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Finding Your Market Edge: How to Add Product Design Features That Resonate With Users

Your cool new product design features have to meet user needs to be successful. Learn how to avoid wasting time and budget on features no one’s asking for.

Lucas Wade

March 22 nd 2023 | 8 min read

The not-so-secret secret to launching a successful product is to design something people actually want. And that means if you’re looking for ways to differentiate your product from the competition and increase market share, you should start by thinking about your users.

Incorporating cool design features into your product for the sake of it is simply not enough to achieve user adoption and see ROI. Yes, flashy designs can cut through the noise and grab your audience’s attention, at least initially. But if your “unique selling points” don’t add real value — or, worse, if they detract from the user experience — your product will ultimately fall flat.

There’s no easy way to achieve the market success you’re after. But by employing the following strategies, you can significantly increase the odds that you’ll design a product your audience will love.

1. Approach User Research Like a Detective

Successful products are born out of strategy, and a solid strategy is informed by market and user research. Whether you’re iterating on an existing product or trying to solve a previously unsolved problem, curiosity is the most important characteristic to bring to the process.

User research is about figuring out what users need. But often, what people do with your product is much more informative than what they say about it. And that means the best way to create products that resonate with users is to observe them in their environment and pay attention to what that environment is telling you.

Identify Unmet Needs By Looking for Users’ Pain Points

When it comes to achieving product development success, you have two options: You can follow behind your competitors and release similar products that are better or cheaper. Or you can blaze your own trail to create innovative products that meet a previously unmet need.

Blazing your own trail is typically the harder of these two options, but the payoff is also higher. One way to identify market gaps is to watch people perform tasks related to your product idea and take note of what could be going better.

For example, say you’re developing a medical or surgical device. Watching doctors and nurses perform the steps of a procedure or surgery might spark ideas for products that could speed up the process or make it safer.

That’s exactly how the idea for Stryker’s Bone Mill+ was born out of our field research for the original Powered Bone Mill. When it comes to spinal fusion surgery, the cleaner the harvested bone is before it’s milled, the better the outcome of reinsertion. We noticed that nurses and scrub techs were manually removing extra tissue from small pieces of resected bone with a scalpel. Not only was this physically difficult, but it also had the potential to impact the outcome of the surgery. Nurses and techs also ran the risk of puncturing their glove – or worse cutting themselves – during this process. And yet, none of the people we talked to during our research process expressed this as a pain point until we asked them directly.

From this observation, we were able to pitch the client on developing an entirely new product that would clean and mill the bone all in one. If we hadn’t paid close attention to the entire work-flow for this procedure, we would have missed out on a massive opportunity for innovation.

Note User Workarounds

People are astonishingly good at finding the path of least resistance. So if you’re trying to improve on a competitor’s product or level up your own product line, watch how users handle and interact with the product now. Take note of the hacks they’ve come up with to make using a product easier — and then figure out how to build their workarounds into a new solution.

For example:

  • If you often see sticky notes on the side of a piece of equipment, that might mean users need help remembering how to perform complex tasks. How can you make operating the product simpler and more intuitive?
  • Have the access panels been removed on large pieces of machinery? Maybe maintenance crews are fed up with unscrewing and re-screwing the panel every time they need to service internal elements. If you replace complicated panels with an easy-to-use latch, would that enhance the equipment’s usability?
  • Are users consistently reaching for the flashlight on their phones when operating a handheld device? Are they putting the device up to the overhead light to see it better? Perhaps it’s time to add built-in lighting to the equation.
  • Pay attention to DIY modifications, too. Hacks, zip ties, and duct tape are all indicators that a product isn’t functioning as it should.

When you see workarounds or makeshift solutions, ask users to tell you more about what they’re experiencing every day. Treat them like the expert and assume the role of the novice. Do whatever it takes to dig beneath the surface and figure out where products are lacking.

