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What’s Behind a Successful Digital Product? A Proven Ideation and Research Process

Most successful digital products aren’t born from a single stroke of genius by an expert or a brilliant designer.

Instead, they come from a rigorous process that uses future buyers’ and users’ participation, feedback, and behavior to shape ideas, designs, and features into a digital product concept that delivers real value. This crucial work begins before the work of building a digital product.

The benefits of taking this approach are numerous, including greater certainty of success at launch and beyond, faster time to market, and a clear marketing and sales strategy. Let’s look at some of the key elements of the process we use to get started on the right path.

Put Your Product Idea to the Test Before Taking Action

Whenever we’re creating or building on ideas, we naturally believe that our ideas are good. It’s natural that they seem to be very good to you. A rigorous, methodical ideation and research process is designed to take that idea and put it to the test before building it.

Consider the executive who has a digital product idea. They get together with a designer who mocks up something until the executive is happy and then the product design is born. While it’s fine to sketch out an idea, developing a product from this initial design is risky. Everyone’s ideas and assumptions are based on their own perspectives and biases. And always at least partly wrong; there’s no shame in that.

The risk is that you could be catastrophically wrong. And by the time you realize it, you’ve already likely invested a lot of time, effort, and money on your digital product. Rapid ideation and research weed out weaker elements and assumptions and highlight the value worth pursuing.

This process takes the pressure off and reduces the make-or-break mindset. You can use simple, rigorous methods that ground the creative process in real-world input and feedback. And along the way, you gain evidence that reassures your investment is worth the time, effort, and expense.

The Components of Successful Digital Product Research

By frontloading the development process with revealing research, we improve our odds of hitting the target with an initial product launch. Without it, development work can be like throwing darts in the dark. Let’s look at some of the ways we work with you to gain the most out of this portion of our partnership.

Always create with input from your future customers.

Creativity without rigorous measures and feedback can be an echo chamber that amplifies existing ideas without being grounded in the real needs, priorities, and behaviors of your customers. Always include future customers in ideation and iteration. Research, done well, takes a small amount of additional time and saves you from going down a nonviable path.

Customer input forces you to be constantly asking “what will solve real customer problems?” and “how will we test and measure this?” at the same time.

Value behaviors over opinions.

Only asking potential customers whether they would buy your digital product isn’t particularly useful when you’re trying to build something they need. Look at what people do today, and whether your new product is compelling enough that they would stop using their current solution–even if it is a DIY hack–and use your product instead.

Get small amounts of consistent feedback from users at every stage.

By gathering input from buyers at every stage, you gain critical insights to determine what you should include in your product, what you should eliminate, and what shape your product takes. These tests should be small and fast, not long and extensive. You don’t need exhaustive, quantitative, statistically significant data at this point. In fact, we recommend rarely using surveys at all.

Instead, we have found that the best feedback is qualitative feedback—verbal feedback from about five future buyers and users while interacting with some part of your product idea or product concepts.

This can include asking a handful of potential future customers to provide:

  • Stack ranking prioritized needs, value propositions, or feature sets.
  • Train-of-thought narration while interacting with a paper, static, or interactive prototype.
  • Real-time reactions while comparing your product concept to one that represents an existing competitor.

Three ways research and feedback can guide concept creation.

Here are a few of our favorite methods for rapid feedback and co-creation early in the ideation and creation stage.

1. Use 5 interviews to create a list of prioritized needs of your target customer before starting ideation and early concept creation.

This helps focus the direction to go in, particularly if your concept idea is still broad.

  • An established management consultancy wanted to develop a new breed of project management software. Interviews with target customers revealed that task management was an extremely low priority among users. Even though a lot of competitors focused on it, many target customers simply used Excel because it was easy and available. Based on this rapid learning, we opted to minimize task management and instead focus on other needs. The resulting product was highly differentiated, with unique feature sets around prioritization and alignment.
  • A financial services company sought to build a new kind of parent and kid money management software. Our early interviews revealed that while the competition regularly defaulted to using things like chore charts to teach kids about money, virtually no parent could sustain them. We dropped ideas related to chore charts and allowances–also the leading ideas among internal leaders–and instead created a series of innovative products around neighborhood side jobs, money-management banking, and college planning.

2. Involve your future prospects and customers in the ideation and creation process through co-creation.

Invite future customers to shape the kind of solution and product they would like to use. Instead of creating a refined, complete concept and asking customers for feedback, create rough ideas and options and invite customers into a creative 1:1 conversation. Ask them what they think an ideal solution would do. This can shape your concept and provide direction in how you market it.

  • A healthcare company wanted to create a new diabetes chronic care offering. We loved it when a co-creation participant crystallized the challenge at hand: “I don’t like brown rice, I like brown cake.” The phrase became the inspiration behind a very successful outreach campaign when the product launched.

3. Use targeted guerrilla marketing and mock sales to evaluate viability.

Don’t treat your launch as a single event. Experiment with marketing messaging and mock sale conversions early and often. Use publicized waitlists, beta offerings, and early test offerings to see if customers inside and outside of your current network will convert.

  • On the new diabetes chronic care offering, we believed it was possible to use social media channels to attract new customers, even though the client was skeptical. We used a Facebook/Instagram guerilla marketing campaign with conversion into an early pilot program. The waitlist for the pilot program was filled within two weeks — a positive test outcome that informed both the product and the go-to-market strategy.

Valuable Products Come From Constant Feedback

Our mission revolves around creating products that truly work for your buyers, not just products that look good. We're not here to mock up the prettiest design. We're here to guide you in shaping ideas, designs, and features through rigorous research unified with real-world insights from likely buyers—methods that ensure the delivery of a digital product with real value.

Other design and development firms may be content to be happy when you’re happy with a designed or developed product. At Highland, we’re happy when your customers are happy.

If you’d like to learn more about Highland’s process, we’d love to hear from you.

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