How to Design Meaningful Products

Last updated on 7 June 2019

If a product isn’t meaningful for people, no amount of great design will make it successful.

What is your purpose in life? What’s mine? We humans don’t exist to consume, swipe, buy, or use; we exist to live, to love, and to be human. So the products we make need to help people live, love, and be human. That’s what makes a product or service meaningful. But why is that important? And how can we figure out if our product is meaningful or not?

Image by Bara Cross

This post is my humanistic view on creating meaningful products. It covers questions about our customers we can start from (Perspectives), methods we can employ (Processes), artifacts we can create to validate our assumptions (Prototypes), and guidelines for doing this effectively & ethically (Principles).

The Importance of Meaning for Products

Do you remember Foursquare? It was a location-sharing service where people could check in to where they were in the app.

When it first came out, people flocked to it. It had an attractive design and a funny, appealing tone of voice. The Foursquare app was so engaging that its point system, mayorships, and badges served as the de facto standard for gamification at the time.

But soon, people stopped checking in, and Foursquare became that thing only the super nerdy among us (myself included) kept using. Everyone I spoke with that quit the service gave a different version of the same explanation: “What’s the point?”

For those people, checking in to places and sharing their whereabouts had no meaning. It didn’t add any real value to their lives.

SMS (Short Message Service), on the other hand, became successful by accident. It was originally created as a diagnostic tool, a way for engineers to test mobile connectivity.

Old mobile phone, Image from Michał Kulesza

If you remember the early days of SMS, you’ll know how annoying it was to type a message using the numeric keypad (before touchscreens). Imagine having to press the 7 key four times just to get the letter s!
But people discovered it and sent messages from their mobile phones, despite the difficulty. Now, it’s hard to even imagine a world of mobile phones without texting.

But how did SMS become an accidental killer app, while Foursquare failed, despite the company’s best efforts? For me, it’s clear. While Foursquare did everything right, in terms of design, development, and marketing, most people didn’t connect with their value proposition.

Those people didn’t see, at the time, how sharing their locations made their lives better. SMS, on the other hand, added so much meaningful value to people’s lives that they tolerated and adapted to the clunky interface. For the first time, people could communicate in a quick, asynchronous way, without needing access to the internet.

And while SMS is successful in its own right, the idea continues to evolve in the form of all the different messaging apps we have today. Foursquare also has a happy ending: they have since pivoted the service into a city guide that helps people discover new restaurants, bars, and attractions that fit their interests. They’ve also spun the check-in service into a separate app called Swarm, and (as of this writing) the company is alive and well.

So how do we make sure we’re building value propositions that improve people’s lives in meaningful ways?

Perspectives

Since we’re looking at what’s meaningful for other humans, it’s important to consider what they’re thinking and feeling. Here are four places to start exploring your customers’ perspectives.

What delights are people hunting for?

What do people need more of in their lives? What would make them happier, healthier, or more self-actualized?

What pains do people need to relieve?

What do people need less of in their lives? What disgusts, terrifies, hurts, or angers them?

What’s holding people back?

What obstacles do people face? What’s keeping them from getting their delights or avoiding their pains?

What puts us in a position to help?

While we’re trying to understand our customers, it’s important to also understand what we want our relationship with them to be. If we want to help people achieve a certain objective, what capabilities, technology, information, or other advantage do we bring to the table?

Processes

While principles help us make choices, processes help us take action. Here are some processes that help with building meaningful products and services.

Key Process: Lean Validation

While methodologies like Lean Startup, MVP (Minimum Viable Product), and Value Proposition Design have become buzzwords, it’s for a good reason. The strategy here is to build increasingly versions of your product, let your potential users or customers use it, and see if they find value in what you’re offering. If so, you continue developing the product and keep testing what you’ve got. If not, you consider pivoting and building something else.

Lean Validation Cheat Sheet
Lean Validation Cheat Sheet via The Greatness Studio

Design Research

Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Techniques like interviewing and ethnographic studies might not be new, but they’re essential for understanding the problem & people whom you’re creating for.

Empathic Immersion

It’s one thing to listen to people telling you about their situation; it’s quite another to experience it yourself. By immersing ourselves in the experiences of others, either for real or via simulation, we gain much deeper intuitive understanding than from research alone. For example, MIT has a special suit to simulate the physical aspects of aging, so people can experience first hand what it’s like to have joint pain or diminished eyesight. And the UN uses virtual reality (VR) to foster empathy for Syrian & Congolese refugees.

