As organizations gain digital maturity, one of their profound realizations is that transformation is less about technology and more about culture.
Organizations usually weigh success in terms of projects. How accurately are specs identified? Was the project completed on time and within budget? This approach might work in stable market conditions, but developing digital products is a different ball game. User needs are always evolving and often misarticulated. So, how do you create user-centric products that deliver value; and capture this value as revenue?
This requires a mindset that prioritizes product outcomes over project outputs.
What is Product Thinking?
Product thinking refers to the process of balancing a product’s delivery feasibility, user desirability, and business viability. It’s the how in product strategy and sits at the intersection of business, user, and technology.
Product thinking is almost a juggling act. You can’t become obsessed with processes, but you also can’t ignore them. You have to prioritize customer needs but can’t ignore the interest of other stakeholders. Rather than focusing on timelines and dates, product strategists focus on what’s needed to hit business goals.
How is Product Thinking Different from Design Thinking
Design thinking stemmed from a backlash against the traditional feature-oriented approach of developing products. It is a set of hands-on cognitive processes that prioritizes customer needs over everything else. In other words, project thinking focuses on deliverables and outputs, while design thinking is all about user experience.
But the truth is often in the middle, and that’s where product thinking comes in. Product thinking acknowledges the passionate user advocacy of design thinking but seeks to balance it with business capabilities and constraints.
Three Phases of Product Thinking
Product thinking is an art unchained by convention. Still, it encompasses three major aspects.
There is a common saying in product management — fall in love with the problem, not the solution. It’s easy for inexperienced product managers to obsess over solutions and lose sight of the root problem they intend to solve.
The discovery phase of product thinking reaffirms the importance of talking to users, challenging assumptions, and running experiments.
- Identify the opportunity area: Evaluate the user’s space/product and decide which opportunities are promising and which are not, and for the ones that look appealing, which ones should be pursued, which are best left for others, and which ideas are not yet ready for implementation.
- Identify the problem space: The only way to understand the problem is to understand the users. So, conduct empathy interviews, build user personas, test and analyze the data. Keep in touch with the users as often as you can.
A key yet frequently overlooked phase of solutioning is prototyping. Rushing into development without early prototypes and MVPs carries high risk. This is the core responsibility of UX, but often overseen by the product strategist.
The prototypes can vary from paper sketches to clickable prototypes close to the final product. The key is to have something that accurately represents the solution but can be mocked up without actual development.
Solution design should only begin when 1) the UX team has validated the prototype, 2) engineering has agreed to the feasibility of the solution, and 3) the business stakeholders have agreed on the opportunity and risks, and are committed to supporting the initiative.
Note down any risks that you uncover throughout the solutioning phase and share them with the stakeholders. This prevents nasty surprises later down the road. Similarly, track opportunities for new features, other apps, enhancements, etc. This can provide direction for future projects.
In the end, the success of a product comes down to its fit — problem/solution fit, product/user fit, and most importantly — product/market fit.
- Product/solution fit: Once you have identified the problem space, you should continue listening to users and interpreting their feedback. You’d learn whether to persist with the solution or find ways to pivot.
- Product/user fit: It’s not enough just to have the product solution fit. Are you targeting the right user? Are there opportunities to expand your solution to accommodate more users? Refining user personas helps answer such questions.
- Product/market fit: Product market fit is ultimately what will drive your core KPIs. This is the true measure of how well your value proposition matches the underserved needs in the problem space.
It’s easy to think of the three aspects of product thinking as three linear stages of a process. However, that isn’t the case.
Experienced product managers pay heed to discovery, solutioning, and fit throughout product development. Once the development begins, engineers become focused on the technical aspects of the product, and stakeholders get more interested in the project’s progress. It’s the job of the product managers to ensure that the product never goes in the feature-factory modus operandi. And that’s where product thinking always comes to their rescue.