The Principled-Practical Curve of Modern Product Design

Getting great products into users’ hands is incredibly hard.

The modern product development product has many phases of brainstorming, planning, designing, coding, marketing, and shipping that each have their own idiosyncrasies. Critical people and deliverables are spread across many different teams making it even more complex.

The process can feel like it’s taken on a life of its own and spun out of control never to return to where it should be. This feeling is especially true from the vantage point of an individual Product Designer working on the product.

You can always tell the Designers who have been through big product release cycles before versus the ones who haven’t. The high level perspective you get by living through the whole process from end-to-end is invaluable. When the design of a product has setbacks during implementation, experience allows you to see the bigger picture and future high points for your users, despite the current trough.

For Designers who haven’t yet gone through the whole process, the following visualization provides some of that perspective ahead of time. Think of it like a map of the roller-coaster ride you’re about to go on. It’s another view of the product development process that provides context for the ups and downs of the journey.

Walking the curve

We’ll use the example of an iterative release to update an existing product to walk through each point on the Principled-Practical Curve. This is one of the most common scenarios every Product Designer will work through.

The Y axis is the User Experience Measurement. Higher up on the scale represents a better user experience. It doesn’t matter what metric(s) you use for your users and business. This works for anything.

The X axis is Time going through your product development lifecycle.

The starting point A is what your users are currently experiencing. There is a product they use today that your team and partners are trying to improve.

As a Designer, you work with your partners, updated user data, the latest competitive analysis, etc. to create a set of principles that will guide your design work for the updated version of the product. You use these principles to create an amazing vision for a new user experience. Working cross team with partners you create IAs, wireframes, comps, and prototypes that are tested in the lab with users.

Users love the prototypes and plans. You work hand in hand with partners to get buy off on the plans from leadership on all teams.

Things are looking great!

You are now at point B in the diagram…the Principled Peak of the product development life cycle. You can see and taste how great this product can be for users.

Then, reality happens.

Getting great products to users is just really hard.

This doesn’t mean partner teams are bad and hate users. This doesn’t mean you as a Designer had poor designs.

People on the team are not the problem. This is simply reality. The sooner you can accept it and even embrace it, the better your final user experience that actually ships to users will be.

What you want to create versus what you actually can create is the problem. Again, shipping is hard.

Something that the team originally thought would be easy to build ended up being really hard. Maybe something got lost in communication between teams and one of your business partners signed a deal with a custom clause that means you can’t do what you thought you could. Perhaps even something as simple as a bad flu went around the office and lots of people were out sick at a critical time.

You’re now at point C in the diagram…the Reality Trough. It probably seems pretty sad down there. You likely feel like you had to compromise your design vision to the point where it’s not even worth shipping the product anymore anymore.

It’s okay, though! You’re gonna get through this with the help of the overall team, your skills as Product Designer, and your practical thinking. Most importantly, you’re going to look ahead and remember that your users are going to think your final product is awesome.

It’s your job now to work with everyone around you and think practically to solve problems based on the realities you’re faced with. Don’t start acting like a bad partner. Don’t get depressed. Get practical.

Through great teamwork and practical design thinking you can elevate the user experience metrics you care most about up to point D…the Practical Peak.

Designers often think they only have a part to play getting the Principled Peak as high as possible, but the reality is that you have just as large of an effect on the Practical Peak.

Keep your focus on that and you will be surprised at how much you can increase the quality of the user experience even in the end game of a release. Designers should be in the mix with bug fixes, last minute calls on what’s in or out, etc.

Working with your partners and being both a principled and practical Product Designer will get all the peaks of the process as high as possible for users, which will have a direct effect on where the final shipping user experience ends up.

Point E on the diagram is actually the only thing that matters to users. Being mindful of this entire Principled-Practical curve will help you get the best possible product into users hands.

What you see versus what users see

The single most important thing to keep in mind in all of this is that there is a difference between what you see during the process and what your users will see. This is one of things I most consistently repeat to Designers during the tough process of shipping a product to users.

You get to experience all the ups and downs of building the product. You see epic ideas that get triaged out. You see a perfect design that gets faced with the reality of shipping by a holiday season that is immovable. You push through a long road of work that doesn’t fully see the light of day.

You see what could have been.

Your users, however, see a very different story.

They go instantly from point A to point E in the diagram. They see a new product they’ve never experienced before that delights them. They see an older product getting a fresh new look and new capabilities that meet their needs better.

Your users get to time travel in ways you simply can’t because you have the burden and responsibility of seeing everything as it happens.

Focus on being both principled and practical as you design through the product development process and your users will thank you.


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This article was written by John Solaro, VP of UX and Product Innovation at Disney/ABC TV. You can sign up for his bi-monthly newsletter here.