Product market fit and product design thinking is in trouble

There’s a lot of ways to define product-market fit success. 

The obvious success is sales followed by sales growth. Nothing looks better than having your product adopted by a lot of people.

How you get there has a lot to do with product design but also the framework of design, which is a challenging problem for many businesses. More likely than not, your product fails in the marketplace because of the framework of design. And in some cases, you did not pay attention to innovation and the three states of innovation as described by Clayton Christensen.  

A recent article by Harvard Business Review discusses design thinking versus grand design. The company WeChat is used as an example. Design thinking and its user-centric perspective are popular today, but consultants and academics think it’s too structured. The authors argue the grand design approach to product innovation can be more effective than design thinking under certain circumstances.

At the heart of design thinking is the notion that you care about the user. You’re empathetic to their needs and concerns. Grand design thinking is a selective approach hearing advice from the users. You try to drive them to something, not to agree to something they already imagine. There’s a bit of a worry if we listen to everything from design thinking, which often results in increased complexity and loss of coherence. By adopting this ‘dumb user’ perspective of grand design you can create a product that reaches volumes.  

Grand design thinking gives less freedom to the collective. There is a faith in a handful of people understanding what the problem is and how to solve it. One big downside is the wrong egos in the room and this top-down stewardship can fail miserably. The idea of design thinking favors the leadership and their coaching style.

In the course of my career, leading with conviction drives incredible product. Yet, at the same time ignoring the market misses the broader goal of selling.

This is one of the great articles that get you to think, that you can reference back for years. I just don’t agree that this is the framework. This defines two methods with not much in between. Any one method has limitations and with experience, you find blends of methods to fit the business model. I believe a combination of both grand design and design thinking produces products that sell. Too often we try to bucket. Why can’t you mix different methods of grand design and design thinking into something that’s more sensible and less polarizing? I don’t think this article reaches deep enough into successful products and gives a true measure of how to build a framework that improves success dramatically.

For example, Apple throughout its history is a mixture of both. We all hear about Steve Jobs and his fish tank product testing example, but this is a sophisticated company that uses many methods to build products that sell. United Airlines’ loyalty program combines both methods. In some cases parts of the app they use to keep hundreds of thousands active, you have different methods within the same app.  

Oreck used a multitude of methods, starting with grand design, then utilized design thinking to round out the product. Of course, that was well over a decade ago. Modern applications like SpiderOak start with a grand design at the foundation level and incorporate design thinking where customer input matters. 

In the end, when businesses are too rigid in their product design they fail. Having a healthy mix of listening to customers and solving jobs-to-be-done is how you can create sustainable market share.

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