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To Launch a Successful Product, Don’t Jump to a Solution. Start With the Problem.

Don’t jump right to designing your next innovative product. While not as glamorous, learn why success starts with user research to uncover actual problems.

Tessa Zolezzi
Tessa Zolezzi

October 13 th 2023 | 8 min read

Before the first graphical user interface was developed, the computing world was only accessible by programmers. For the average person, computers were intimidating, overly complex, and, frankly, impossible to use. Apple identified this problem, created an intuitive interface called Lisa, and kicked off a trend that let everyone enjoy the benefits of a personal computer.

By contrast, when Google launched Google Glass, the smart glasses were cutting-edge and futuristic. Undoubtedly, they were impressive pieces of technology. But despite some hype, they flopped. Why? They failed to solve actual problems or meet users’ needs. Worse, they generated other problems (e.g., short battery life, privacy concerns) while offering nothing of real value.

The lesson is clear in these examples: Apple innovated for a reason — to solve a tangible problem and give users a transformative experience. Google innovated for the sake of innovating.

So when it comes to innovation, how can you be like Apple? Don’t engage a product development firm to merely execute your preconceived vision. Instead, devote ample time to exploring the problem space. Doing so is critical to offering something your audience actually wants and achieving market success.

Let Your Product Design Firm Challenge Your Assumptions

It’s common for companies to start the product development process with a product requirements document (PRD) firmly in place. And some design firms are perfectly amenable to the idea of taking a fully-baked concept and bringing it to life — no questions asked.

That’s not how M3 kicks off projects with new clients.

Our goal from the earliest days of an engagement is twofold. We want to 1) understand the business goals you’re trying to reach and 2) get to the root of the problems you’re trying to address.

Speeding through this process should not be an option. After all, product development is risky and expensive. Proactively digging into the fundamental issues your product is facing (and solving) is key to mitigating your risk and seeing the ROI your company expects.

So whether you come to the table with a detailed PRD or even a sketched-out concept that you already love, be willing to set those things aside (at least temporarily). It’s important to start the process with an open mind.

Kick Off the Product Development Process With an Open Mind

Approaching your project kickoff and the ensuing strategy phase from a fresh perspective is an essential part of setting your future product up for market success. That’s why we start by collaborating with you to explore questions like:

  • What are your company’s overarching business goals and the goals specific to this product?
  • Why do you want to develop this particular product at this particular time?
  • What gaps are you seeing in the market that this product will fill?
  • How much research have you done around user needs and expectations?
  • What assumptions do you have about this product and about how it will function or perform?
  • Who are the stakeholders that will make or break this product’s success?
  • What progress have you already made and what obstacles have you encountered?
  • What problems do you think this product should solve — and how did you reach those conclusions?
  • Who are your competitors, and how will this product set you apart?
  • What are the success drivers that will inform our decisions along the way?

It’s entirely possible that these conversations will confirm that the PRD and/or concept you’ve brought us is on-point. You may be on the right track toward solving the right problems — and if that’s the case, great. We’re not at all opposed to taking market-worthy ideas and using them as a springboard for design inspiration.

But more often than not, the kickoff and discovery process opens up the problem space and uncovers additional opportunities to pursue.

Invest in a Robust Strategy and Research Phase

Your project’s kickoff puts us on the right path toward defining the problem your product will solve. But we won’t know for sure that we’re focusing on the right opportunities until we interact with your users, observe them in action, and map out their ideal experience.

That’s why the strategy and research phase is such a valuable part of M3’s process. In this phase, we’ll do things like:

  • Conduct in-depth user research to test existing information, past products, and/or design assumptions with real users.
  • Create a high-level view of the customer experience through persona development and journey/workflow mapping. (This process can focus on the micro view, i.e. the product itself. Or it can focus on the macro view and evaluate the overarching processes the users engage in or even the industry within which your users operate.)
  • Consider the needs of all the stakeholders who will contribute to your product’s ultimate success.
  • Define the verbal and visual brand values and attributes that will drive the concept phase — especially if we’re also working with you to develop a cohesive design language for your product line.
  • Develop success drivers that will help us make smart decisions and prioritize product requirements appropriately.

It will be important for you and other internal stakeholders to weigh in on this process, too. This is a collaborative process, not a prescriptive one. Everything we learn together will enable us to align around an informed product brief that will guide the concept phase of the product development process.

How Voice-of-the-Customer (VOC) and In-Context Research Can Change Your Product’s Direction

It’s easy to assume you have a firm grasp on the market opportunity you’re pursuing or the problems your users are experiencing. That’s especially true if your sales team has shared concerns they’ve heard directly from customers or you’re basing your assumptions on tangible feedback such as online reviews.

But secondary user feedback might not go deep enough in identifying root challenges. That’s where primary user and stakeholder research come in.

Insights in Action

A medical device manufacturer brought us in to help them expand their footprint in India and China. Initially, they assumed the market would be fairly price conscious. But when we dug into the problem and began conducting research with doctors in those countries, we learned that it was standard for practitioners to purchase their own tools and bring them to the hospitals, clinics, and other locations where they offered patient care.

Because of that, these doctors expressed a willingness to pay a premium for high-quality tools that would stand the test of time. This meant the more fitting solution was not to develop a low-cost version of their products, but rather to provide easier access to product serviceability and repair for the products they already had on the market. Had we simply followed the initial product brief, we would have created a less successful product because it would have solved the wrong problem.

The Power of Observational Research

VOC research can provide limited value if all you do is interview users. That’s because users often don’t know what they really want. They may be able to articulate their frustrations and impediments, but they may not have considered the underlying causes of those issues.

And that’s ok. It’s not a user’s job to come up with the next innovative product. As Henry Ford famously (or infamously) said, “If I had asked customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Innovation is your job — and ours. That’s why we love to spend time observing how users handle a product or navigate a process. In-context research has enabled our team to uncover numerous product and experience opportunities for many of our clients.

Make Solving the Right Problem a Priority Throughout the Product Development Process

In order to launch a successful product that makes the market impact you’re looking for, you must start by identifying and solving the right problem. And though much of this process takes place early in an engagement with your design firm, sometimes you’ll find that problems evolve or change altogether as time goes on.

Throughout the entire product development process, we’re continually asking ourselves if we’re still designing the right product. And by putting the right safeguards in place, we greatly increase your chances of designing a product your audience will love — and, in turn, buy.

So do you have a product idea that you’re ready to explore? Are you ready to dig in and make sure you’re solving the right user- and stakeholder-centered problems? We’d love to help. So let’s talk.

Tessa Zolezzi
About the Author

Tessa Zolezzi – Mechanical Engineering