Software Development: Product Focused or Design Driven?

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Most software developers work in project-oriented teams because most companies are not start-up vendors who can constantly reinvent themselves and bring new products to market. Upgrade, integration, and modernization projects result in a huge number of already-coded software assets and third-party service dependencies.

I once thought about an alternative strategy focused on products for software organizations to behave more like high-growth software companies, turning their project managers into product managers. They would spend less time measuring time and more time measuring the features they offer.

Apparently, this product-centric approach would reduce endless initiatives and sprawling scope creep, forcing leaders to reconsider developer contributions to high-value end products.

A finished product implies reusability and higher potential value for more use cases than the working output of a project.

But lately we are seeing a second shift – from a product-driven strategy to a design-driven strategy. Some of the founders of today’s fastest growing unicorn sellers come from design schools and the creative industry.

Costume or customer experience?

There’s a lot of technical and business acumen that a design-led team needs to develop beyond graphic design that goes into a successful customer experience.

Designers are encouraged to put “lipstick on a pig” – pushing pixels to visually dress up an app without changing the underlying functionality. Cosmetics of tweaked icons, fonts, and colors can make the software look nicer, but it rarely improves the user experience (or UX) on its own.

Users expect clear commands and instructions in an interface, and on their phones or devices, they also expect sensory input – using cameras, haptics, and audio input and output to maximize productivity.

Performance is also an important factor in customer experience – an identical competitor that displays results two seconds slower will experience high abandonment rates. Design engineering is about the trade-offs between display aesthetics and concise representation of data returned quickly from low-latency sources.

When it’s incomplete, it’s ready to show

INABIAF. It’s not a bug, it’s a featuresays the old developer maxim when software users don’t understand what they see on the screen.

Successful creative agencies never assume that a concept must be fully fleshed out before clients can accept it. They quickly iterate on the design and copy mock-ups or sketches, in order to focus on customer preferences, as well as gauge end-consumer preferences.

Breakthrough SaaS tools and smartphone apps have accelerated design principles as the current version of the app is dynamically updated for the customer in near real time. This ongoing process merges redesigns into the CI/CD product lifecycle introducing new user features and displays, even if not yet fully baked.

‘Shift-Right’ Practices such as real user monitoring (RUM) and feature tagging are great ways to gauge performance improvements and test functional integrity, but the biggest benefit is getting live customer feedback in the product design loop.

Laziness is the mother of innovation

If a good design takes 50% of the time it takes to complete a task away from the customer, it’s a winning product that unleashes a drastic improvement in productivity.

The low code space and RPA Movements Provided hundreds of ways to jump between UI and process-driven design and easy drag-and-drop app development without the hurdles of technical skill.

The COVID crisis has shown the robustness of low-code for design-driven responsiveness to crisis conditions – take for example the few banks that could step up with PPP Disaster Loan Applications using low-code within 3 months.

Development teams themselves also appreciate design-centric tools. I am constantly surprised by new vendors entering seemingly mature spaces such as CI/CD tools, IT operations, security, and software testing with better UX as the core value proposition.

Build a diverse team

We are all complex, self-contained beings, operating in different modes as end users of technology. When designing technology for use by others, we must wear a functional engineering hat. A customer service hat. A safety hat. A human-centric hat.

Leading creative organizations foster higher levels of diversity within their teams, not just in terms of ethnicity and identity, but in the different intellectual perspectives that variety produces.

There are many unique ways to solve problems, and therefore there should be different kinds of thinking in your design team composition. Accept these differences and cultivate them for design-driven success.

The Intellyx Plug

Companies and industries that are focused on internal projects rather than customers are unfortunately unprepared for digital transformation.

Never settle for dogmatic standards when rapid innovation is required.

Don’t let anyone tell you that there is a better way to build software when there are always several valid design-driven approaches. The distinction between design possibilities is the very substance of design-led development.

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