The Product Design Process Explained: The 2024 Guide

Great products fit seamlessly into our daily lives, but they don’t just happen by chance.

They’re the result of extensive research and problem-solving, creative ideation and innovation, and a ton of human empathy—otherwise known as the product design process. 

Are you curious about how awesome products are designed and made? Want to know how product designers come up with their ideas and bring them to life? 

Then, keep reading for a step-by-step breakdown of the product design process. 

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  1. What is product design?
  2. What is the product design process?
  3. The 5 steps in the product design process
  4. Beyond the product design process: What happens next?
  5. Key takeaways

Let’s begin!

1. What is product design?

Product design is both a technical and creative discipline with one main goal: to conceive and create successful products. 

In the context of product design, a successful product is one that fills a gap in the target market, helps to meet business objectives, and solves a specific problem for the people who will use it. 

The product in question might be a physical product—like a selfie stick, a kettle, or an electric toothbrush—or a digital product, like a mobile app, an e-learning platform, or a video game. Product design encompasses anything, tangible or intangible, that can be used, experienced, or interacted with in some way.

Product design is steeped in research, strategy, and business. It considers the end users’ needs and goals, as well as market trends and opportunities. It also factors in the big-picture vision for the business, considering how the product will help the company to drive revenue, attract new customers, and shape the brand identity. 

And, most importantly, it covers the design of the product itself—focusing on the form, function, and appearance of the product—as well as the user experience (UX) it provides. 

That’s product design in brief. For a more in-depth definition, check out our beginner-friendly guide to product design—and explore how product design differs from UX design

2. What is the product design process?

The product design process is the general framework that product designers follow to create new products or improve existing ones. 

The process is not set in stone. Every product designer has their own approach depending on both the product and the industry. You can imagine how the process of designing a vacuum cleaner might differ from the process of designing a mobile app, for example. 

But, whatever the product, every product design process comprises thorough research, hands-on design, product testing, and continuous iteration. And most importantly, the product design process is always firmly rooted in design thinking. 

What is design thinking, and what’s it got to do with the product design process?

Design thinking is a problem-solving framework that centers on the end user.  

Despite the name, it’s not exclusively focused on design. Rather, it’s about coming up with solutions to real human problems. As such, design thinking can be applied in almost any context to address complex social issues, improve the human experience in educational or healthcare settings, devise business models and strategies, or resolve conflict and improve collaboration among teams. 

The design thinking process focuses on cultivating empathy for the end user, defining a specific ‘human’ problem you’ll seek to solve, brainstorming potential solutions, and prototyping and testing those solutions. 

The product design process closely mirrors this approach. It begins with extensive research to empathize with the target audience before moving on to ideation, design, and testing. 

Ultimately, design thinking fosters an empathetic, user-first approach. By adopting a design thinking mindset, product designers can ensure that they’re prioritizing their target users. The better they understand their users’ needs, goals, and challenges, the more effectively they can design products that appeal to a specific audience. 

In summary, design thinking and product design go firmly hand-in-hand! Now, let’s explore the product design process step by step. 

3. The 5 steps in the product design process

The product design process can be broken down into five key steps:

Let’s zoom in to see what happens at each stage.

Step 1: Research

The first step in the product design process is research. 

The research phase is critical for understanding the context around the product: the market it’s competing in, the users it will serve, and the business goals it should fulfill. 

All of this context shapes the direction the product will take, ensuring that it’s something the target audience will actually want and need—and that it aligns with the business’s strategic objectives. 

As part of product research, you might:

  • Conduct user interviews, surveys, card sorting exercises, diary studies, and other forms of user research to get to know the target audience and empathize with their needs and pain-points.
  • Create user personas (or user persona spectrums) to summarize and represent the different types of users and / or needs you want to design for.
  • Define the end user problem your product should address.
  • Conduct market research to uncover trends and opportunities.
  • Research existing products in order to understand the competitive landscape and identify opportunities for differentiation.
  • Conduct stakeholder interviews to understand the business goals the product should help to fulfill, as well as the long-term product vision. 
  • Collaborate with internal stakeholders to determine what resources are available, both technological and financial, for creating (or improving) the product.

The research phase is all about exploration, discovery, and understanding. Once you fully understand your target audience, your target market, and the business goals, you’re well-positioned to come up with a great product. 

Step 2: Ideation

Next up in the product design process: ideation. 

During the research phase, you defined the user problem you want to solve. Now the goal is to come up with potential solutions to that problem. 

This step is closely modeled on design thinking, which views ideation as a strictly judgment-free zone. Designers are encouraged to ideate collaboratively, to think outside the box, and to focus on quantity over quality. Who knows what awesome ideas you’ll come up with when you’re given full creative freedom?! 

Some popular ideation techniques used by product designers include:

  • Group brainstorming sessions involving key stakeholders and fellow designers.
  • Crazy 8s—a Design Sprint technique that involves sketching eight unique ideas in eight minutes, with the goal of rapid and diverse ideation.
  • Mindmapping, a visual ideation technique that builds a map of interconnected ideas branching off from a central theme or concept. 
  • Reverse thinking—a lateral thinking technique that focuses on the exact opposite of what you want to achieve. For example, if your goal is to design a product or feature that improves the online dating experience for millennials, a reverse thinking approach would be to consider: How can we ensure a terrible online dating experience for millennials? The ideas you come up with for the opposite challenge may bring you closer to what your users actually need.
  • Concept sketching and storyboarding to visually capture how different solutions might look and function. This helps to identify potential flaws and validate or disqualify ideas early on. 

