The useful, the usable & the beautiful

Web products done right follow a specific product cycle. Skip a phase and you can still make something people will use, you might even make money but your product won’t be useful, usable and beautiful.

Business development

Business development is all about detecting needs, feeling out markets and, hopefully, smelling the money.

Deliverables:

Ideas, preferably in a prioritized list of features or product backlog.

Why it’s important:

This is the brainstorming phase when you collect ideas, each one radiating potential. Capital “I” innovation happens in this phase. Start-ups are born here. The world is made better. Not bad, right?

Pitfalls:

Business development should begin expansively by asking the question “what if?” but must eventually turn back to Earth and ask “why not?” Prioritizing ideas is essential: as Steve Jobs once said, “I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.”

Product analysis

User needs are never enough. Product analysis takes the spark of inspiration and fans it into something that gives off its own heat.

Deliverables:

Benchmark, sketches, storyboards and process flows.

Why it’s important:

Product analysis asks the tough questions:

  • What would it take to satisfy the user’s needs? Can we get/build it?
  • If we build it, what would it look like? How many moving parts?
  • Would people use this kind of product or is the disease worse than the cure?
  • Is there real value here?

When a product idea fails these questions, it’s back to business development.

Pitfalls:

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the potential of an idea hot from the business development oven. Asking and answering the tough questions is essential.

User experience design (UXD)

User experience design (UX design) gets down to the details by expanding on the product analysis’s deliverables with detailed prototypes that tackle usability, information hierarchy and architecture.

Deliverables:

Accurate wireframes filled with real content. Design research and benchmarking.

Why it’s important:

UX design continues the reality check by answering the question “if we build it like [this], will people use it?” The closer the wireframes getsto imitating the final product and its real world use, the more accurate the answer is.

Pitfalls:

The need to imitate the real world can lead to endless iteration. UX design without data can never be perfect. Salvation lies in testing, so keep the product moving forward and beware of diminishing returns.

Visual design

Wireframes are great but it’s up to visual design to provide that final coat of usability and sex-appeal.

Deliverables:

Pixel-perfect, high-definition screenshots.

Why it’s important:

The wrong colors or insufficient contrast can kill a product as fast as poor information architecture. Web products are used with our fingers and our eyes. If you see the word “visual”, pay attention.

Another reason why it’s important:

Visual design can also provide that most intangible of qualities: beauty. Products have to be meaningful, had better be useful and, whenever possible, gorgeous. Ever read about attractive babies getting more attention from caregivers? Heard the one about a young Claudia Schiffer being offered a modeling contract while boogying at a club? Beauty is rare and rare things are valuable. Don’t shortchange beauty.

Pitfalls:

Beauty for beauty’s sake is not ok, just ask the owner of a used Jaquar. Too many companies use visual design to mask a product’s flaws. This works for about 7 seconds. Users will always uncover a product’s real worth, not matter how beautiful a box it’s shipped in.

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