Defining Magic Design Opportunities — Turning Product Design Thought Into Planned Reality

Tom Essl, Junior Principal UX Designer, QuantumBlack

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“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This famous quote from science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke will likely resonate with many involved in product design, where beginning a project can often resemble conjuring something out of nothing.

We frequently find ourselves attempting to define a product vision based on abstract thoughts that exist only in our heads, and this can make it difficult to determine which part of the process to initially focus on. To crystallise our thoughts into a clear roadmap, some of us may employ assets such as extensive journey maps, value chains or service blueprints, but these often involve daunting and time-consuming procedures not always available to everyone.

So where do we begin when transforming product design abstract thought into reality? In this article we will explore the a more simplified planning approach you might employ when time is at the essence (even more so than usual) or a specialist designer unavailable. The aim is to reduce an often complex and time-intensive process to its bare essentials while retaining key elements of Design Thinking, then reconnecting the dots in a more digestible but efficient fashion as you build your product design plan. This will help demystify the initial planning process — but should also provide opportunities to inject an element of magic into your vision for the product.

One key reason to set out your product’s journey in the planning phase is that it enables you to consider which problems to solve or opportunities to leverage along the way in order to arrive at a solution that is both desirable and achieving the impact you are aiming for.

There are two different ways to approach this — one is to begin by considering what is possible and then ask what can be achieved within those parameters of feasibility. The second is to ask what you should be aiming to achieve and questioning what you can do to make this possible. As you may expect, the second option tends to generate a greater number of imaginative, high quality ideas — but when you are not bound by feasibility, it can be difficult to pin down an initial plan.

So how do you define this imaginative product vision? Three considerations should be front of mind throughout, and these can be written out as straightforward bullet-pointed lists.

First, assess what you know to be true about your organisation and what is most valued — this could include efficiency increases, cost reductions or improved brand perception. Second, ask what we know to be true about your end users — their attitudes and characteristics. Finally, ask what is true about the product — ignore the specifics of functionality and instead focus on the non-technical constants.

Once complete we should now be left with three simple bullet point lists. As we progress in the process, we should keep these lists to hand and consult them frequently.

Next we should focus on drawing the journey that you are aiming to improve for your users. Consider not just the phase when your product is in their hands but the entire journey — for example, if we are attempting to design an engine for booking airline flights, we would consider the flight itself but may also think about their travel to and from the airport — and perhaps even the return journey too. What are the constants here — those features that will not change, regardless of any new process or technology?

Once we have drawn out this journey, we can begin identifying where we can inject the magical element — ask what would happen if there was some sort of magical intervention that could catapult your users from one of the fixed points in their journey to the next. What does your user want to happen and which actions do they typically take to get there? It’s important to hit the right balance of granularity here — zoom in too far and you draw a maelstrom of factors which may change depending on what your product delivers, zoom out too much and you will not spot the elements you could improve.

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For example, think of the constants in the user journey of a flight booking engine. A business traveller will want to receive a plane ticket in order to board a plane to a meeting destination — and to board a plane, we know they will need to book a ticket. If we were being too granular, we would draw their journey of opening a smartphone app, scrolling for times and booking the ticket — these are elements that will likely change depending on the end solution and so are not overly crucial in this planning phase. On the other hand, if we were to draw out their journey as simply travelling from London to New York, we would not be free to assess how the product can make a difference here. Hitting the right granularity balance is key.

By this point we should now have something that resembles a process map, with large blank areas between each user objective. We can begin circling areas of opportunity by examining each step in the user journey.

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Consider the impact that an improvement in one step would make to each step after that — and consult your lists of organisation, user and product ‘truths’ to understand where to focus your attention. Where would designing a magical leap from one step to the next achieve the greatest impact? How will this influence those attributes that the organisation values, what seems a natural fit to the product principles, and which areas would enhance the offer to users?

By the end of this exercise we should have a diagram which includes a list of ‘truths’ about your organisation, users and product, alongside a rudimentary user journey that includes circled areas which are valuable for all three. We can now use this diagram to progress product development as we choose — but should retain it throughout, as it will be useful to consult at various points throughout the process such as brainstorming sessions. Referring back to the diagram enables us to begin questioning how we can progress from one step to the next and prioritising features that help us to do so.

Design projects reward imagination, but paradoxically ingenuity can also be a barrier to progress in the early stages. We hope that this article proves useful and helps you to establish your own parameters for limitless innovation.

An advanced analytics firm operating at the intersection of strategy, technology and design. www.quantumblack.com @quantumblack

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