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The Producer’s Guide to Navigating Product Design Reviews

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When a marketing client asks, “Can you take a look at our product?” naturally, you say yes. After all, your agency is known for its design capabilities and talent. Maybe your creative team has recently hired a designer well-versed in buttons, forms, and design systems. Besides, isn’t a product design review just another design review? What could go wrong?

Unfortunately, many agency teams find themselves in challenging situations after diving into clients’ product designs without fully understanding what they’ve gotten themselves into. Often, these agencies:

  • Fail to grasp how products differ from digital designs for marketing.
  • Assume they can handle it like a regular design review, basing their feedback primarily on aesthetic judgments and personal preferences.
  • Underestimate the depth and breadth a true product design review demands.

 

To help you avoid these pitfalls, it’s crucial to understand precisely what’s at stake and arm your team with tools (such as our playbook) that can help turn these challenges into opportunities. Done correctly, a product design review can build trust with your client and pave the way for more meaningful design work. Successful teams recognize that the review is the first step in the design process, not just a task to get out of the way before the “real work” begins.

So, what exactly is a “product”?

Identifying a product is easy. Your client might have an app, a piece of software, an e-commerce platform, or another digital tool somebody, a user, interacts with to get something done. On the surface, products might resemble other digital campaign work. They use familiar design elements like images, copy, videos, buttons, forms, and navigation. However, while campaign work is rooted in brand strategy and creative vision, products have a broader foundation that sets them apart. Key differences include:

  • Products aim to address a user’s challenge or meet a specific need. Without comprehending the user, their context, challenges, or reasons for using the product, it’s impossible to know if they work well or not.
  • Products are dynamic, containing multiple design states. Their appearance and functionality can vary based on user status, past behaviors, or internal algorithms. Without understanding these states, you risk overlooking significant portions of the user experience.
  • Products are technically intricate. Their underlying software could be off the shelf, proprietary, or a mix. Every system has unique constraints and capabilities, understood mostly by its developers. Without understanding the client’s development situation, design recommendations are easy to dismiss.
  • Products are systemic entities. They’re not merely an amalgamation of visual design components. They’re integrated systems liaising with teams of engineers, researchers, product managers, IT professionals, customer support, sales, and marketing personnel. Evaluating any product necessitates an appreciation of the organizational structure supporting it.
  • Products are systems and are integrated. While products utilize design systems defining buttons, widgets, and reusable UI components, that is only the surface-level system. Products involve entire teams and tools of engineers, researchers, product managers, IT staff, customer support, sales, and finally – marketing clients. Evaluating a product requires an awareness of its context and teams supporting it.

Can’t we just do a typical design review?

It’s understandable why creative teams might think so. They’re seasoned, having crafted multimillion-dollar campaigns for global clients. Reviewing designs is what they’ve been trained to do and they practice it every day. Besides, production teams have playbooks for normal design reviews. Why not use that and move forward?

Because it doesn’t work and your team and agency could take a big hit for it. As we alluded to previously, there are some pitfalls to doing a product design review the wrong way. Here’s what that looked like for an agency:

A global agency got hired by a computer hardware company to revamp their e-commerce website. The team came in with high energy, eager to prove themselves with this new client. They quickly evaluated the site and thought, “This design seems too complex. We can streamline this, remove the excess, and make it much simpler.” They were confident about their proposed sleek redesign. But, the moment they presented it, they could tell something was off. The client’s team was less than thrilled. As it turned out, what seemed like a “cluttered” design to the agency was, in fact, a meticulously planned network of interconnected pages, tailored for different users on different journeys. And surprisingly, the analytics showed that users actually liked the so-called “confusing” navigation. The agency found itself in a bind. They had underestimated the site’s complexity and had to figure out a way to take a more rigorous approach if they wanted to keep the project.

How should a proper product design review look?

In order for a product design review to be successful, it takes a strong, clear production perspective to frame the activity as something different followed with the know-how to plan for what it takes. Our guide, “The Art of Product Design Reviews: A Producer’s Playbook” contains them all, but some important factors are:

  • Inclusive Teams: It’s not merely about having designers in a meeting. Successful reviews involve client-side allies and a diversified team spanning strategy, design, and development.
  • Adaptable Strategies: A product design review isn’t a cursory afternoon task. Although it can be expedited, it must balance rigor with flexibility in order to be taken seriously and responsive to what is uncovered.
  • Compelling Storytelling: This is where the design process begins. Evaluations and judgments must cater to both analytical and creative stakeholders. Framing your narrative appropriately and with sensitivity will open the door to more possibilities.

 

With these principles in mind, the scenario could have played out much differently:

When the computer hardware manufacturer tasked an agency with revamping their e-commerce site, the agency knew they had to approach the project differently because this was a product, not just a marketing execution. Instead of jumping into design markups, they started with an honest product design review. They assembled a diverse team of designers, strategists, and analysts to ensure a comprehensive and unbiased perspective. They engaged in discovery immediately, seeking to understand not just what they could see through the browser, but the underlying business goals, user needs, and the intricacies of the existing site. Instead of letting personal aesthetics and gut reactions drive their review, the producer facilitated review sessions and coded their insights, providing clear, actionable feedback. They developed a structured approach that balanced user needs with business goals, and clearly prioritized their recommendations. The ECD appreciated how their design recommendations went beyond visual tweaks into deeper creative territories. The agency suggested changes that blended brand storytelling with utility and efficiency. The client was impressed with the agency’s smart thinking and wanted to get to work immediately on bringing that vision to life.

This isn’t a fairy tale. It’s a real-life account of an agency we collaborated with. They leveraged our expertise to review and analyze the client’s product, which culminated in additional assignments and bigger budgets.

Whether you’re embarking on a new product design review or refining an existing one, the right mindset, methodology, and support can elevate your team’s performance. Dive into “The Art of Product Design Reviews: A Producer’s Playbook” to navigate the intricacies of even the most challenging product design reviews and get those wins for your team and agency.