I suddenly woke up sweating in my bed. It was a sunny, but cold winter morning. The light peacefully illuminated my room through the window. Everything was calm and white outside. But I was breathing fast and my head was full of thoughts.

Why does it take two weeks for that feature? Do the devs work at all? We should add a better search. And chat option to the landing page. We don’t have the right target group. Will anybody use this at all? Will they ever admit that the core concept was wrong? Is it a product failure or a marketing issue? Our open rate sucks. What if we did a chatbot instead?

Okey. Slow down and take a deep breath. It’s time for that morning coffee.

There is definitely something wrong in the tech world nowadays. A new JS package manager comes out every single month. If you want to be hip you have to change your whole technology stack twice a year. Marketing got crazy. Do inbound. Do account based. Do Twitter. Do Snapchat. Do Instagram. Do live video. Do chatbots.

While we are flooded with trends and visions, we tend to forget the single most important thing in any product’s life: the people we build it for.

Product failure: the single biggest reason most products fail.

Products don’t fail because of technology issues, bad marketing or ugly UI. Products fail because they are useless. I mean people don’t really need them. They don’t solve any pain or they don’t give enough joy to make it worth the effort.

When I get confused, like I did that morning, I always try to dig deep and find the core reasons of things. I like to look behind optimization tactics and tweaks. Forget the easy wins. What are the core problems we want to solve with a product?

Let’s look at the four steps anyone can do to design a product people will actually use.

1. Find the real pain you can solve. Strong, repeating pain.

A year ago, when we tried to come up with product ideas for the stock trading industry, we talked with 13 high-profile traders. You can imagine, it wasn’t easy to hunt them down and get them to speak.

During our interviews we got many answers we expected. Traders have to evaluate a lot of data and read the right news in real-time. So they have challenges with doing their research and seeing through the jungle of information. There are many apps available solving these issues.

But there was a surprising thing almost all of them mentioned. Most of them suffered from mental problems. They have to make decisions under high pressure. It is very hard to stay objective and control your emotions. And this is an untapped market. Nearly no one has a solution for that problem.

This was a true wow-moment. I always feel so lucky and blessed, when I find a pain point in people’s life that I can solve with a product. After all, this is our goal as product designers, to make people’s life a little bit easier.

Stock trader during work.

So, the first thing you have to do if you want to prevent a product failure, is to find a real pain you can solve. The best pains are the strong ones. Many people suffer from them frequently. If you can provide a good solution for these, you will win big.

Do your research and find the pains of your audience. You can do interviews, field research, experience sampling, diary studies and many other methods. We call this product discovery. You should do product discovery frequently, even if your product already exists. It provides surprising results almost every time. Even for audiences you know well.

2. Share that pain, you lonely hero

Once we had to work with a serious corporate executive. He was the rigorous one, always on time, always prepared, always in the same grey suit. We rarely saw a smile on his face. No one dared to question anything he said.

One day we met with him to decide on a product’s features. He brought the head of the legal department with him, because the new features could affect the user agreement. Not a good sign.

How do you convince such a man about your ideas?

You don’t convince him. You let him come up with the same ideas and keep the credit. The best designers are not the ones who present their ideas and push them through like you see in Mad Men. The best designers and researchers share all the information and all the ideas they have and then make decisions together with the team.

If you give people the same problem set 80% of them will make the exact same design decisions. The rest will figure out something great you didn’t expect. I know it, because I teach at design courses where this happens every day. So the problem is not with the decisions, but the information which people need to make the right decision with.

We use workshops to get everyone to know our audience’s pain points and then decide on the product together. Workshops are fun, they involve people, and they align the team.

brinstorming to avoid product failure

In our case with the serious executive, we gave the summary of one of the user interviews to each participant on the meeting. We gave them time to read it and listen into the recording. Everyone had to represent their interviewee during the workshop. We built personas this way and checked each stage of the customer journey to come up with new, useful features for our users.

At the beginning it was a bit awkward. But we broke the ice slowly and we came up with great ideas. Although I thought about some of these before, now everyone felt these were their ideas, and they were very committed to make them happen. We had a determined team with a common goal, which is a sign of product success.

And what’s best, we even saw Mr. Grey smiling many times.

3. Brainstorm solution ideas

There is a certain state of mind when you can be very creative. You just get in the flow and start coming up with many ideas. Even strange ideas. Sometimes it happens when you are with someone else. You just share ideas with each other and you respond with a new one again and again. It doesn’t last long, you get tired and it’s over soon.

Brainstorming and sketching product ideas. More ideas mean less chance of product failure.

If you want to prevent product failure, you have to come up with the best solutions possible to the pain points you found earlier. Here are a few steps you can use while brainstorming to create that creative mood:

  • Do it together. More people will have more ideas.
  • First tell the problem, then let everyone think on their own. Brainstorming is a joint effort, but you need to give everyone time to come up with ideas, otherwise only the loudest person will talk.
  • Force everyone to come up with many wild ideas within a short timeframe. Use the crazy 8: fold a paper three times, so you will get eight areas with the same size. Tell everyone they have to sketch up eight ideas in 10 minutes. This will help them to get in the mood of quickly generating ideas.
  • Share your ideas and tell each other what you like in theirs.
  • Do another round, so everyone can build on the ideas they heard from others.

There are some other great tips in our ebook, Product Manager’s Guide to UX Design. Download it!

4. Test and modify your solutions, because they suck

So now you have a few product or feature ideas. They probably suck. Please don’t take it personally. Even the best designers can’t come up with a perfect design the first time. Jony Ive has built 561 prototypes before debuting with the final version of the Leica M camera model. Believe me, if he needs experimenting, you will need it, too.

This is actually the most exciting part of design. You build quick prototypes and test them with real people from your target group. It’s an iterative thing, you test and modify, test and modify until everything works well.

There are many great tools to build software prototypes, like Axure or UXPin. But keep in mind, the goal is to test ideas as fast as possible. If you don’t feel embarrassed of your prototype you probably have spent too much time with it.

When we designed a new job board for truck drivers, we also started with building a prototype first. You can see a particular item from the job list below.

A wireframe of an app with usability issues. We do user tests to prevent product failure.

When we showed this to actual truck drivers they didn’t understand a bunch of things. First, the “95% match” label was not clear. It meant to show weather the job fits the driver or not, but drivers didn’t really understood that. The apply and discard buttons with the like and dislike icons were confusing, too. And they also wanted to see the details of the job before applying, but they didn’t know how to get to the details page. So we modified the prototype in two other rounds, and found a solution that was clear to all drivers. The design you can see below worked well on our tests.

Job board design.

Sometimes I feel shocked while I see people trying to use my prototype. I have been working in design for more than 10 years, but people can still surprise me. You can be trained and experienced, but the only way to make sure the product will work is to test it with real people.

These four steps will save you from a product failure

So to sum it up, these are the four things you can do to make sure your product won’t end up in a popular blog post about epic product failures:

  1. Find people’s pains. Use product discovery methods.
  2. Share the pain points with your team at workshops. Involve everyone.
  3. Brainstorm solution ideas.
  4. Test and modify your solutions until they work well in the hands of your users.

A good product design team can help you to do all these, but you can also get started on your own. Just do it.

I would really love to read about your experience. Have you tried these things before? Why don’t you share your thoughts in a comment?