Product Design: 5 key UX considerations

by Samantha Thompson
11 May 2016
12min read
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Product Design: 5 key UX considerations

Our resident UX Analyst/Architect Sam attended a seminar on Product Design at General Assembly recently. Here is a summary of the workshop and the key considerations Sam identified for UX.

General Assembly is a global educational organisation providing training on a variety of digital skills. The presenter Henry Cho was “hilarious and very knowledgeable.” He works for Commonwealth Bank as the Executive Manager Mobile User Experience.

As a digital agency, broadly speaking, we create digital solutions and services. However, Sam found the principles of product design very useful for Adrenalin, she explained that “we can adopt this ‘product’ thinking and apply it to any problem – it’s just that our ‘product’ may be a service on a website or app.”

User Needs

The workshop began by Henry discussing what product design is. He described it as “Solving tangible and intangible needs. There has to be an existing need or a problem to solve or else you’ve failed before you’ve even started.” He split needs into two categories and to illustrate the difference between tangible and intangible needs he used this example:

(Left image) Tangible. I need boots to keep the mud off my feet. A practical need.
(Right image) Intangible. I need to feel like I’m part of a social clique. An emotional need.

The Product Development Process

Bearing these two types of need in mind we can then look at the product development process and how ‘Lean UX’ is applied in practice.


  • I have an idea: Let’s make hats for Eskimos!
  • Customer Validation: Will the Eskimos be interested in my hat idea?
  • Problem Validation: Do they need hats?
    • No, the sun isn’t strong enough to need them.
    • Yes, they’d love hats to keep their heads warm.
  • Concept Validation: ‘Would this type of hat keep your head warm Eskimos?’
  • Experience Validation: ‘We’ve built a quick prototype of the hat! Please wear it and tell us what you think?’
    • ‘Oh, the wind keeps blowing it off, maybe we need an under-chin strap.’
  • Technical Validation: Can we make this hat? Do we have an experienced sewer? Will the sewer be too expensive to make this hat affordable?

At every single stage of the process there is user input. The whole point of this is so you build something that you know your users are going to like before you put it out to market. Henry used a Taekwondo saying: “Bleed on the mat, not on the street.”

It’s worth noting here how the ‘Lean UX’ part isn’t a quick and easy process. It’s called ‘lean’ because you don’t come up with surplus deliverables. Instead you simply build the product and learn from it.
Here’s how the design thinking process looks from a less user-centric position.

Understanding User Needs

Next, the users. For the whole product design process to take shape, have meaning and be successful you need to know your users. You don’t have a product if you don’t have people that need it and will buy it. This translates to the beginning of any project such as building a website. To start with, you need to understand the users’ needs.

Henry Cho gave Sam's workshop group this task: “Identify the needs of the users pictured below”.
Exercise: Try to come up with five needs for each group of users…

Answer: It was a trap!
The purpose was to highlight a typical example of what businesses do when they don’t carry out user research. They make assumptions about very small data sets. For example, quite often you might hear of a target demographic described as “18-34, lives in the Inner-West”. But an 18-year-old is typically at school worrying about their grades and their friendships whilst a 34-year-old might be settling into their career, and may have a mortgage and a family. That’s quite a large difference within one target demographic.

The common mistake made by many businesses is that the more they talk about the assumptions they have made and begin to build up a story, the more concrete and absolute it becomes in their minds. Easily a team within a company can reach a consensus amongst themselves and it seems like a realistic conclusion.

The solution? Talk to your users. Do real user research. Shadow them. Interact with them. Learn what it is to be them. Understand their problems. When you carry out this type of ethnographic research it makes a big difference and you’ll discover insights that you won’t ever be able to find in data.

User Problems and Context

Users have their own unique problems. For example, architecting user experience for the elderly goes just beyond treating them as tech-stupid. Common problems elderly users encounter include poor eyesight, poor motor control and an increased incidence of bad health. You’re not going to unravel unique problems that could potentially block users from using the product the way you intended by sitting in a room full of young professionals who have no idea what it’s like to be elderly.

Rather than just considering their problems, you must consider in what context they will use the product. What’s the trigger? This is a question Sam asks a lot because it’s the start of the experience and can have a huge impact on the subsequent decisions. For example if you have a car crash and you are required to use an app to take photos of the damage – that means you have to download an app under extremely stressful, inconvenient circumstances. If this contextual factor is not taken into account at the first stage of the product design the end result is likely to be that the app doesn’t get used or the user is not satisfied.

Another example of context could be with the design of payslips. From a UX perspective, normally you’d have the salary amount in a big bold font and size because that’s what the user is looking for. However, if you discover from your research that your staff open their payslips at work, you would want the font size of the salary amount smaller and less obtrusive so other staff nearby are unable to see what their colleagues earn.

Confirmation Bias

The main psychological framework that Henry referred to was Confirmation Bias. To explain it, he provided a simple activity. He asked the group to look at the sequence below and suggest the missing figure and the rule that makes it correct.
Exercise: Try it and see what result you come up with...

4   8   _

Answer: Every answer above 8 is correct.
The rule is that it just has to be a higher number than the previous one. Quite often people look at this sequence and presume it has a mathematical logic and base their answer on this assumption. If you make assumptions in user research and try to prove an existing theory correct then you limit your openness to finding the truth. Instead, Henry advises that you try to disprove your own theory first. Ask why. Poke holes in it. Point out why it wouldn’t work. Tear it to shreds because your users will and it is better to uncover problems early and resolve them with user research, than find out after you’ve launched your product.

Empathy vs Sympathy

Now for the final and most important question: what makes a product great?
Sam’s takeaway was that the answer is empathy. Defining empathy in this capacity is: “Being able to understand a group of users so intensely that their problems feel like your own– and that drives you to want to help from within.”

Empathy differs greatly from sympathy particularly in product design. This simple anecdote exemplifies this:

“A man in Australia felt very sorry for the children he kept seeing in deprived countries in Africa.  He was so moved by the sympathy he felt that he began creating a first aid kit that could be dropped into countries in times of need. He carried out no research at all.  When he presented his idea to a charity operating in Africa that could distribute his kit, they explained that there were far too many problems with his idea and it was completely unfeasible. For example he hadn’t considered that they couldn’t drop the packages he was suggesting and the shape, size, contents and design of the first aid kits were completely impractical. So despite having huge amounts of sympathy, he had no empathy with the users of the product and therefore he couldn’t understand the problem enough to provide a valid solution.

These are the 5 key UX considerations for Product Design:

  • Identify the tangible or intangible need for your product
  • Understand your target market’s problems and context
  • Don’t fall victim to Confirmation Bias
  • Don’t make assumptions about your users
  • Have empathy with your audience
If you found this article interesting you may also be interested in our recent blog on How Visual Design Can Support Good User Experience or you can get in touch with us to learn more about UX.
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