The smart entrepreneur’s guide to product design

8 min read
Jody Carey

Raise your hand if you have a product idea swirling around in your head. An idea so good you stay awake thinking about it, but don’t know what to do next? By learning the process product designers go through, you can unleash your idea and create a viable product.

Editor’s note: Once your product is ready to sell, you’ll need a website. Get a free website with GoDaddy.

Steps involved in good product design

To create a product that people will be willing to try, follow these five steps keeping an open mind as you go.

1. Define the problem you’re trying to solve

New products solve problems. If they don’t solve a problem, they fill a need or desire. Successful products tick at least one of these boxes and are easy for the end-user to understand and use.

During this phase of product design, your job is to find a gap you can fill.

What need isn’t being met by the products or services on the market? How widespread is the need and are people willing to spend money on your solution?

Don’t end up at the back of the cupboard

Take a look in your kitchen drawer. Here you’ll find examples of products that promise to make cooking easier. Some gadgets do, but those at the back of the drawer didn’t or caused a new problem instead. Like the garlic peeler, a product that sounded like a good idea, until it came time to wash it.

It’s also possible to be ahead of your time. Google Glass is an example of a product promising to solve a problem that doesn’t exist yet. But give consumers time. If you’re old enough to remember the Jetsons, we once thought video phones solved a problem we would never have. Can you imagine life without Skype and FaceTime?

To find out if users are ready for your solution, let’s move on to Step #2.

2. Map out the user journey

To create a well-designed product, you need to understand the actual users and how they will interact with your product.

Three Colourful Mixing Spoons on Black Background
Clever inventors can even find ways to reinvent products that have been around for years.
Photo: hue12 photography on Unsplash

One way to walk in their shoes is to take your idea through the customer journey. Create a story of:

  • What the customer for your product is doing now
  • How your product will make their life easier, save them money or help them achieve a goal
  • Map out how they will buy, receive and use your product

Most importantly, you must understand how they will interact with your product.

Finding the gap

Let’s look at an example. We can safely say millions of consumers have had a product shipped to their homes. If we map out the customer journey from ordering the product to receiving the box at the doorstep, the user experience unfolds and problems become clearer.

A Brisbane start-up found an obstacle in the journey — and the issue was the cardboard box.

Woman Using an App on Her Smartphone

Having experienced how difficult it can be to open a standard cardboard box at home, the founder of Lewis Boxes knew there was a better way. A standard box cutter has been cutting through thick packaging tape for decades. But there was still a problem: finding the box cutter for starters (and using it without injuring yourself).

The package designers at Lewis Boxes invented a new type of tape that allows a box to be opened without needing a knife or scissors. The multi-use tape can even be used to reseal the box for returns — no new tape needed.

Even if there is a solution, understanding the user experience may reveal a better one. To find out if your solution is better, just ask.

3. Seek feedback through focus groups

Now that you’ve worked through the customer journey, it’s time to get to know your future user. Focus groups let you talk to potential customers about your idea and see how they react.

During the pre-internet days, focus groups were held in a room where between five and 20 people would share their opinions. While the comments were helpful, people could be reluctant to share honestly in a group setting of strangers.

You might think sending a survey would be a lot easier. You’re right, but the information surveys gather is different. If you have precise questions, then a survey may work for you.

But if you want to have a conversation with potential customers and ask follow-up questions or watch them interact with your product, then focus groups are what you need.

Ways to conduct a focus group:

  • Ask for product feedback on social media (“Hey, I have this great idea …”)
  • Invite a small group to a Zoom or Skype call
  • Gather people together or do one-on-one interviews
  • Set up a chat-based online focus group

Pro Tip: If you receive favourable feedback from the focus group, don’t be tempted to skip the next step. What people say during the idea phase versus what they do once they have your product in hand may differ.

4. Build a product prototype

Now that you have user input, and there was a positive response, you’re ready to build a prototype.

A prototype (also known as a mock-up or model) is a basic version of your product.

It‘s a sample of the physical product or the beta version of your digital product.

Diagram and Tools on a Work Surface
During this phase, your product takes shape and the fruits of your labour come to life.

Luckily, it’s simpler today to create a prototype, especially for physical products. The accessibility of 3D printing has made this stage much easier. A prototype makes it obvious if your product is functional and will solve the problem you’ve identified.

Be sure to design for manufacturing

In addition to designing your product for optimal functionality, you’ll also want to look ahead and consider mass production. Will this product, as it’s designed now, be easy and cost-effective to produce in quantity?

Aligning product design and product manufacturing is known as DFM, which stands for design for manufacturing. DFM is a technique used during the design phase to reduce manufacturing costs by making adjustments to your design, whether in materials used or specifications.

To summarise, a good prototype will reveal:

  • If your product works as users want it to
  • How easy it is to use
  • What materials are best and least expensive
  • Manufacturing considerations

ProTip: A prototype helps sell your idea to investors and improve your chances of receiving a patent.

5. Test the prototype with potential customers

With your prototype in hand, it’s time to test your product. During this stage, focus on how your product is designed and observe how potential customers interact with it.

Reconnect with your original focus group participants, and they’ll tell you if your product meets their expectations. You’ll also want to find users who don’t know anything about your product.

Use the feedback you get to improve your product design and create a new prototype for further testing.

Man Sampling Different Cups of Coffee
Time and money spent here is a smart investment because it will lead to a marketable product.
Photo:Battlecreek Coffee Roasters on Unsplash

The more realistic you can make the setting, the better responses you’ll receive. If you’re testing a new kitchen gadget, observing someone using it in a kitchen that feels like home will produce better results. I like the idea of letting someone take the product home and asking them to record their experience.

Be patient. The difference between products that fail and those that succeed is the time the creators dedicate to getting these last two steps right. The first Dyson DC01 vacuum cleaner finally hit the market in 1993 after 5,127 prototypes!

The moral of the product design story

Your ability to listen and adapt is vital to creating a well-designed product.

Be willing to alter your design based on the reactions you receive during the product design process.

You may realise that the problem you intended to solve is not a problem at all or needs a different solution. And sometimes, your customers won't realise they need a solution until you tell them.

The design process is about discovery, starting with you and your idea. Then, by inviting others to help you improve your design, you’ll create a product that is designed well and ready to market.