What is product thinking and why does it matter?

Ward Andrews
By Ward Andrews
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We know that customer experience is central to any product. We know the seven dimensions that are central to customer experience, and we know what qualifies as good customer experience is ultimately in the eyes of the beholder - your customers.

But the road to good customer experience can be full of potholes. How do you navigate such a treacherous path? One key way is through product thinking.

What is product thinking?

Product thinking answers the question, “What makes your product useful?”

People buy products to solve real problems. Product thinking helps you identify what those problems are and how your product solves them.

By employing product thinking, we see the product as a whole rather than just focusing on the features of the product. We try to solve the problems of our customers with meaningful solutions that deliver delight and real value.

How is product thinking different from design thinking?

Design thinking asks what features will make your product as useful as possible. It’s a cyclical process that helps continuously answer detailed questions about how people need the product to look, feel, and work. But without the product, there are no features to design.

Product thinking can deliver a more holistic view of a product than design thinking. It’s the big picture of why your product exists in the first place. It’s the common purpose behind all of your combined actions as an organization. It’s the reason you’re doing the work you do.

In design thinking we create a lot of maps. Empathy maps and journey maps help us orient ourselves to where we are in the product development process and where we need to go next.

Maps are useful to show you where you’re going and how to get there. Product thinking is like the globe that gives you a model of the entire world that you’re mapping.

Product and design thinking are in constant communication with each other. To mix metaphors, product thinking steers the ship while design thinking is in the engine room giving feedback to the captain about what’s working or not to keep the ship moving in the right direction.

Product thinking is not just for product managers

It’s easy to assume that maintaining a strategic and holistic perspective on your product is only the responsibility of the product manager and business leaders. But that’s not enough.

In order for a product to be successful, everybody on the team must hone their product thinking skills. It’s nearly impossible to build great products without everybody having an understanding of what the product means to customers and why it exists in the first place.

Everybody in the organization needs this mindset and commitment to stand on a common purpose. That’s because everybody in the organization in some way shapes the customer experience.

Like most things in business, leaders are often responsible for deciding on and setting the vision and purpose. Product thinking is the connective tissue that ties that bigger vision to the detailed decisions produced by design thinking.

Why does product thinking matter and how do I do it?

Product thinking is central to good UX design because it prevents us from building things that nobody wants. The point of product thinking is to make sure we’re focusing on the full user experience, not just a collection of nice features.

Without product thinking, it can be easy to get lost in creating good design and experiences and forget the core reason that customers hired your product in the first place.

Here are three basic steps to help make sure you’re thinking in terms of product first and features second:

  1. Identify the customer and their problem to be solved. You need to be sure you’re solving a real problem that real people need to solve.
  2. Uncover the jobs the product is hired to do. You need to know why you’re building the product and how it’s going to solve the core needs of your customers.
  3. Identify the desired outcomes. At the end of the day, you need a vision of what you want to achieve with the product and features that will help you achieve that vision.

Let’s help you improve your product thinking.

Drawbackwards is uniquely positioned to help your organization define a common purpose because we’ve worked on all three levels of product development, from strategy and vision, to product thinking, to design thinking.

Let’s talk about what’s missing from your strategy and how we can help.