I’ve been watching two trends recently in the realm of digital product development. First is the incorporation of gaming concepts into products that seemingly have nothing to do with gaming. Second, the importance of designing products that are not only easy to use but a pleasure to use.
To be sure, these trends aren’t new. My point is not to shed yet more light on what we already know. Rather, the potential impact of these trends as they go mainstream is significant for UX designers– our skills are becoming strategic rather than tactical.
Let me explain. A wireframe is a tactical output that (hopefully) partially fulfills a strategic direction for a system. But working with a product manager to figure out how to incorporate gaming concepts into a product moves us, the UX designers, in a strategic direction. This changes the opportunities in front of us as designers. The term I use to encapsulate these opportunities is “digital product strategy.”
What is digital product strategy?
Product strategy binds business strategy to product management. Marty Cagan put it nicely in a April 2009 blog post: “Think of it this way. The business strategy and business portfolio planning provides a budget and a set of business metrics. The product organization then lives within that budget to pursue as aggressively as possible the best ways to hit those business metrics.”
Product strategy (let alone digital product strategy) is a relatively unused term – no Wikipedia article exists as of yet, and it ranks fairly low as a competitive keyword (at least as I write this). As such, there’s not a lot of consensus as to what it encompasses. So, I’ll provide my thoughts with an emphasis on products that are digital by design – they make heavy use of software as part of their interaction model or delivery mechanism.
To me, a good digital product strategy brings together seven areas of expertise:
- Market/industry expertise: A deep understanding of the domain you are engaged with;
- User expertise: Engagement with actual or potential users of the product;
- Competitive expertise: Commitment to finding “sustainable differentiation” – the “secret sauce” that cannot be easily copied;
- Related-Industry expertise: Engagement with other industries or markets that you can learn from to create a better product for your industry
- Design expertise: knowing how to make a product easy and fun to use with the latest design techniques for many different devices
- Technology expertise: Knowing what is technically possible today and in the future and the devices that make sense
- Business expertise: Knowing how the product will fit into the operational realities and capabilities of the business
Here’s an example, I have been working with a customer over the last few years to help them introduce a direct business-to-business channel alongside their traditional distributor-based model. The main channel became an e-commerce website, and our “product strategy” was about achieving parity with two main competitors. From a digital product strategy perspective, the website became the primary delivery mechanism for a tangible product, and thus a huge part of the product UX.
As we emerged from the parity phase, we consciously moved to an innovation phase. What once appeared as “solutions” in the first phase – an e-commerce website – looked like a limitation when we focused on the market and the users from this new perspective. Customers were using the website during lunch hours, and we knew that they were walking from the storage cabinet to the PC with written notes about what they need to restock. These two things pointed to a fundamental inconvenience in usability. This inconvenience couldn’t be fixed by a more usable website, however. It was a great opportunity for a mobile application with a bar code reader for replenishing inventory.
Had our product strategy remained focused on the website, we would have run repeated usability tests to fine tune the features, and we would have continued to focus on competitors to keep up with new features. The idea of a mobile app that really addresses that fundamental inconvenience wasn’t possible until we shifted our perspective. By combining our knowledge of the market, the users, existing technology capabilities, and design expertise, an innovation became imaginable. A new product is conceived that can move into the more traditional product management processes.
Product Strategy and User Experience Design
The example above points out how UX design is a strategic skill. As the realization of business strategies become more dependent on the development of digital products (or products that make heavy use of digital technologies), the UX designer offers the unique combination of:
- How to understand the real life of users;
- The capabilities of technologies and devices;
- How to make something easy and fun (or at least really convenient) to use—three of the seven areas of expertise I described above.
This moves us closer to business strategy and simultaneously requires a change in our deliverables. In an earlier article, I discussed how the requirement is a “somewhat strange and antiquated way to capture what a software system is supposed to do.” We have to develop new deliverables to replace the requirement as the first and best way to express the system we want to design. Conceptual wireframes, sketches, storyboards, and user models (like the famous Flickr model) are more appropriate deliverables for product strategy work. Companies that consciously do product strategy as a discipline know this, but there’s plenty of opportunity left in the mainstream projects many of us work on each day.
As such, we supplement the work of the CTO, whose job is to set a technical direction. Martha Heller describes this role well: “… the digital product groups hire a CTO, who designs and executes against the digital product roadmap.” In other words, the CTO is the technical expertise part of digital product strategy, while UX design is the easy-and-fun-to-use part and the knowledge-of-real-users part.
UX Design, Product Strategy and Gaming
A new opportunity exists for the UX designer as gaming concepts become part of product strategy. Who else is better equipped than the UX designer to bring this discipline to the table?
To decide that a product is going to be structured as a game rather than, for instance, a document sharing system is a strategic product decision, not a tactical one. When we start thinking about incorporating gaming concepts into our products to increase engagement, we’re making fundamental decisions about our products.
A lot of people are talking about gamification of digital systems. I could choose any number of people to quote about the fundamental structures of good games and how they can be applied to digital products. I like the succinctness that Jane McGonigal provides, so I’ll use her definition: “When you strip away the genre differences and the technological complexities, all games share four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.”
There are two conclusions to draw from this for UX design:
- These are not simply features we add into our digital products; they invite us to think about our products in a fundamentally new way;
- The UX designer is the best equipped discipline to bring the full force of these concepts to the product strategy conversation.
Blending these traits into an engaging and compelling UX – that is fundamental to the product itself – is really what the UX designer is equipped to do. That companies are now getting on board with the engaging power of gamification in formerly utilitarian software systems yields lots of opportunities for our once tactical discipline to become strategic.