The ideation stage isn’t about coming up with a fully-fledged, entirely feasible concept—at least not to begin with. But, as you work through different ideas, you’ll naturally start narrowing it down to a handful of promising avenues that are worth exploring further. 

Step 3: Design

After ideation comes design—the part of the product design process where ideas are brought to life!

During the design phase, product ideas are developed into more refined concepts. The focus turns to how the product might look and function, as well as the materials and / or technologies that will be used to build the product. 

This step in the process varies considerably depending on the product in question. For digital products such as apps and websites, the design stage might include:

  • Defining the product’s information architecture.
  • Creating low-fidelity sketches and wireframes to map out the initial structure of the product.
  • Applying UX design principles to ensure that the product is usable, user-friendly, and accessible.
  • User interface (UI) design; creating all the visual and interactive elements that determine how the product looks and functions. This includes things like icons, colors, typography, buttons, animations, and images.
  • Working with a UX writer to craft the messaging and microcopy that will feature throughout the product.
  • Creating interactive, high-fidelity prototypes that replicate how the product will look and function once it’s developed.

For physical products, the design phase might include:

  • Sketching and rendering—using computer software to create 2D or 3D digital mock-ups of the product’s form and features.
  • CAD modeling—using CAD software to develop more detailed 3D product models.
  • Determining which materials will be used to build the product and the various product components or features.
  • Creating physical prototypes to replicate how the product will look and function in real life.

No matter what type of product you’re designing, the design phase focuses on the product’s form and function, as well as the overall user experience it provides. The end goal, of course, is to design a product that’s easy and enjoyable to use—and that effectively solves a specific user problem. 

The design phase doesn’t result in a market-ready product, though. Far from it! Usually, you’ll end up with an MVP—a minimum viable product—that you can take forward for product testing. 

Step 4: Testing and iteration

The penultimate step in the product design process focuses on testing and iteration.

Before you send the product off to be built or developed, it’s essential to test your prototypes, gather feedback, and address any usability issues or general design flaws. 

The testing phase should involve real users (or test participants who closely represent your target users) and internal stakeholders. 

Product testing and iteration usually encompasses:

  • Usability testing—asking users to complete certain tasks with the product prototype and evaluating through observation/usability metrics (such as task completion time or error rate) how easy it is to interact with the product in its current form.
  • Conducting user interviews to gather qualitative feedback on the product and identify areas for improvement.
  • Conducting stakeholder interviews and design reviews to gather internal feedback on the design and ensure that the product aligns with business goals.
  • Improving and updating product prototypes based on both user and stakeholder feedback.

Note that the product may go through several rounds of testing and iteration before it’s ready to be built. Once you’re confident that the product is functional, usable, and desirable—and that it’s feasible from a business perspective—you can take it forward for development. 

Step 5: Development and launch

In the final stage of the product design process, product prototypes are handed over for development.

This step requires close collaboration with developers or manufacturers, depending on the nature of the product. The product designer shares all the technical specifications, documentation, and design assets necessary for bringing the product to life.

This is known as the “design handoff”, and it typically involves:

  • Presenting final designs to key stakeholders, including developers/manufacturers.
  • Compiling and sharing relevant design assets such as prototypes, style guides, and technical specs.
  • Establishing a feedback loop between the design, development, and product teams.

Once the product has been built and quality assurance checks are complete, it’s ready for launch! 

4. Beyond the product design process: What happens next?

We’ve set out a linear product design process with a seemingly clear-cut end point. But, in reality, the product design process is ongoing. Once the product has been built and launched, the product designer will continue to monitor and iterate on the product.

They might run A/B tests to compare different versions of certain features and conduct ongoing usability tests to improve the user experience. They will also monitor the target market to identify new opportunities to deliver additional end-user and business value.

A successful product isn’t static. It must evolve in line with the market and continuously adapt to the target users’ needs. As such, the product design process is never really finished. 

5. Key takeaways

The product design process is, at its core, a problem-solving endeavor. It’s about understanding the challenges your target users face and coming up with effective solutions—then designing those solutions to ensure that they’re desirable, usable, and accessible. 

At the same time, the product design process seeks to balance user needs against business goals. The most effective products don’t only deliver value to the end user; they also help to drive business growth and achieve strategic objectives. 

And, while the product design process is highly adaptable, every successful product is rooted in continuous research, ideation, design, testing, and iteration. You can’t build an effective product without those steps!

Looking to dive into the world of Product Design? Try our free short course or speak with a program advisor.

Want to learn more about how product designers create amazing products? Check out these guides:

What You Should Do Now

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  3. Become a qualified product designer in 5-10 months—backed by the CareerFoundry job guarantee.

  4. This February, we’re offering a limited-time deal worth up to $1,365 off—on all of our career-change programs 🎉 Book your application call and secure your spot now!

     

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