In this article we’ll cover everything you need to know about digital product development, its phases, roles and responsibilities as well as some of the best practices.
Creating a digital product from scratch is no easy task. There are always a lot of things to define even before the beginning of the process, and even more to uncover as you go. But although challenging, with the right approach digital product development is the process full of exciting discoveries and is absolutely worth it in the end.
Let’s dive deeper into the whole process and see how you can apply it in your own projects!
What is digital product development?
Digital product development is the process used to create digital products. At a high level, it starts with project establishment, then proceeds to research, design, coding, testing, deployment, and release cycling.
The term ‘digital product’ refers to a software program or app which delivers a service to customers. Digital products that you’re probably using include: banking, messaging and entertainment websites; word processing and image editing programs on your computer; and literally any mobile app.
In a plane-language sense, a digital product is any object related to some form of digital process – so it could include devices like phones and even TVs; however, this article is about the software kind of digital product.
Product Development vs. Feature Development
Inevitably, product teams are involved in the creation of new or refined features for existing products, rather than the creation of entirely new products. Examples of this include making the image upload experience better in a messaging app or providing the ability to perform calculations in tables in a word processing program.
Feature development like this is often still referred to as product development, and the same process applies to both.
Who is involved in a digital product development team?
Although people in roles as varied as CEO, Marketing Manager, and Customer Success Agent all have an influence and perhaps some involvement in digital product development, the team responsible for delivering the outcomes consists of these roles as a minimum:
Product Manager – whose main responsibility is the smooth running of the project, including reaching business goals, planning, briefing, and coordination.
Product Designer (or UX Designer) – whose main responsibility is to create visual artifacts, including user experience diagrams, wireframes, high fidelity design, prototypes, and associated documentation.
Engineer (or Developer or Programer) – whose main responsibility is to write and test the product code and deploy the product releases for use in the wild.
This essential digital product development team may be complimented by any of the following roles:
UX Researcher – to provide insights into user feedback, user data, and possible design patterns.
UX Writer – to write the copy for introductions, buttons, and everything else.
Information Architect – to ensure the user journey makes sense and supports user goals.
Product Owner – to liaise with users and the rest of the product team, to manage the product backlog.
QA Tester – to ensure the coded product enables user goals and matches the design.
Product Marketer – to encourage product uptake and feature utilization.
In addition, a whole raft of senior and super-senior roles, such as Chief Product Officer and Creative Director are added to the organization scale. However, these roles rarely operate in a dedicated way to deliver digital products in a single product team.
Digital Product Development team structure
There are many philosophies on how to organize a digital product development team. What we’ve seen most is groups consisting of at least the Manager, Designer, and Engineer roles, often with one Manager, one or two Designers, and several Engineers (though this ratio varies).
Teams can be split into groups based on different products, product features, customer segments, customer journeys, or special projects. Common management approaches, such as Agile, profess various team organization approaches. Furthermore, teams sometimes change their grouping in response to other changes.
The goal of team organization is to provide the best outcomes with the available resources, which is not easy and changes often. Therefore, the ‘best’ team structure is different for every team.
An overview of digital product development
The diagram below summarizes the steps in creating a digital product. The main phase, labeled Development, is preceded by preliminary work to establish the product concept. Following the Development Phase, the process becomes an iterative cycle.
If the organization operates on a strictly Agile method, the steps may not be sequential as shown; however, some version of each step would still be undertaken.
Preliminary Phase: First steps in Digital Product Development
Business Plan (or organizational goals)
Seeing the digital product development process in the context of starting and running a business should help you form an understanding of its purpose and value. If you’re starting a business or new enterprise, it’s wise to write a business plan outlining the product, marketing, team, finances, goals and everything else relevant to your new venture.
The product to be sold is central to success, and its formation, evolution and life cycle are affected by everything else in your business plan.
In my experience, organizations’ product direction is not usually well-articulated in their business plan, and furthermore, due to its financial nature, the business plan may not be available to those creating digital products. Also, it’s not uncommon for the business plan to be out-of-date or non-existent!
However, almost all founders carry a good idea of the product in their head and use that to make decisions, as well as kick-off product development.
Whether it’s from the business plan, founder’s imagination, or the domain expertise of other stakeholders, the very first ‘pre-step’ in digital product development is for decision-makers to have an understanding of what the product should be and what features it will possess.