Character Mapping

Personas are archetypes that represent a group of people, usually the specific audience for your new product or service. But these are often misused and don’t live up to their potential. So I’ve taken a cue from acting and create characters instead. Where we may focus on demographic data like age or income to create personas, creating a character is more about objectives and obstacles. A character shows who a person is within the context of that person’s story.

Character Map Canvas
Character Map Canvas via The Greatness Studio

Journey Mapping

A character doesn’t really exist without a story to inhabit. So we can create journey maps that illustrates the way people currently deal with the challenge they’re facing, without our new product or service. Putting this on paper can help test whether you’ve really understood what people are going through and identify any gaps. I use a scene-based Journey Map Canvas to help me along, and here’s a breakdown of my basic process.

Journey Map Canvas
Journey Map Canvas via The Greatness Studio

Prototypes

Once we’ve explored the problem space, we need to articulate the basic concept of our solution. This allows us to communicate what we’ve learned and test our assumptions. Here are different artifacts we can create to validate whether we are indeed building something meaningful.

Value Proposition Canvas

Strategyzer’s value proposition canvas provides a helpful framework for articulating your product’s concept and how it adds value for your customer. Being a canvas, it works best in a collaborative workshop setting, with sticky notes and a multidisciplinary team.

Value Proposition Canvas by Strategyzer
Value Proposition Canvas via Strategyzer

Role-Play

One way to show your character going through their story is by acting it out. Usually, one person represents the main character, and one or more people represent your product. You can do this to simulate the experience for test participants or stakeholders. Here’s Stephen Anderson explaining how he employs this technique (YouTube video).

Video Prototype

Role-playing is quick and easy, but it’s hard to e-mail someone a performance. Video prototypes cost a little extra planning and work, but they’re easy to make, and you can share them with as many test participants, stakeholders, or customers as you want. Here’s an old one of mine from school in 2008 (YouTube video).

Concierge MVP

A video prototype is already a kind of Minimum Viable Product, but the concierge MVP is my favorite. As the name suggests, you let a human serve your value proposition to customers, instead of building the product or technology. This lets you put your idea on the market with minimal investment.

In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries tells the story of Zappos’ founder, Nick Swinmurn. Nick wanted to sell shoes online, but didn’t know if people would go for it. So he went to shoe stores, took pictures of shoes, and posted them online. When someone placed an order, Nick went back to the store, bought the shoes, and then mailed them to the customer. For Nick, Zappos’ value proposition isn’t shoes, it’s the service Zappos provides. He tested that hypothesis inexpensively , and now Zappos is a successful business, famous for their stellar customer service.

Principles

As discussed in the introduction to this book, principles guide our decisions, so teams can move together toward the same vision.

Every project should have its own principles, which come from project goals, the organization’s values, and any existing design or development principles. So while this list isn’t exhaustive, here are four principles that can help you stay on course to create meaningful products.

Keep an open mind.

While something may not be meaningful for you personally, it might dramatically improve someone else’s life who doesn’t have the same advantages as you. Keep testing your assumptions, and stay open to the data.

Stay critical: is this still meaningful?

It’s easy to fall into a false sense of importance, especially after having some initial success. If something feels wrong, it probably is.

Consider any unintended consequences of your success.

AirBnB set out to empower people to earn money by renting out their homes when they’re not using them. But their ubiquity has contributed heavily to rising housing prices, especially in big cities. Put forth a real effort to anticipate, and then mitigate, how things could go wrong if your product or service becomes wildly successful.

Respect people’s privacy and consent.

It’s always been important to treat people, especially our customers and test participants, with respect. The relationship with the people who buy and use our products needs trust to be healthy. Anything less is ethically irresponsible and unsustainable. Not only that, but new laws like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) levy stiff penalties on those that violate people’s privacy and consent.

Meaning for Sustainable Engagement

The most brilliantly designed and engineered products can’t survive if they’re not meaningful for people. And people are willing to accept an annoying, unreliable product (at first), as long as it helps them live, love, and be human better.

But once we’ve validated our value proposition and establish a healthy, meaningful relationship with people, how do we keep that relationship going? I’m working on a book about that, and if you’re interested, drop by The Greatness Studio and subscribe to our newsletter, or check out this post onThe Ladder of Sustainable Engagement.

Special Thanks 🙏🏼

My gratitude goes out to The Greatness Studio community members who have been supporting, commenting on, and contributing to this work. Special thanks to Omna Toshniwal, Bindu Upadhyay, Shyam Jayakrishnan, Glenn Veugen, Jorge Peregrín, and the amazing Hester Bruikman-Pagán.