Product Managers: Use Design Thinking to Beat the ‘Feature Factory’

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Written by Digital Surgeons,
• 10 min read

So many businesses, especially startups (though established companies aren’t immune!), get caught up in trying to out-feature the competition. Or, they try to solve fundamental user issues by throwing features at them, which only leads to the product death cycle. Either way, features aren’t always the answer – especially since today’s customers are more interested in great experiences than products.

Experience is amorphous. It doesn’t just mean customer service – it’s the customer’s emotional experience at every touchpoint with your brand. Does your brand inspire trust? Does it create pleasure, humor, or goodwill?

Now, how can you construct a user experience, with the tools at your disposal, to create those outcomes? How can you measure your success? What would the prototype look like?

Thorny questions like these are why leading-edge companies are turning to Design Thinking.

What is Design Thinking?

To the uninitiated, the words “Design Thinking” don’t mean much. To the initiated, those words stand for a creative, sustainable, and lean way of doing business that tends to blow competitors out of the water.

The origin story behind Design Thinking begins in the mid-fifties when industrial design and product design were just starting to separate themselves from strict engineering. Buckminster Fuller (of “Bucky Ball” fame) was just the kind of person to kick off the movement – he was as multidisciplinary as they come: an architect, systems theorist, author, designer and inventor. We can also give him credit for the buzzword “Synergy.” Bucky brought together design teams of experts from many disciplines to tackle systemic failures, but his real goal was to use science and technology to make the world a better place for everyone.

But the interesting thing about these experts is that they weren’t designers, per se. They came from all kinds of backgrounds and fields. The only bar for entry was that they knew enough to contribute meaningfully.

Meanwhile, in Scandinavia, a movement towards participatory/cooperative design was heating up. The core philosophy was that every worker had a right and duty to participate in creating the systems that affected them.

Today’s Design Thinking is a direct inheritor of both of these philosophies.

“Design thinking has an amalgamation of approaches, this is still quite unique — which is why sometimes — design thinking is applied as more of an umbrella term that catches multi-disciplinary, human-centered projects that involve research and rapid ideation.”

– Jo Szczepanska, Design thinking origin story

In practice, Design Thinking is like a brainstorming session on steroids. Typically a workshop, Design Thinking sessions involve people from across the company, and sometimes even outside of the company, to get a diverse set of perspectives and insights.

The result of bringing a diverse group together in a creative, but structured environment is the faster surfacing of innovative ideas.  

Today’s organizations face complex challenges that require ever more creative, silo-squashing solutions, and Design Thinking is how they find them.

Benefits of Design Thinking

  • Cross-functional, diverse teams come up with more creative solutions.
  • They can also come up with more complete solutions, since people from all parts of the creation process are in the same room at the same time.
  • That leads to faster, more creative, and more viable solutions.
  • When you need to innovate or problem-solve, a Design Thinking session can be much more useful in the long-term than just bringing your Product Development group together for some old-fashioned brainstorming.

The Secret Sauce is Diversity

Even in the best companies, information tends to be kept in departmental silos. Marketing might know everything about your ideal customer and how well you’re reaching them, Customer Service knows a lot about your actual customers and what their problems are, and Customer Success (if you’ve got them) can enlighten you on success gaps, but it’s rare to have all of these very important players in the same room.

That’s what Design Thinking does.

Note: Design Thinking doesn’t work as well when your challenge is optimizing processes that already function pretty well.

The Problem with the ‘Feature Factory’ Approach

What is a Feature Factory? It’s a phrase coined by product management consultant John Cutler in response to a software developer friend’s complaint that he was “just sitting in the factory, cranking out features and sending them down the line.”

His barometer for whether you’re working in a “Feature Factory” hinges on whether the impact of your work is measured (or even discussed), and iterated on accordingly. Basically, if all you’re doing is spinning out features, and taking far too little time to consider whether they’re solving core problems for your audience and measure their success or failure, you might be a ‘factory’ worker.

Hopefully you aren’t – and hopefully your competitors are, because the “Factory” system is easy to beat when you take a Design Thinking approach. Remember: Even though they produce a lot of features, Feature Factories aren’t serving their customers well.

This oversight can give you the competitive edge.

“Your product is designed to solve a problem. If you’re adding a feature that doesn’t contribute to the solution, you may be wasting your time and worsening your product in the process.”

– Kissmetrics, Why More Features Doesn’t Mean More Success

How to Beat the Feature Factory With Design Thinking

Though methods of putting Design Thinking into practice differ – it’s a creative process, after all – a few central tenets remain true. It’s all about empathy, diversity, and cross-functional collaboration. Fundamentally, it’s a human-centered approach to design, as opposed to a technological/scientific/feature-forward approach.