Ryan Singer, founder of Basecamp, talked about this in the Full Stack Radio podcast:
“There’s this huge open field… and if you give that to a team under a time box, you’re not setting them up for success. So the shaping work is where we’re actually doing design work at a very rough level…
We’re answering the hardest technical questions, we know the main load-bearing points of the structure, and we’re eliminating the biggest unknowns and the biggest risks, so that we don’t give a team a project that has big holes in it because we can’t expect them to finish it and ship it if there are big unknowns from the beginning in what the thing even is.”
I’ve seen this kind of shaping documented in very rough design layouts, flow charts and other diagrams, as well as spreadsheets of features and associated notes. The trick with shaping is to ensure that the team understands its preliminary and sketchy nature, while still benefiting from the expertise that has gone into it. Shaping is not a substitute for any other stage in the digital product development process, but rather a guide to the direction of the project.
Digital Product Strategy
Forming a digital product strategy directly influenced by your business plan or shaping is another pre-step in digital product creation.
Essentially, a digital product strategy is the plan which describes what needs to happen for the product to come into existence and be made available for its audience of users. It should outline the steps, team, and budget for product development, as well as the nature of releases, milestones, and ultimate goals.
Development Phase: The Digital Product Development Guide
The Product Manager, Product Designer and Engineer (at a minimum) should all be involved in every stage of the Development Phase. Although their involvement will vary relative to the nature of each stage, their individual expertise and perspective will create a more cohesive and higher quality project.
1. Discovery and Brief formation
If shaping and product strategy has been undertaken, the product team should first review those, question any assumptions, and confirm the direction. Regardless of shaping or strategy, the following steps may be taken to establish the works within the product team.
- Form an understanding of the problem to be addressed
Find out as much as you can about the problem: Who are the users? When and how do they encounter the issue which this work will fix? How important is it to them and to us? What is the history within our organization? How do competitors address this or similar problems?
Find data, or preferably conduct user testing, competitor analysis, and trend analysis to grow your understanding.
- Develop a general approach to the solution
Start off with brainstorming or card sorting, storyboarding, mind mapping, and other ideation techniques, then spend some time creating different approach options and later review and refine them. User testing may be performed on wireframes to assess their effectiveness and confirm the direction.
Product Managers will have different approaches to this, but generally some document outlining the works to be done will be created, often in a tool like Confluence. This would include a description of the problem to be addressed, as well as all the technical information required by the team to deliver the project, the constraints, and documentation of any proposed approach in the form of spreadsheets and wireframe drawings, as well as diagrams from a whiteboarding tool like Miro or Figjam.
Defining internal stakeholders and sharing the brief for their endorsement is also part of this stage. Create presentations suitable to that audience, to relay the problem, proposed approach, data/evidence, timing, and costs.
Although Product Designers will have been part of the Discovery stage, it’s good practice for designers to start any design work by questioning the brief. Beyond that, just like Product Managers, Designers will also have their own approach to developing layouts.
Some designers start with very low-fidelity concepts and use those to gather consensus on approach. Others will start with diagrammatic flows to build empathy with users and assess options. Others still will jump straight into high-fidelity design to express the options. All of these are valid approaches, although each may be more suitable to different assignments.
Designers should consider the most appropriate approach and challenge themselves to take a different tactic depending on the situation. Tools for this work are generally Figma, Sketch, Figjam and Miro, but potentially Photoshop and even Loom are in the Designer’s tool kit here.
During the Discovery and Design stages, it’s important for Designers and Product Managers to remember their friends — the Engineers. Without Engineering input, it’s easy for things to evolve in directions which are not in the scope: they’re simply too complicated to create in code.
User testing should continue through the Design stage to validate and progress the design.
The digital product development engineering team is likely to subscribe to some variation of one of the following management methodologies:
Waterfall is the ‘classic’ approach, where one stage needs to be completed before the next can begin. This can be quick, but gets messy if things change as the project progresses, since it doesn’t allow for reworking previous stages.
Agile is specifically geared to digital product development, allowing for adaptability to changing requirements and continuous improvement, emphasizing flexibility, collaboration, and incremental development. Within its extensive guidelines, Agile involves iterative cycles of planning, execution, and review.
DevOps attempts to address some issues of Agile by combining development (Dev) and IT operations (Ops) to enable faster and more reliable digital product delivery. It involves collaboration, automation, and continuous integration and delivery to ensure that software is developed and delivered efficiently and effectively.
