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What is product thinking and why does it matter?

by Ward Andrews
3 min read
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Product thinking

The road to a good customer experience can be full of potholes. How do you navigate such a treacherous path? One key way is through product thinking.

We know that customer experience is central to any product. We know the seven dimensions that are central to customer experience, and we know what qualifies as good customer experience is ultimately in the eyes of the beholder – your customers.

But the road to a good customer experience can be full of potholes. How do you navigate such a treacherous path? One key way is through product thinking.

What is product thinking?

Product thinking answers the question, “What makes your product useful?”

People buy products to solve real problems. Product thinking helps you identify what those problems are and how your product solves them.

By employing product thinking, we see the product as a whole rather than just focusing on the features of the product. We try to solve the problems of our customers with meaningful solutions that deliver delight and real value.

How is product thinking different from design thinking?

Design thinking asks what features will make your product as useful as possible. It’s a cyclical process that helps continuously answer detailed questions about how people need the product to look, feel, and work. But without the product, there are no features to design.

Product thinking can deliver a more holistic view of a product than design thinking. It’s the big picture of why your product exists in the first place. It’s the common purpose behind all of your combined actions as an organization. It’s the reason you’re doing the work you do.

In design thinking, we create a lot of maps. Empathy maps and journey maps help us orient ourselves to where we are in the product development process and where we need to go next.

Maps are helpful to show you where you’re going and how to get there. Product thinking is like the globe that gives you a model of the entire world you’re mapping.

Product and design thinking are in constant communication with each other. To mix metaphors, product thinking steers the ship while design thinking is in the engine room, giving feedback to the captain about what’s working or not to keep the boat moving in the right direction.

Product thinking is not just for product managers

It’s easy to assume that maintaining a strategic and holistic perspective on your product is only the responsibility of the product manager and business leaders. But that’s not enough.

In order for a product to be successful, everybody on the team must hone their product thinking skills. It’s nearly impossible to build great products without everybody having an understanding of what the product means to customers and why it exists in the first place.

This means that product thinking is a mindset that needs to be cultivated and reinforced. It’s a culture of customer experience that motivates every decision.

Everybody in the organization needs this mindset and commitment to stand on a common purpose. That’s because everybody in the organization in some way shapes the customer experience.

Like most things in business, leaders are often responsible for deciding on and setting the vision and purpose. Product thinking is the connective tissue that ties that bigger vision to the detailed decisions produced by design thinking.

Why does product thinking matter and how do I do it?

Product thinking is central to good UX design because it prevents us from building things that nobody wants. The point of product thinking is to make sure we’re focusing on the full user experience, not just a collection of nice features.

Without product thinking, it can be easy to get lost in creating good design and experiences and forget the core reason that customers hired your product in the first place.

Here are three basic steps to help make sure you’re thinking in terms of a product first and features second:

  1. Identify the customer and their problem to be solved. You need to be sure you’re solving a real problem that real people need to solve.
  2. Uncover the jobs the product is hired to do. You need to know why you’re building the product and how it’s going to solve the core needs of your customers.
  3. Identify the desired outcomes. At the end of the day, you need a vision of what you want to achieve with the product and features that will help you achieve that vision.
post authorWard Andrews

Ward Andrews, Ward Andrews is CEO at Drawbackwards, a consulting firm that dissolves complexity and delivers simplicity for customer experience and software product teams globally. Enterprise client mix includes: healthcare, financial services, hospitality and a range of consumer products. High-growth SaaS companies partnering with Drawbackwards have been acquired by the likes of Square and Experian.   Ward is a part of the Honors Faculty at Arizona State University teaching Design Entrepreneurship. He has worked with hundreds of the world’s biggest brands for over twenty years including: American Express, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Sony, Intel, General Dynamics, Insomniac Games, GoDaddy and Willis Towers Watson. His brand and design projects have garnered Addy, Prisma and Emmy awards. His CX and software product work has generated over 1B in value through cost savings and new revenue growth.

Ideas In Brief
  • Product thinking is key to shaping the best customer experience possible as it helps to identify problems and solve them.
  • By providing a holistic perspective on a product it differs from design thinking and reveals the real product value for customers.
  • Because of its strategic importance, every team member should hone product thinking skills. It’s more than a working framework, it’s a mindset, a culture of customer experience.

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