The human need to create
Ever since the first hominids were banging rocks together to make fire, or figured out how to make a flute from bones, human beings have been driven to create. Even for modern humans, most of whom live in a world where creativity is not a necessary survival skill per se, many still feel the need to create, be it artistically or with the idea of making our lives more efficient. And the digital world we live in, makes for an easy gateway to do just that.
As with everything that spawns from a person's imagination, there's no guarantee that people will notice your creation, let alone love it. If you're in a business, there's no guarantee your creation will be profitable.
That said, there's a pretty surefire way to create digital products that people will love. You will find that it does require a different approach than what most companies are used to. Rather than letting creative instinct guide every choice, user data and feedback guide decisions.
What is a digital product?
Digital products are anything that is sold in a digital form. These include digital art, content, websites and applications.
For our purposes here, we are going to focus mostly on mobile, or native applications. The principles we’ll review can easily be applied to any digital product. It is easy to extrapolate these concepts to other realms even if you are not a developer.
Why native applications?
With so many apps flooding the stores on a daily basis, why bother? Well, the fact we carry around a smartphone with us every waking minute, opens up tons of opportunities.
In essence, a digital product allows your business to build a deeper relationship with your customers. A supplement company can go from being a "pill-and-powder merchant" to becoming a holistic health partner. In this case, a mobile app could remind them about their protocols, answer questions, give advice, keep them on track. It's a total paradigm shift.
There is tremendous opportunity to innovate in the digital space still, and it is relatively easy to build an application. You can imagine the level of competition. It also means the market is filled with indistinct and mediocre products.
Meeting the needs of the customer
Successful digital products must meet an unmet demand in the current market. If you want consumers to use your product, you will need to either satisfy an unmet need or improve the delivery of an existing solution. Or, if you're a real evil genius, you create a need. And just like in any business, the overall value proposition of your digital product must be superior to that of your competitors.
But here's the thing, we don’t want customers to like our product, we want them to love it. If you want customers to love your product, you must pay close attention to what they tell you. This goes way beyond reviews and ratings. You should also take a rational approach and examine user statistics and data to look for pain points, usage patterns, and associated data that might provide insight into unmet needs.
Customer feedback and usage data should be incorporated into a detailed plan for the evolution of your digital product. If you provide customers with a shoddy product, or even with a beautiful product that doesn’t do what they need, they will not love your product.
Collaborating with your customers
The best way to create a digital product that people will love, is to co-create with them. You must find ways to engage with your user base and determine what it is that they really need from your product. Only then can you give them what they're after.
Listening to your customers and including them as collaboration partners is inextricably linked with change. Customers will ask for new features, different functionalities, or design features that will require continuous adaptive change for your application. This feedback between collaboration and change is part of an iterative design philosophy.
Simplicity is king
While you are developing your long-term product strategy, always keep in mind what you're trying to achieve. That's why it's never a bad idea to think in assumptions, rather than features. Scope your next steps based on the value you're trying to bring, not which features are next on the backlog.
Simplicity is a virtue of the product design cycle. Rather than launching a massive, fully-featured product, we'd prefer designing a non- functional prototype in 5 days to test it with your target audience.
Based on that feedback, the prototype is then used as a foundation to build an initial, minimum viable product. This product is launched into the market, to be evaluated and subsequently improved. This product cycle continues into the future, with periods of rest between design iterations. Keeping the design process simple and focusing on being great at the core function of the product are keys to successful digital product creation.
This ensures that you involve your customers from the first sketch and throughout the entire digital product lifecycle. Brining the user with you non-functional prototype to fully fledged out product.
Be great at your core business
Your digital product likely exists to offer a service or provide customers with some sort of solution. Core functions are things like filing an insurance claim, redeeming a coupon, making a mobile payment, or navigating the road. This is where your product should excel. If it is only adequate, you might attract some users, but it’s unlikely anybody will stick around for long.
Excelling at your core function requires a great deal of focus. To help ensure development resources are used most effectively, understand that it is ok to merely be good at non-core functions. If the core function of your application is to redeem a coupon, you can probably find an existing solution to manage social sharing for the application rather than building a new one from the ground up.
One of the best ways to encourage user engagement and develop a digital product that people truly love is to find an unexpected way to delight them. Asana, a project management tool, has Celebration Creatures: fun, animated creatures that will fly across your screen when you complete a task. Users can select their preferred creature and look forward to seeing it bounce across the screen when they’ve checked off their most recent task.
Google Chrome offers an offline-accessible T-rex themed dinosaur game that users can enjoy in the unlikely event of network interruptions.
Another excellent hidden feature is the barrel roll feature that Google built into their search engine: users can type the phrase “do a barrel roll” into Google’s search engine and watch the screen perform acrobatics. Adding whimsical and fun touches like these to a product can help elevate it from a product users like to a product users love.
Strategy & planning
In business school, the importance of a long-term strategic plan is heavily emphasized. However, in our modern digital environment, the rapid pace of change makes long-term planning very difficult. The best digital products rely on an ongoing cycle of iterative product design.
One of the best ways to adapt to change is to borrow from the Japanese philosophy of kaizen, or continuous improvement. Rather than making massive and earth-shattering changes, kaizen teaches us to make small and incremental changes on a rolling basis. This does not mean that your product team should be making changes to your product every day: that would be insane and your data would lose all validity. However, your product strategy should follow an incremental design philosophy.
Let's tie this together. How do we take these development concepts and strategies and apply them? One of the best things to do is to collaborate with a team of experts, and your customers.
To make a digital product that people love, you first need to meet the needs of your target market in an exceptional way. Then, develop a strategy that revolves around making continuous, data-driven changes.
That said, you should also keep your product simple when starting out, but delight them as much as possible. Identify your core business, and excel at it. Find a problem and offer a simple and useful solution.
Listen to your customers, take their feedback to the design team, and find ways to grow your product intelligently. If you can keep your solutions simple, clean, and painless for the consumer, you’ll have successfully built a digital product that people love.