That means, the ideation process begins by thinking of the humans you’re working to serve.

And that requires a great deal of empathy.

em·pa·thy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. noun

Fun fact: the word “empathy” is being used more now than it ever has in the past – and it originated in ancient Greece.

Sure, words come in and out of vogue all the time, but in this, I see a trend that will continue to rise, precisely because the concept is becoming increasingly important to our modern lives.

And our businesses.

We have to understand not only what our customers want, but also how they think and feel. Not just what they expect from a product, but what they want for their lives (that they hope the product will help them achieve).

Davide Scalzo, previously Product Director at Yplan, talked about the difference between traditional “user research” and this deeper kind of understanding. His process isn’t to ask customers questions about the product, or pre-product idea, but to find out about their lives, “what frustrates them, what excites them, what is meaningful to them.”

Customer research that begins with the customer (not the product) includes interviews, surveys and other ethnographic research methods. It’s where human-centered development starts (and it’s also how you’ll iterate moving forward), but don’t forget to ask your own people. They’re often an untapped resource.

This is where the second tenet of Design Thinking comes in: Diversity.

No definition needed here – it’s all about getting people involved. A wide variety of people, just like Buckminster Fuller’s team.

For example, having the people who are in contact with your customers every day in the room, ideating solutions with you, can make the process of finding the most pressing problems to tackle more efficient.

Which isn’t to say leading a diverse team is smooth-sailing. If your company is like many others, people from different departments aren’t used to working together.

When you’re trying to begin a successful Design Thinking workshop, that unfamiliarity (and sometimes rivalry) can get in the way.

My recommendation: Start the conversation by talking about your customer. The customer’s needs, wants, and desired outcomes. Their problems and pain points. Make sure you’re doing right by your customer— a shared value everyone can align around. Then you’ll achieve cross-functional collaboration.

As a manager I knew used to say, “it’s not herding cats; it’s getting eagles to fly in formation.”

Not sure you’re up to choreographing birds of prey? Companies like Digital Surgeons specialize in bridging the gaps between coworkers and customers to create human-centered design.

Tips on Using Design Thinking from Idea to Product

Product management is usually an analytical role – product managers drive products forward by looking at data and crunching numbers. That analytical approach is useful, especially for optimizing processes and products. But it’s not conducive to focusing on customer needs or coming up with entirely fresh ideas based on those needs.

Davide Scalzo has a tip for conducting productive Design Thinking sessions: encourage participants to create the broadest possible set of choices, rather than trying to find one “right” idea. This step is also crucial to creating the learning mindset that is so important for successful Design Thinking teams to adopt.

John Cutler recommends planning the structure of the product design differently from the beginning as a way to ensure you don’t fall into the “Feature Factory” trap. His idea is to schedule a recap of your product development initiative, and even design slides early in the process with placeholders for data, which you’ll revisit in the future. This strategy sets everyone up to adopt a “learning mindset” where every project includes an “unbiased retrospective.”

It also promotes measurement and evidence-driven development – not to mention a more agile, responsive approach to feature building as you test out the best ideas from the group.

Most importantly, you won’t be moving onto the next project so fast that you can’t learn from the last project.

It’s a very Lean approach, and with the empathetic research as its foundation, it bridges the gaps between Design, Lean Startup Methodology, and Customer Development – which as Rajat Harlalka, founder of Bellurbis Technologies (a mobile apps company), explains is a winning combination:

“In fact, all three teach the following: Learning and Discovery, Direct Observation, Failing Fast, Test Your Assumptions and Iterative Development. Formalizing the link between Design and Product Development can take us even further forward in developing leaner products that customers love.”

– Rajat Harlalka

Much like Lean (aka. agile) development, Design Thinking is customer-centered, research intensive, and very much in favor of early prototyping, followed by a refining process. But the difference, as Harkalka puts it, is this:

“The challenge with agile, however, is that sometimes it can feel regulated. This approach is sometimes so development focused that there is a lack in understanding the marketplace.”

– Rajat Harlalka

The structures of agile development alone aren’t conducive to fostering the out-of-the-box creative thinking necessary to develop ideas customers don’t even know they’d love.

It’s for this reason that if you look at companies that use Design Thinking, you’ll find some of the most notable innovators – Apple, United Technologies, Airbnb, GE, and many others.

Let’s have a conversation about how you can incorporate Design Thinking principles into your next product development sprint.