Question the Average User’s Status Quo

One time during a site visit, I asked technicians to share their opinions about a piece of machinery. They responded that it was great and did the job just fine. But when I asked why there was a mop in the corner, they casually said, “oh, this thing leaks like you wouldn’t believe.”

These average users were so used to the product’s deficiencies that they didn’t even think to mention a major problem. That’s why talking to people who are passionate about your product — whether they love it or hate it — is more helpful than lukewarm feedback from an average user.

In the case of the leaky product, I learned what I needed to know by looking around the room and staying curious about what I saw. But talking to a fed-up-with-the-status-quo user may have helped me discover areas for improvement even faster.

2. Borrow Design Inspiration From Other Industries

If you’re trying to launch a never-seen-before-product in your market, it doesn’t mean you actually have to reinvent the wheel. You can carve out a niche by looking at your concept through the lens of other industries.

It’s nothing new to borrow inspiration, but it is a good exercise to experiment with when brainstorming concepts. M3 used this strategy when working with Noiseaware on their IoT Noise Sensor System. In order to reduce the likelihood of guests tampering with the system, the primary sensor followed the example set by the inconspicuous Glade Plug-In.

And sure, sometimes combining the inspiration of one random object to fit within a new  user experience won’t make sense. But there are no bad ideas in a brainstorm, and this exercise has the potential to inspire new ideas or new ways of thought.

Tap Into Users’ Existing Mental Models

When people buy a new product or encounter one they’re required to use in the workplace, they want to get up to speed quickly. And let’s face it, the last thing most people want to do is read a user manual.

If you’re designing complex solutions for challenging use cases, how can you make the user experience easy and intuitive?

Look for design inspiration in familiar places. Consider the products that users operate in their day-to-day lives. Then identify the mechanisms and elements that would translate from one use case to another.

Let’s think back to the Stryker Powered Bone Mill. When we were brainstorming ways to reduce bone to the consistency required for a successful spinal fusion surgery, we wanted to base the design on the end user’s perception of how the device should work. We realized the functionality is very similar to that of a food processor. So by incorporating blades and parts that look similar to those found in a food processor, we made it easier for doctors, nurses, and technicians to assemble and operate the device.

3. Sprinkle in Easter Eggs That Will Get Your Audience Talking

Another way to set your products apart from the competition is to look for ways to surprise and delight your audience. Unexpected, thoughtful design features can boost brand loyalty and turn your users into unofficial ambassadors who recommend your products within their networks.

The Billie razor is a great example of this. Users love the magnetic holder that comes with the razor and sticks to the surface of the shower. It keeps the razor in place and preserves the blade’s sharpness. TikTok’s clear mode is another timely example of thoughtful design that created a positive buzz, this time in the digital space.

However, it’s important to be discerning when adding special design features to your products. After all, there’s a difference between delighting users by giving them something they’d never think to ask for and confusing or annoying them with a feature they never wanted.

Think about Tesla. At this point, the number of surprises they’ve incorporated into their EVs is  bordering on ridiculous. From a Back to the Future motif to Santa Mode, there’s no shortage of Easter Eggs users can activate. But at some point, you have to wonder if all these bells and whistles are detracting from Tesla’s mission of “accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” Perhaps removing more of the obstacles that keep consumers from purchasing EVs in the first place would be a better use of their innovative prowess.

There’s a fine line between incorporating unique selling points into your products and turning them into a gimmick or novelty. Walk that line carefully.

Keep Your Audience at the Center of Your Product’s Design

As a marketing leader, you’re always looking for a competitive advantage — unique selling points that will enable you to distinguish your products from the competition. But design features alone aren’t enough to give your company a competitive advantage.

Your product has to meet your user’s needs.

So before you identify potential design features to create your product around, think about the people who will use your products. What do they really need from you? Your product’s market success begins by asking and answering the right user-centered questions.

About the Author

Lucas Wade – Design

“The best way to predict the future is to create it”
-Abraham Lincoln