The Anatomy of a Great Digital Product: It’s All About Purpose
Today we’re going to play doctor. Yeah, that sounds cheesy, I know - but bear with us. We’re talking more Dr Frankenstein, anyway - especially when we look at designing a product's anatomy from scratch.
As we look into what makes a great piece of software, we see that like any living being’s anatomy, a good digital product breaks down into a list of core components that serve clear functions and help create the final, living piece of software.
And just like how your body’s own cells replenish themselves over the years, a digital product, once launched, must continue to update and adapt to survive in a competitive, ever-changing market.
So what does the anatomy of this digital product look like? What is it that great projects include that the poorer ones forget? Let’s run through the full anatomy of a good digital product to bring software to life.
Conception: analysis and research
Be ready for lots of strange comparisons to biological life…sorry in advance.
Before your product is ‘born’, it must first be properly planned out. Too often, we see agencies and businesses rushing through this stage, deciding instead to launch based on prescribed features and an assumption of what the product will look like. In the real world, people are randomised mixtures of their parent’s genetics, but we can be more selective and prescriptive in software development.
Before your product comes to life, it must be designed with its purpose in mind. Unlike our early mention of Dr Frankenstein, we wouldn’t give our product life without doing the fundamental research behind why it should exist, what it should achieve and how it will function.
This research can take the form of a varied amount of activities, which include, but are not limited to:
Competitor & market research: This is often done internally and submitted to the agency, forming a picture of the current opportunities and gaps in a client’s market.
User personas: a detailed picture of each intended user type. This can be as basic and limited as using assumption and experience or follow a more detailed user research journey to establish real, working personas that detail user interactions, requirements and challenges.
User flows/journeys: our discovery workshop, an activity we run with all of our clients, helps map out how each user type moves through a product. This process helps determine the goals and objectives of the product based on user need, not on assumptions and internal bias.
User research: our new user research service, headed up by Dr Sean Jerdan (he’s an actual doctor, we’re not using puns for a second), gives a product even more context by establishing specific research topics and gaining definitive answers. This eliminates the guesswork of the design phase and instead transitions thinking from ‘this is what we think users want according to the journey map’ to ‘this is what users want for sure, based on our user journey and the research done to support it.’ For more about user research, including what techniques we use and how effective it can be, click here.
Objectives & benchmarking: before any development or design begins, digital products need a setlist of objectives and ways to measure success. By establishing this pre-development, your project can be built more efficiently and rapidly - enabling the launch of an MVP (minimum viable product) that achieves the most cost-effective goals.
Note: think of objectives as two categories. You have top-level objectives based on user journeys, and research such as ‘the app should make paying bills online easy.’ From this, you can draw out measurement areas, such as more digital conversions, fewer telephone calls, decreased time on help pages etc. For an example of this ‘in the flesh’, check out our work with Orchard Systems, where we helped to save time for both users and customer service staff by redeveloping the Self Service system.
The bones of a product: wireframes and mock-ups
The result of the above research is a well-designed interface, an engaging experience and a happy user.
But first, each part of the software must be supported by ‘bones’. The UX team creates a wireframe before the first line of code is written. The wireframe of a website, for example, will list out each page and show their relation to each other. A UX designer works with the research in mind by laying out pages and components to encourage interaction and funnels users towards their goals.
All digital projects use wireframing; they’re not unique to web design. In fact, it’s outside of web design where wireframes become even more skeleton-like in the way they form the genuine foundations of what is to come. A wireframe for an app, for example, will show the conceptual layout of each interface, how they are interacted with and how navigation functions.
Once agreed with the client and assessed against user needs, this wireframe forms the foundations of UX and UI design going forward. Mock-ups are created to give representations of how the page will actually look and function. Some projects can re-invest in user research here, giving the mock-ups to research groups to determine if they’re suitable. Other projects with less budget or time can instead simply use these mock-ups to win approval from stakeholders/managers/team members.
The birth stage: prototyping and MVP
Following the establishment of structure, or the bones of the project, we produce working prototypes. These can be tested internally, interrogated by users, presented to the board etc. However, by investing in the conceptual stages, your prototype should be fairly solid and require minimal changes from the beginning.
The changes it will require are usually aesthetic or simple fixes - because all of the research that has fed the wireframes and mock-ups has been applied to the prototype. This essentially ‘births’ your product - it’s now a living, breathing thing to be built upon.
But it’s not able to stand on its own yet.
Following the approval of the prototype and all necessary quality checks, developers will produce an ‘MVP (Minimum Viable Product)’. This is essentially the product boiled down to its core functions - the things required to most accurately meet the user’s needs.
Once the MVP is alive, it begins to grow and mature. As users interact with it, designers can begin refining experiences. Developers, meanwhile, can fix bugs and start designing new features and functionality. The MVP is vital for development, as it allows developers to focus their efforts and achieve realistic timeframes. Without an MVP to work to, scope creep can easily derail a project.
Think of it as a Frankenstein project again. If you suddenly create and build a fully grown adult without any memories or experiences, their ability to interact with the world would be stunted and you could create a monster. In digital products, you need the MVP to be the child that grows into an adult, maturing through user interaction, data analysis and feedback.
Appearance matters: UI design
Before the MVP launches, the UI design team will have tested a range of different interface options and decided on what has performed best with users. This could have included things like focus groups and one to one testing - but can also be done solely through client requirements (though this is, of course, less effective than genuine testing.)
As the MVP launches, the UI design will be in its early stages. The product will now have a clear visual identity and an established information hierarchy that has been agreed upon during the research phases.
As the MVP grows and evolves, UI design never truly stops. Elements of the interface may need to change to reflect new behaviours or branding directions - but also to adapt to new technical requirements such as Android or iOS updates.
Think of UI as the ‘appearance’ part of a product’s anatomy. It’s the ‘face’ of your product - but there’s another design aspect that’s critical if you want your product to be truly appealing.
Beauty is only skin deep: UX is the heart and soul
So your product is now alive. It has already been designed with UI and UX design principles - but now it enters the ongoing growth cycle of any good digital product - where it is constantly iterated and improved upon.
Fundamental branding elements and some UI components will already be in place and will be unlikely to change. But as the product begins to see user interaction en masse, designers are able to gather genuine feedback on user experiences, identify issues and then design resolutions and improvements which will make the product a more genuinely engaging experience.
“Design isn’t finished until somebody is using it” - Brenda Laura, PhD, Independent Scholar.
Circulatory system: development as a life cycle
In the human body, cells are constantly changing - renewing themselves throughout a person’s life. In a software project, the development team provides the critical support needed to sustain the product’s function and builds upon their initial design to tweak, refine, and improve.
The developers behind a great product know that there’s never an ‘end’. Instead, they recognise that digital products result from an ongoing cycle of feedback, testing and updates. By adapting to new user habits or needs and reacting to industry, the software doesn’t stay in its infancy. Instead, like a living thing, it changes as a product of its environment and interactions.
The development team’s real challenge is to guide this growth in a positive direction. They must avoid feature bloat (see why in our article on feature addiction), focus on key user needs and continue to work to sensible time and cost budgets as dictated by their client.
So our analogy ends here. A great digital product is indeed a living thing - made to serve a purpose and cater to user requirements. If a development team is happy to launch a product without some of this anatomy, it is likely to lead to failure or subpar results. Without the ‘bones’ or ‘skin’ of a product, how can it ever grow into the effective living product the user expects it to be?
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