A key aspect of [Digital] Product Design is understanding the business value behind every decision. Data informs everything we do, user research checks our assumptions, and we measure our success through business and engagement metrics.”  – Eric Eriksson

Right, so you’re setting out to create something new for your customers, clients, sales staff, users…whoever. Well, maybe not you personally, but if your company is tossing around the idea of creating a new experience do you know where to begin?

A digital product, or experience, of some kind is what you’re after. This being the case, your goals tend to be one, or a mixture, of the following three:

  • Solve a problem.
  • Provide a convenience.
  • Offer a unique interaction.

On the business-side of things, digital assets should,

  • Streamline processes.
  • Increase productivity (and employee morale).
  • Generate revenue.

Okay, fair enough, but you’re here with me right now because you seek a deeper understanding of the digital product design process. Perhaps it’s because you’re skeptical. Or, maybe it’s that your business must digitize and is in need of a solution.

Whatever the case, let’s ease into this because modern product design incorporates a large variety of disciplines – psychology (including the more recent ‘web’ school of psychology), usability, visual/graphic/interaction design, software engineering, programming, sociology, art, digital architecture, and so forth.

For a better idea of the complexity, here’s how Paul Devay puts it in his article “What is Digital Product Design?” published on Medium for NodeSource,

Design is vast. There are hundreds of pretentious definitions, and many subdivisions and disciplines across industries big and small, each with their own semantics, methodologies, and beliefs.

Truth be told, there really is no universal definition, so let’s start with something solid and unwavering…


Rule #1: Nothing is 100% Digital

As long as humans have a physical form, we’ll require a physical medium to interact with the digital side of our universe. We start our design journey there.

Where will people interact with your digital product?

Will it be on a single device, perhaps of your own creation, or across multiple devices via cloud-based connectivity? If Virtus designs brand spanking new internal communication software for your company, will it be available to users through company desktops only? Or, maybe you’ll want it to be accessible on any device, similar to Slack or Google Docs.

We start designing digital products based on where (micro) interactions/touchpoints take place.

For the internal communication software example, first we’d have to create a detailed map of your company to see how it works in this respect:

  • How do employees currently interact with the company via digital devices?
  • How are they sending and receiving files?
  • How do they communicate with each other digitally?
  • How are they tracking project progress?
  • How are they ensuring good opportunities aren’t being missed?

When it’s for business, getting tons of data on users is easy. We can sit down with staff and get the nitty-gritty, as well as (often) get them to mess with our prototypes and provide quality feedback. It’s a completely different animal vs. tackling the open market.


The Impact of Workplace Communication

Let’s stick with our custom-designed communication software/platform example because we need somewhere to ground this subject. As you devour the following sections, consider the frame of mind of people who work for companies with super-poor internal communication.

To set the stage imagine (or maybe you don’t have to imagine!) you’re on a team managing complex product development. You have multiple email chains on the same project, so when a question is asked you have to search through all of the different chains for an answer.

Many times that email you’re searching for can’t be found…

To get a project update you have to take the time to send an email and then wait for the team to reply or run through the office and hunt someone down only to be redirected to someone else.

This process creates ripples throughout the organization that inevitably start to build into bigger time-sucking waves. If multiple projects are running at the same time these waves start crashing into one another creating more confusion.


A Common Business Example

At Virtus we see more and more of the following example as the average brand faces digitization and implementing processes to streamline and optimize operations – especially communication as it’s the beating heart of any company.

  • Touch Points: 100 employee/customer touch points with near ZERO updated systematization or processes to manage and run the business, projects, etc.
  • Attrition: The brand’s been successful for a decade or two like this, achieved decent brand recognition in their industry but aren’t expanding anymore. Meanwhile younger, savvier competitors are growing by leaps and bounds via digital.
  • Barrage: A weekly bombardment of potential customer data is sent in by salespeople, digital customer inquiries, in person questions, incoming/outgoing projects, mountains of “back and forth” emails, etc.

Everything…being…done…through email. No quality data capture. No instant collaboration or messaging. No backlogs. No useful analytics in place.

What you have is one big disorganized fight for time.

How do you think this impacts the psychology of staff? And, in relation to all this, how would the inverse positively impact them if all of this were solved, streamlined and optimized?

To recap, initial users in our example will be employees.

  • Currently lacking digital processes, and only really interact with the company digitally through email, legacy software – internal spreadsheets and documents.
  • The core team communicates/sends files ‘on the clock’ via email, and uses their phones to text/email one another when not at work. Or, perhaps some sort of social media messenger app or software to try to add another tool into the mix.

Great! Let’s consider their basic psychological needs:

  • These people want to excel at their jobs and be praised for their work/contribution.
  • They’re social beings, with dynamic forms of communication (like the emoji).
  • They yearn to feel motivated, and that they’re making a difference (it causes the brain to release all-powerful neuromodulators like serotonin and dopamine).

We know that, and we’ll assume they’re communicating digitally about 70% of the time via their phones or mobile devices, and 30% of the time in-person and through company desktops/laptops.

This is great, an unbelievably common and ripe environment for an all-in-one digital solution.

After meeting and chatting with them, we’ll get a deeper grasp of their work day until the cracks eating away at their company begin appearing. Regardless, the situation can be addressed cohesively using a central portal where core staff can access all relevant information, communications, documents, etc., in one place.