Lean focuses on delivering only what is necessary for the product’s success, aiming for resource efficiency and quick turnaround without sacrificing quality. It is often referred to as ‘Agile’ methodology, since it has some similarities to Agile.
In theory, the Product Management, Product Design, and associated teams might need to follow the same methodology as the Engineering team. However, since each discipline has its own quirks, best practices, and tools, this is not necessarily the case. It is possible for each team to work its own methodology and coordinate to deliver the product.
Just as Engineers need to be involved in the Design stage, Designers can bring their expertise to the Engineering stage. Often in collaboration with QAs and Engineers, Designers should be frequently checking the coded product and documenting any ways in which it is not meeting the design intent.
Alternatively, if the design cannot be built for any reason, the Designer is required to refine the design in this stage.
4. Pre-release testing
Throughout the first three stages, versions of the product should be tested by internal groups and through external user tests. As the Engineering stage nears completion, the coded product will come under greater testing scrutiny from QA testers, Product Managers, and Designers.
It’s normal for digital products to go through Alpha and then Beta testing with ‘real’ users before the product is deployed, based on a release candidate version of the product. Best practice for Alpha and Beta testing involves careful selection of certain user profiles, close attention to use sessions by the product development team, and gathering ‘exit’ data from users at the conclusion of the Alpha and Beta tests.
The intention of the pre-release testing stage is to confirm everything works as expected, uncover any bugs by testing on a larger group, and gain user feedback. Insights gained from this stage are generally turned into tickets in Jira or a similar issue tracking tool for Engineers to address before the product is finalized for launch.
5. Launch and initial post-launch
The main technical parts of a product or feature launch are handled by the Engineering team, but successful launches should follow a well-defined launch strategy, which often involves many different teams across the business. One common method is a ‘soft launch’ to a smaller audience to help generate interest before a larger official launch.
Other approaches include a full ‘big bang’ launch, a staggered launch, or a phased launch. Each method has its advantages and drawbacks, and the choice depends on factors such as the product’s complexity, target audience, and market competition.
A big bang launch can generate significant buzz and media attention, but it also entails higher risks and costs. A staggered launch can help create a sense of exclusivity by opening up availability to select groups at different times, although it may require more marketing efforts to maintain momentum. A phased launch, where the product is released in stages, can provide valuable insights, but can also be challenging to coordinate and manage and may dilute marketing impact.
Regardless of the launch strategy, analytics tools should be used to monitor and optimize the product’s performance.
Analyzing how users are interacting with your digital product will help identify areas for improvement and fine-tune the user experience. Customer support should also be taken into account, since good support experiences build customer loyalty and drive positive reviews and referrals.
Furthermore, a solid marketing effort is required to position a new brand and communicate the benefits of new product features, while sales, finance, ops, and other teams may also contribute to a successful launch.
Iterative Phase: Release cycling for digital products
Following their launch, almost all digital products are in a continuous state of improvement, which is the result of an iterative release cycle. This is initiated by feedback from users and others, which is then shaped into work units, which in-turn are run through the digital product development stages and included in the release of a new update to the product.
This cycle can continue indefinitely and include minor and major changes of all kinds.
5 things to keep in mind when developing a digital product
- Users are the key to success: seek out their insights and take them to heart.
- It’s OK for the different functional teams to use different project methodologies.
- Always be open to the perspectives of people in all other teams.
- A product that is very good for users, but is late, beats one that is bad, but on-time.
- Understanding business goals informs product development.
5 digital product development mistakes to avoid
- Minimum viable products (MVP) might be a huge risk to your brand and long-term success.
- Don’t set design too early: any visual thing created before the Design stage is disposable.
- Don’t burn knowledge: if your team uses shaping, ensure any wisdom from it is revered.
- Don’t think you can’t research. UX Researches are amazing, but without one, you can still pick up the essentials to conduct valuable research.
- Don’t stop testing and improving.
Product development is a process of processes which sits inside a bigger process!
Digital product development is broad and complex. In many ways, it’s actually a process made up of other processes – management, design, engineering, marketing – each of which is very complex in itself. Go up a level to see that digital product development actually sits in the context of the entire business process.
Whatever stage of digital product development your product is in, or whatever role you play in the product, UXtweak provides research tools to help you gain insights to progress to the best possible outcome.