What makes a product great

In design community, we often discuss about what makes a great product, which factors contribute most to user experience.  We realized that UX is much a broader than websites that are usability-tested  or apps designed by elaborated user stories or  workflows that are streamlined with all corners-covered. We stressed that UX is everyone’s job from CEO to developers to copy writers.

However, as product designers, we constantly fall into the illusion that our design decisions make or break the business. We think we are the “CEO” of the product, and the way to win users’ loyalty and word-of-month spread is because we have listened, observed, and designed things from their point of view.

Product design plays an important, sometimes crucial, role in delivery business success, especially for productivity tools such as Evernote, Sketch, etc. Meanwhile, there are many other businesses that deliver great user experience through business development, customer service, technology advancement, etc. Product design still plays an important role for improving the UX especially when the business need to be expanded to thousands or millions of users. However, we need to aware that in those cases, a product designer only facilitate the business challenges or assist in accelerating the growth. The most critical user experience should be decided by other teams.

Back to the topic, what makes a product great? I believe the answer is to first understand what type of business we are referring to.

1. Operation-driven business

Companies such as Uber and Amazon have a strong design team behind their products. But I believe, as a market place, the most important part of their business lies in the speed and quality to match users demands with supplies. These products are built on interaction efficiency between buyers and sellers. Users are less sensitive to product design itself but rather the interaction process itself.

As a user looking for a ride from one place to another, the speed of a driver response is much more important that a few unintuitive app navigation. It doesn’t matter whether users can send out requests in one click or make payments seamlessly after reaching destination. If they cannot book a car in 5mins, they will try another app. If they failed to book a car 3 times in a row, they will very likely remove the app completely. Hence for Uber and Airbnb to become great products, they have to get a critical mass of supply first. The business development team and customer service team plays a crucial role to facilitate the deal matching and ensure quality of transactions.

The same logic can be applied to other products that act as a platform to match supply and demands. For example, quality and quantity of product listing is the most important factors for a successful ecommerce businesses. Once users realised that they can find anything they want in a particular ecommerce site, they are very likely to come back again and again. In China, Taobao/Tmall sell almost anything people can image and they take up 70% of the ecommerce market share.

Of course, it doesn’t mean no one can compete with Taobao anymore. New comers may not be able to surpass total product listings against Taobao. They instead focus on certain product categories so that whenever people need to buy those products their names come first. In case of consumer electronics, JD.com makes itself the number one choice in major Chinese cities. YHD.com makes itself the choice of groceries for people live in Yangze River Delta region. Dangdang.com is where people looking for books.

There are other reasons prior to ease of navigation and style of design for people to shop on certain platform such as payment safety, logistic speed, and dispute managements, etc.

The role of product designers in these type of business is more of support for business initiatives. Business rules and operation process are the center. Product designers’ basic job is to translate and automate those rules.

A great product in operation-driven business should comply with business rules and processes. It should be able to abstract and modularise those rules that simplify development effort and provide flexibility for future business expansion.

2. Experience-driven business

Facebook, Instagram, and Wechat are great product because they provide a tool or place for them unleash their emotions. Others such as Microsoft Office, Sketch, Evernote are great because they allow users to finish their work in a more efficient way. Their success are based on making people feel cool and competent. These business are built on interaction between users and their own self-expression desire. In these cases, the design style and ease of usage is what users cared about.

Instagram enables normal users to create stunning photos and share among friends. Sketch reduces the learning curve and increases productivity to design for digit screens. These product are great because they lowers the barrier to create stunning content and allow those content to be easily consumed.

Generally, these business create a unique character or culture among its users based on their design and interaction style. Facebook achieves its rocket growing curve because its service is restricted to select universities. Snapchat is on fire because of innovative message format.

Product designers plays a crucial role in these type of business because the product itself is why users are engaged at first. Product designers apply their unique insights on user behavior and special talents in design can shape the direction of the whole team.

A great product in experienced-driven business should have a unique temperament that engages its community.

3. Technology-driven business

Google Search, Palantir, SpaceX are great because of their uniquely advance technology. The provide product and services that otherwise cannot be achieved. They deal with interactions between users and machines.

For example VR and AR technologies are hot topics among the tech communities. However, none of the products manage to delivery great experience yet because important technology breakthrough is yet to happen. Similar scenario happens in audio assistant. With great buzz and fun for flirting with Siri, the adoption rate for these kind of services are still very low. Users, especially non-english speaking countries are yet to enjoy any benefits from such product and services.

Product designers’ value lies in identifying the right application when the technology itself is ready. Google’s searching capability achieves its full potential when they discovered Adwords. VMWare find their sweet spot in virtualisation for cloud computing infrastructure. Product designers in these business need to work with the constraints of the technology and constantly searching for areas that can apply such technology soonest.

A great product in technology-driven business should be applying a technology in a fast-growing marketing that produces an astonishing result that no competitor can come close.