  • Right now, keeping updated on monthly company announcements is done through an email and piece of paper hanging on a tacboard.
  • Company news is spread in similar fashion.
  • There are communication gaps between team members and departments.
  • Important documents get lost, forget to be sent, are missed, or get buried in email.
  • No one quite knows why given the day and age we’re in, but there’s simply too much paperwork (red tape, or processes that could likely be automated/streamlined)!

It literally stressed me out just typing that. What a mess!

What about collaboration?

It’s usually spotty, primarily done on the clock through word of mouth and email. The systems and tools project and sales teams use are outdated… you see where I’m going with this. And hey, we haven’t even touched on customers.

Because of the lack of systems in place, too many queries are lost in translation.

I wish I could tell you this was a needle in the haystack example, but it’s not. It’s your average medium to large-sized brand in nearly every industry, from retail to modern technology-based startups.



What a Solution Would Look Like

Maybe you’re thinking,

Matt, absolutely. That sounds just like my company! But what would a custom-designed solution look like?

Good question. A substantial part of our process would be looking at how new updated software would impact all this. How it would fit in and change every aspect of your business and your team’s daily work-life.

Needless to say it can get complex, and I’m sure you’re not interested in all the engineering, coding, and techy-stuff. Let’s talk basic benefits:

  • Instead of chaos, there’s far more order and systematization in place providing both structure and cohesion.
  • A huge percentage of processes have been automated or streamlined, freeing up employee time to be more productive.
  • Core staff can collaborate and communicate in one central location where conversations are kept safe and behave similar to that of Slack.
  • The amount of lost data, customer inquiries, important messages and so forth disappears.
  • The amount of functionalities can be rather extensive depending on the needs of your company – video conferencing, incorporated word processors, customer management, time/project management, planning software, and on and on.
  • We can start with the most beneficial elements first, saving time and money and allowing your company to start reaping benefits sooner.

Are there pre-built or “off-the-shelf” software options you can invest in that are ready to scale?

Sure, plenty. Tons! The difference is that those are designed for huge audiences, like Microsoft Word or FreshBooks accounting software…not your company specifically.

Virtus creates digital solutions curated around the systems, processes, management, and team structure of your company. There won’t be any unnecessary features. It’s built with YOUR staff in mind, not the average Joe Shmoe out there.

Paulette Carter puts it well, in her 2015 article for PCD entitled, “The Pros and Cons of Custom Software vs. Off-the-Shelf Solutions

Having software functionality and vernacular that’s in alignment with your business needs supports it in hidden ways: The software ultimately fits your business, instead of your business fitting the software. Staff will not need heavy retraining, nor will they have to adjust their normal work processes. The software will not become a hindrance and will instead save time, and with saving time comes saving money.

Yes there are risks involved, but when off-the-shelf digital solutions aren’t cutting it or will end up costing more than they’re worth, we think they’re worth it. Furthermore, we have a very successful Software Validation & Verification process.

Fabulous! But Matt, what about just putting together a mobile business app instead? Wouldn’t that be easier?

That’s a great question. It’s so great the final section of this article is dedicated to it. I bet you feel ultra-special now.


The Challenge of Business Communication Apps

Yeah, a custom-designed communication and collaboration app for your business sounds appealing. And yes, it may be warranted. But it’s not as simple as you’d think. Custom-designed apps, like software, come with risk.

In her 2017 interview with JustInMind, “The Psychology Behind Product Design: Q&A with Nathalie Nahai” Nathalie (a web psychologist) starts touching on the biggest risks. Basic app design is simple,

Thanks to the tiny real-estate of screen size, people tend to expect mobile interfaces to be a lot less cluttered, so you have to be sure you’re creating a frictionless experience that has a low cognitive load.”

But the problem is that most companies are hard-pressed to squeeze their entire process/platform down into a super-low cognitive load that can be smoothly experienced on a small mobile screen.

She goes on to say….

The other thing that’s less obvious is that we seem to have a greater sensitivity to stress on mobile than desktop. I think this is primarily to do with the way we use mobile devices. We use them to step out of dysphoric states, to escape a sense of boredom, loneliness or frustration. We self-medicate with our devices through dopamine hits. It’s late at night and you can’t sleep, so what do you do? You whip out your phone. You’re in a queue, you’re bored waiting for someone, so what do you do? You whip out your phone.”

In other words, your employees are accustomed to using mobile screens and apps in very different ways and for different reasons. It’s typically a release from work, not a way to further engage with it. Right?

Then we have to consider how much personal data is going to be collected and how much integration and transparency will be involved. Will your employees be comfortable with it? Or, do they heavily value their privacy and need a more private space (within the digital experience you want to create for them) to get their best work done?

The idea that having Virtus design an app for your business is somehow less complex or risky than internal communication/collaboration software is silly.


Wrapping Up

Using the example of custom-built communication software, my goal throughout this article was to help unravel some of the basic tenets that drive digital product design. To be more specific, user-centric digital product design, in this case medium-to-large business staff.

We start with where micro-interactions take place between users and the brand. Then, we map the business to see exactly how its processes can be streamlined through automation and optimized to create a far more productive experience for everyone involved.

Hope it helped answer some of your questions. If you have more, or would like to add to the discussion please leave a comment and share your two cents.



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