable Design the general answer to “Is this product sustainable?” The answer, “It depends!” hints at the level of systems understanding that is required to truly understand a product’s impact.
Thus, our final product designs walked a delicate balance between optimizing the system in which they would be implemented (which was the sole focus of Sustainable’s pre-requisite class, User Oriented Collaborative Design), and the systems in which it would be built, maintained, and discarded. Understanding the impact of each design decision on all of these systems was a skill that extends far beyond sustainability, because almost all real-world systems interact with multiple stakeholders.
For example, some of the biggest product design issues in at Flash Conferences had to do with unintended consequences. What will be the societal impacts of new tools? Will the optimizations of a local economic system destabilize other systems that interact with it? Will the technology be used in unintended ways?
One of my favorite examples came from our advisor on a sanitation project. An NGO had set up some conventional porta-potties, only to find that people were using them as storage lockers! The immediate need for a secure, lockable structure outweighed the demand for sanitation. In South America or Cambridge, an understanding of interdepedent needs is required to convert action into results.
Specifying a Product Vision
Understanding the user, qualitatively and quantatively, is only the first step to a great product.
Commiting the product vision into an explicit document is necessary for both communication and specification. Often, the vision will shift as inconsistancies become apparent, and new ideas will be triggered as details get fleshed out.
Building off of the user research on academic molecular biologists that I did for PreInvented Wheel, I put together a basic product specification, which can be downloaded here. The goal of the specification is not to tell a programmer or designer what to do, but to give them criteria by which to make decisions in their own domain. Having experience on ‘the other side of the table’ as a developer, I understand the value of being able to focus on the details within an explicit framework – so much so that I’ll even do a simple spec for software that I’m building myself.
- Investigated the system to uncover products and services that could make it more effective
- Developed formal and informal specs for software and service products
- Understood and mitigated negative impacts on coupled systems
“He was also a valuable contributor of skill and intellect, and demonstrated his ability to think about technical issues in a business context, strategize our business plan, and build prototypes.”
– Eva Markiewicz (see all recommendations on LinkedIn)