Designing Successful Software Goes Beyond UX and UI

A Q&A with our Engineering Director

software design

How do you define digital product design?

Within software development, people often think of design as the part of the process that makes the product look nice. While this is partially true, we are just talking about UI design; however, product design is about the design supporting the entire software development process. A good product designer can help you research markets, understand problems and uncover opportunities, conceptualize potential solutions, craft actionable strategies – all while designing, testing and delivering overall solutions. It’s primarily about creating the right products that are relevant for their market; ensuring that the product has real, recognizable value.

Why is this broad approach to design important?

We live in an app-saturated world. Every day hundreds if not thousands of apps are launched, many of which will fail to deliver real value. That failure equates to a lot of wasted time, energy, and money. At Rivers Agile, we seek to mitigate that risk for our clients and ensure that they bring their best product ideas to market. Our team emphasizes an approach that balances both our client’s business needs as well as the needs of their customers. In the end, both sides need to recognize and gain value for the product to be successful.

You mentioned balancing business and user needs, what does that mean?

As designers, we far too often focus on just the customer’s needs and how to meet those needs. While that is extremely important, we need to recognize that every business has specific needs as well – most often it’s about driving revenue. Solutions we create need to support the business model, appropriately represent the brand of our client, and work with behind the scenes business process and employees. That doesn’t mean that we can affect change in these areas, in fact, we often take a step away from just the software and help clients re-imagine new ways of working to support new product offerings. But at the end of the day, we are seeking to provide value to both the business and the customer.

What are the components of product design?

Research: This is where we bring in methods like observational research that enable us to understand the key stakeholders in whatever system we are creating. We uncover and understand behaviors, thought processes, and needs that tell us the “why” behind problems and opportunities.

Conceptual design & strategy: Aside from research, this is where most clients can gain the biggest value. Conceptual design is all about envisioning a variety of possible solutions, rather than fixating on one. It’s a collaborative and iterative step that ideally involves both the client and the product team. We treat any idea as an untested hypothesis and test them via lightweight prototypes to determine which direction is the most successful. This brief period can be the determining factor of whether or not your product is successful.

Specification design: This part of the process is where people are most familiar – it’s when we get into user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design. We spend time with the development team to fully specify the structure, interaction, and visual design of the product. Often this is also the longest part of a design engagement. While this phase is essential, focusing on this as the primary value point of design within the development process often limits the potential for the product.

Development support (dev & QA): Designers should never just hand off a design and expect the development team to execute it flawlessly. There are always fringe cases and details that bubble up to the surface that need to be worked out. A good product designer collaborates with the development teams producing the right solutions promptly. They ensure a consistent product vision throughout the build.

Product launch & post launch: Launching a product is just the beginning, and there are now more stakeholders and involved. Here enters marketing and sales in full force. A product designer is keenly aware of the brand and value of the product and can partner with a product manager to support marketing and sales teams to ensure that the product value is communicated and understood. It is also time to start working on the next iteration of the product and ensuring that an iterative approach continues to drive the product forward.

What’s been your favorite project/client to work on?

I’d have to go with Aires, a global mobility company. Initially, we partnered with Aires to help them design a new product for their market: SpringBoard, a self-service corporate relocation tool. Since then we have helped them create and improve a handful of internal products, inject human-centered design thinking and methods into their product team’s work, and support a newly formed internal UX team. We are now helping them redesign their flagship software product suite. Aires is a great partner because they’re constantly looking to improve how they work as well as the things they create.

You can learn more about our work with Aires SpringBoard in this case study

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