Product design is in a moment of profound change and redefinition as technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and spatial computing dramatically affect computing experiences. AI, especially, may have only minor impacts on interface design but will significantly impact the holistic product or ecosystem experience. Spatial computing, on the other hand, will change human-computer interactions and unmoor our understanding of what a computer is.
In this innovation cycle, product design requires a wider perspective of platforms and interconnections between technologies, creating a strong need for technologists and designers to be in the process together.
For successful products and businesses, innovation is perpetual. There is a never-ending search to find the next new thing that enhances the user experience, extends product reach, expands revenue, or all three simultaneously. Product design makes innovation less daunting and increases chances for success because it is a multidisciplinary process with structures and frameworks to catalyze innovation. Technologists have a role in the process that expands beyond simply validating the technology or concept, which is their customary responsibility. Before discussing the nontraditional ways technologists participate in product innovation, let’s conceptually examine innovation and product design.
The word innovation has a simple meaning — to introduce something new or a novel method of doing something — yet we frequently inflate it to mean something magical, grandiose, and world-changing. Innovation can just as easily be mundane and straightforward. The key to innovation is being “new.” The “new” can be localized to a team, product, process, or business unit. The “novel” can be well-known and established practices not incorporated into your workflow or product. Sometimes, innovation comes from closing small gaps and isn’t always a grand eureka moment.
Instead of forcing a technology onto a product, the design process flows to the technologies. In this way, the technology becomes a natural solution.
Product design is a process and not a discipline or deliverable. It is (understandably) easy to limit the scope of product design to color choices, content layout, and aesthetics. Too often, design is minimized to only the act of making user interfaces pretty. Product design is much deeper and broader in scope than visual design assets. For example, product design can give direction and focus to a business strategy, user experience strategy, or technology explorations.
The process establishes a guide rail throughout any innovation initiative. The core of product design is decision-making with an astute instinct for making the best decisions at the most opportune time. Product design helps reduce risk and leads to more effective innovation through quality decision-making.
A progressive role for technologists
Technologists play a strategic role in product innovation and should bring a metaphysical perspective in addition to being punctilious. Our job is to communicate the essence of a technology and think strategically about the application of technologies to problem spaces. We are most constructive when we translate the technicals of “how to make X do Y” to “these are the types of products and services realizable with technology X.”
For most technical leads and software developers, this is a mode inversion from our traditional tactical and direct interaction with technology. The context switch from daily build-and-operate is challenging but is paramount to developing successful and innovative products. We are uniquely positioned to generate strategic insights translated from dense technical minutiae that drive innovative business cases and product experiences.
A technology innovation must solve a business problem, such as improving operational efficiency, growing existing revenue streams, or generating new ones. The problem space may be customer-facing (e.g., how can we deliver a new feature?) or internal-facing (e.g., how can we make a process more efficient?). The problem is the paramount concern. The specific technologies or innovations used to solve the problem are often less critical. We cannot lose perspective of the business needs; otherwise, the activities become too academic or a paid hobby.
An ordinary domestic analogy is hanging a picture. The hole size, bracket, or tools used to hang the picture are immaterial as long as the picture is on the wall and straight. The specifics of the process and technologies are only important as they pertain to how well they solve the problem, the costs to do so, and the overall end user experience.
Product innovation is experimental and should not always be expected to yield productive results. It requires a learning curve and patience, as the outcomes are often ambiguous and unknown. Business leadership can struggle with this perspective because it is indefinite (in terms of results and timelines), and it is challenging to translate pure technology innovation into value creation. A gap opens between technology and product teams wherein technology teams strain to articulate the capabilities and value of a technology innovation, leading to unfilled promises and the perception of “technology for the sake of technology” or quips like “a solution looking for a problem.”
The current hype cycle in AI serves as a great concrete example. For technology or product executives, the challenge is how to do more than check the AI box — it’s about how to meaningfully incorporate AI into a product. Instead of forcing a technology onto a product, the design process flows to the technologies. In this way, the technology becomes a natural solution.
As experts on a technology or technology stack, we can communicate abstract insights or contribute in more conceptual contexts. Technologists add value to the product design process by sharing their expertise on a technology’s characteristics. Designers use this information to shape and exploit technologies in the visual and interaction design process. In this way, technologists inform new interaction models, interface metaphors, and product channels. This involvement gives confidence and conviction to the promises of design.
Think of digital technologies as a material like paint, stone, or wood. For artisans to create with materials, they must understand the material’s ontology and phenomenology. An artist must know the differences between oil, acrylic, or watercolor paints because each material has different properties that affect how and what can be created. Technologists must “find the grain” of a technology. In this way, they become an intermediary between the abstract nature of design and the pedantic nature of technology. This philosophical perspective is especially important when a product is in a growth stage or when using emerging technologies.
Regardless of whether your product is growing or in a stable stage or employs established or emerging technologies, integrating technologists into the product strategy and design process enriches the final outcome. There is a technology perspective extending beyond the operations and mechanics of the code “factory floor,” which provokes innovation. Sometimes this leads to small, impactful moments of innovation — and sometimes it is a brilliant revolution.