Designers, Here’s How You Can Shape Product Strategy

For a long time, I believed great products were created by The Creative Genius:

The Creative Genius sits alone at their drawing table, burning the midnight oil. They close their eyes… eureka!!! They have a Big Idea! Springing into action, they begin to sketch it out. As the sun starts to rise, The Creative Genius finishes up their masterpiece. The CEO strolls in with their morning coffee, and sees the the Big Idea. How magnificent! This will change the world! Workers start building, and The Creative Genius smiles proudly.

Creative people love ideas, and we easily put The Creative Genius on a pedestal. I used to fantasize about becoming The Creative Genius myself someday. I thought that impact was a direct result of just coming up with great ideas.

I soon realized that this was all a fantasy. Coming up with ideas isn’t the hard part — the hard part is validating the idea, effectively communicating it across the company, and building it out.

Here are three things I wish I knew earlier in my career as a product designer about shaping product strategy and turning ideas into reality.

1. Start with research. Don’t forget the data.

Every idea should be backed by reasons why people’s lives will be better with it. Spend time talking to your customers to discover problems and validate possible solutions. As a rule of thumb, interview at least 8 customers to identify common trends.

Designers, Here’s How You Can Shape Product Strategy

However, qualitative research alone isn’t enough. You need to quantify how many people are affected by the problem, and the impact you could have by solving it. Many designers, myself included, overlook this step because we so quickly empathize with the individual people we talk to. Luckily, there are many resources to help — you can gather your metrics via online research, or work with your data science, marketing, and/or PM counterparts.

Here’s an example from a recent effort at Opendoor:

Qualitative research got us:

“Meet Linda. Linda is looking to sell her home and buy a new one. She is completely overwhelmed with the process of coordinating two transactions to line up her move.”

Data and metrics solidified the story:

“…Like Linda, 70% of home sellers in the US are simultaneously buying and selling a home at the same time. If Opendoor can provide one seamless transaction, then we can service XX more customers.”

2. First visualize the experience, not the UI

I’ve seen designers of all experience levels jump into UI first. We want to solve X? Great! Here’s a shiny high fidelity prototype for Y. And it has slick transitions in the menu too oooOOOooo 👻

While its great to get our creative juices flowing, first take a step back and envision the experience. The customer should be the star of the story, not the UI. It shows that design isn’t just about the pixels on the screen — design can inform larger strategy and vision for the entire company.

Designers, Here’s How You Can Shape Product Strategy

Start by imagining a future where your idea has been launched, and describe in detail how your target customer would be interacting with it.

Here’s an example experience building on the previous example with Linda:

“Linda gets a new job and needs to move. She goes to to look for homes around her new office. There are three potential homes that seem nice. Opendoor plans out a route for her to visit the three homes and displays it in on her dashboard… etc.”

My favorite way of visualizing experiences is through quick, lo-fi storyboard comics — they provide enough detail to paint a vivid picture, but are simple enough so people don’t get stuck on UI elements.

Drawing and cutting out characters allows you to reuse them in scenes. If you include UI, make it simple and highlight the mains parts.
Drawing and cutting out characters allows you to reuse them in scenes. If you include UI, make it simple and highlight the mains parts.
A makeshift stop motion studio I made with a whiteboard eraser, my phone, a rig and some scotch tape.
A makeshift stop motion studio I made with a whiteboard eraser, my phone, a rig and some scotch tape.

3. Embrace ideas as “ours”

I used to believe that great ideas were created in solitude and would always speak for themselves. That was definitely my inner Creative Genius talking. While it’s natural to want credit for an idea, keep in mind that they are the most effective when there is a collective sense of ownership.

Designers, Here’s How You Can Shape Product Strategy

Recently two co-workers and I did a large scale research project. We were feeling really great about the richness of our findings, and began to sketch out a 2 year vision. We showed our product lead, and it got him excited. He scheduled a brainstorm for the entire product team, where we shared our key research findings. Using the initial vision we created as a skeleton, the group spent half a day ideating and refining. We used the Airbnb 11 star experience visioning framework, which proved to be both incredibly fun and results-producing.

We came out of the brainstorm with a lot of new ideas and a shared vision. Now each person is championing it, rather than the three of us advocating for it alone.

Next time you want to pitch an idea to your coworkers, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is there research and data to validate this idea?
  2. What’s the experience from the customer’s point of view?
  3. Who will champion this idea with me?

Remember that ideas are the easy part — we all have an inner Creative Genius hard at work. It’s how you validate, communicate, and bring others on board with the idea that will determine if you can impact product strategy.

Then comes even harder phases — executing on the ideas, and iterating. More on those in a later post 😊

If these challenges sound interesting to you, please check out our jobs page. Opendoor is reinventing the experience of buying and selling homes, and we are hiring designers, researchers, and writers.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at annie [at] opendoor [dot] com.

Thanks to my wonderful teammates and friends for their editing and feedback on this blogpost:

Robbie, Billy, Claire, Wenyang, Melody, Ken, Sally

Note: Thanks to Annie for the contribution. Originally published on Medium.