Studying digital product families

Interested in how to do user research on how people use digital product families? At STBY we learnt a few lessons, and think there are increasing opportunities for design researchers and service designers for studying project families in the digital world, so we would like to share some of our reflections. 

The idea of a product family is not a new one 

In the world of manufacturing, companies have long used the idea of a family of products to satisfy customer needs by introducing variety while taking advantage of mass production efficiency (Pine, 1993). In product design, a product family refers to a range of products that offers similar functionalities with small variations of size or certain features, how these variants can be manufactured/assembled with the same components is often the key of design when it comes to cost efficiency (Jiao et al, 2007). For example, the iPhone family is a collection of devices with various sizes, colours, tech features and price tags, but they also share components in the production lines as well as a unified design language that creates that ‘family look’. From a consumer perspective, the user is likely to pick one or a few products out of the family that fits their own needs the best. 

The Apple product family one of us found around the house.

The story is slightly different in the world of digital products

Each product in a digital product family serves a different purpose for a user. The recent merge of Google Workplace is a good example of this type of digital product family. From a user’s viewpoint, these products are like different entrance points into the family, one can link to another in one experience. A user would expect these transactions to be smooth and customised to the task the user has in hand. Although there are no supply chain components to jiggle, each product within the family still has to find ways to share data and then present data in a way that does not break a user’s experience. 

Digital product families that some of us use at STBY.

One of the research questions that keeps reappearing in our studies of product families, is how people decide when to use which tool. Followed by questions such as how can we improve user experiences not only for one tool, but taking into consideration everything that is going on in a family of products? These are our lessons learnt while studying project families: 

Lesson 1:  Discuss how much weight should be put on each product by defining a clear scope 

Work with the client team to make sure you have a good understanding of what the focus is of the research within the family. Not all products should be treated equally in a family. Studying multiple products together means you only get a glimpse at each product briefly. A well-defined scope and clear research questions are essential to make sure there is room for learning about enough details without losing sight of the bigger picture. Allow enough time to discuss and negotiate how much weight should be put on each product with the client and their stakeholders from different product teams. When it comes to analysis, it’s a good idea to always go back to this agreed scope whenever you feel like drowning in the data and in too many ‘interesting’ discoveries in the stories you’ve collected. Remind yourself what’s the main purpose of this study and what the team is expecting to get out of the research. If the discovery still feels exciting (and important) after going through your list of research questions, it’s time to have a good discussion with the client and see what to do with it – it might lead to a more in-depth study in the future. 

Lesson 2: Make space for the ‘other tools’ mentioned in a user’s story

When investigating multiple products, we ask people to recall a scenario where they have to interact with multiple products, then zoom in to discuss how they jump between different products. These moments of product switching help us understand what the user is trying to achieve, rather than what they can do within the limit of a single product. The data of how people use ‘the other tools’ then bring inspiration for exploring opportunities later on. The design team can soon develop some ideas around integration or adding/reducing features in one product based on what they see the users do with the ‘other tools’.

Lesson 3: Make the research outcomes transferable to different product teams

Working with a product family often means that your research outcomes will be used by people from more than one product team. The client may take them to other stakeholders to initiate conversations that impact multiple workstreams. Therefore, it’s important that the research work is transferable and helps open up conversations. Here are a few things we tried to get research insights across the borders of product teams: 

-Creating internal websites
Internal websites are often used as a hub for the client to introduce to his colleagues in different product teams (PMs, designers, developers, and other researchers) to what we found in these cross-product journeys. We create these internal sites as part of the project deliverables.  

-Creating short videos
Short videos are another form we often use for communicating to both managers and designers and can be easily added to presentations. Animations can offer a clear view of how products interact with each other from a bird-eye view, while clips of user demonstrations of jumping around products create great empathy for designers to feel what it’s like to be the user. Making printed materials
In a few occasions, we have also created posters of key research findings and postcards to be shown on internal exhibitions when all product teams physically gather in one space. It is not only about creating exposures to other teams and senior management, but also about making connections. Being able to display the research in a visual way to allow by-passers to stop and have chat is usually how cross-team collaboration starts.

-Structuring empirical data for future re-visits
At STBY we are proud of how we structure and share our qualitative data with the client. Our data is always carefully categorised in a way that allows us to go back again and again to mine for insights. It means the analysis does not end at the end of the project, we (or the client) can do a second or third round of review based on the same data, and gradually refine the outputs to meet the needs of different product teams or internal stakeholders. It also means that when a new project starts, we can quickly identify some initial data set that can help shape the research questions or scope, even when it is done for a different product team.

Many of these lessons are reflections from our learning in progress, we cannot say that we have mastered the art of studying digital product families. With more and more companies developing multiple digital product offerings that meet the multiple needs of users, we hope our learning will open up some new conversations about user research for digital product families.

References:

  • Jiao, J et al. (2007) Product family design and platform-based product development: a state-of-the-art review. J Intell Manuf (2007) 18:5–29. DOI 10.1007/s10845-007-0003-2
  • Pine, B. J. (1993). Mass customization: The new frontier in business competition. Boston: Harvard Business School Press

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