4 Steps to Building a Better Product

In her lecture at the Watermark Forum in June 2010, Sara Beckman presented a model of the product development process built on design thinking and innovation. She began with an overview of the learning theory behind product design best practices, then went on to describe in detail, the 4 steps to building a better product. The talk provided a good insight into the teaching curriculum she offers students in her product design class at the Haas School of Business Management at UC Berkeley. 

As a designer of global consumer software, web and mobile products for fortune 500 companies for 15 years, I was thrilled to discover what the next generation of business leaders are being taught as a foundation for how to approach product design. The credence now given to design thinking and innovation in the product development process is a terrific step in the right direction for business and consumers alike.

The 4 steps an organization needs to know to build a better products include:

  1. Develop empathy through out your organization for customers and users.
  2. Focus on the most important problems and ladder up the hierarchy by asking why
  3. Motivate change innovation with compelling sticky stories
  4. Learn through rapid prototyping of alternative solutions.

Develop empathy through out your organization for customers and users.

Identify the audience and design for the extreme then test your solution on the mean. For example, the potato peeler the Oxo Goodgrip, was designed for a person with arthritic hands to use. Arthritis sufferers make up a small percentage of Oxo’s customer base however, the design innovation also met unexpressed needs of the larger audience. This design is a market leader.

Empathy is also needed for the stake holders in an organization on whom you are pushing your innovation.  For example, product innovation without proper institutional support from user feedback, business planning and engineering implementation is destined to fail, at least this was my experience leading design innovation projects at Yahoo!.

Design innovation can succeed when you have command and control leadership like Steve Jobs at Apple or you have open innovation born out of love. Without this arrangement it is hard to avoid the corporate run around and business incentive to focus only on short term financial wins.

Focus on the most important problems and ladder up the hierarchy by asking why

Sara spoke to the need to focus on the most important problems and ladder up and down the hierarchy of needs and keep asking “why?”. Working with individual clients and companies over the years I have found this to be true. What a client tells you is a problem often masks a deeper issue that needs addressing before any attempt at resolution can be found. Diagnosis is critical to establish the true problem to be solved. Where the pain shows up, may not be where the pain originates so you have to keep asking questions. More explicit or stated needs that can be found through interviews with customers and social media

Motivate Change with Customer Stories

Sara recommends enforcing and motivating change with compelling stories discovered from customer observation. There are two types of story. One you tell internally to unite the team in pushing ahead with a new idea and stories you tell the market to help sell your new product. For example, Kimberly Clarke customer insight stories helped reframe their perspective on diapers away from “waste management technology” to clothes designed to help parents potty train children. This research inspired story then became the public story behind a new product of “Pullup” diapers with the famous tag line “I am a big kid now”

Learn through rapid prototyping of alternative solutions

In the five years I worked in the Advanced Technology Group at Apple Computer, all I did was prototype new product concepts for testing, feedback and industry promotion. The type of prototype ranged from simple card sorting exercises to understand the order someone would complete a task, video to communicate interaction ideas, and interactive prototypes people could interact with and tell us if what happened on matched their expectations.

Sara mentioned that getting her students this year to test their ideas was proving difficult. She feels this generation is so used to looking stuff up online, that interacting with people and sharing their ideas face to face is not desirable.

The reality is, if your audience can’t try out your ideas before you go to market, you are missing out on one of the most creative moments of the design innovation process.

When you make the time to observe, listen, analyze your work being used by the people you are designing it for, you experience profound insights which help transform your OK ideas into great ones.

This is when the stories are made, this is when the penny drops, and this is when you and your team find the heart connection, what martial arts experts call “hitting the Tai Chi”. Finding that perfect right point that when you attain it, all the other variables, problems, glitches and hiccups fall away and you have your perfect right solution.


The four step approach to product development is a brilliant shift in direction for the future of product design. By focussing on extreme needs of customers and testing on the wider audience, we get to solutions that solve the heart of the problem. This is not the era when companies compete on features. To capture hearts and minds, modern business has to  deliver on meeting the unmet needs of consumers. Customers will always reward business for delivering on that.



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