What is Digital Product Design?

What is Digital Product Design? by Paul DeVay

Product Design
An imprecise, iterative process to solve a functional problem with a formal solution.


The spectrum of design tasks. Integration where Product Management and Development overlap with design are key to being “design-minded”.


Integrating the design process into the development process.


Driving Innovation as a Product Manager

A product leader’s job is to (1) develop innovative products that are (2) difficult for competitors to copy and (3) produce good profit margins. Represented as an equation:

(Innovation + Competitiveness + Profit) x Product = Success

In this article, let’s consider the first component of that equation: Innovation.

Innovation refers to the creation of novel ideas and development of products based on those ideas. It is a creative endeavor. In product management, I often encounter two models of how PMs are thought to drive innovation.

  1. The lone genius approach: Product manager develops innovative ideas on his own and hands the ideas over to development teams who execute on them.
  2. The creative leadership approach: Product manager leads a cross-functional team for creativity; identifying goals, setting constraints, and creating space for a collaborative creative endeavor.

The lone genius is a myth. Studying the lives of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, et al, in sufficient detail quickly reveals that they weren’t lone geniuses and did not develop their product concepts by themselves. They were all creative leaders who led their organizations through highly collaborative design journeys. While the public perception of their genius might have helped their companies’ marketing campaigns, working product managers must dispel themselves of the dangerous illusion that the products of General Electric, Ford Motor Company, Apple, or Tesla were anything but the result of thousands of people working together in a creative process, guided by creative leadership.

So how does a product leader succeed with the creative leadership approach? Some answers can be found in the output of a Harvard Business School colloquium held in 2008. The Harvard Business Review article Creativity and the Role of the Leader (by Teresa Amabile and Mukti Khaire) presents the following key insights.

Drawing on the Right Minds

The first priority of leadership is to engage the right people, at the right times, to the right degree in creative work. That engagement starts when the leader recasts the role of employees. Rather than simply roll up their sleeves and execute top-down strategy, employees must contribute imagination. As Cook put it, “Traditional management prioritizes projects and assigns people to them. But increasingly, managers are not the source of the idea.”

Tap ideas from all ranks.

[Google’s] founders tracked the progress of ideas that they had backed versus ideas that had been executed in the ranks without support from above, and discovered a higher success rate in the latter category.

Encourage and enable collaboration.

[Researcher] looked at the problem of how to achieve collaboration on radical innovations; when no obvious antecedent exists, it’s difficult for a vision to be shared. His analysis of six award-winning products (from three quite different industries) showed how product development teams used not only prototypes but also metaphors, analogies, and stories to coordinate their thinking.

Open the organization to diverse perspectives.

innovation is more likely when people of different disciplines, backgrounds, and areas of expertise share their thinking.

Bringing Process to Bear—Carefully

“If there is one device that has destroyed more innovation than any other, it is Six Sigma,” stated Mark Fishman, MD, president of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research. Bob Sutton echoed the sentiment, citing research showing that when organizations focus on process improvements too much, it hampers innovation over the long term. “The poster child here is Kodak, which kept making the process of manufacturing and distributing chemical-based film more efficient instead of devoting attention to making the shift to digital photography,” he said. “In other words, it kept getting better and better at doing the wrong thing.” For Kim Scott, the problem comes when an emphasis on efficiency causes managers to try to avoid duplication of effort. “In creative work,” she noted, “you need to have people approaching a problem from different angles.”

Map the phases of creative work.

The leader’s job is to map out the stages of innovation and recognize the different processes, skill sets, and technology support that each requires.

Know where you are in the game. Appreciate the different creative types among your people—and realize that some are better at certain phases than others. And be very tolerant of the subversive. Creative work must, like Mark Twain’s character Huck Finn, avoid all “sivilizing” influences.

Manage the commercialization handoff.

Few people have equal capabilities in idea generation and idea commercialization; that’s why large corporations normally separate the two functions. The consensus is that, eventually, an innovation reaches a point where it will be best served by people who know how to take it to market. Unfortunately, since the passion for an idea is highest among its originators, projects often lose steam at the handoff. Management’s job is to limit the loss of momentum with adroit timing and handling of the transition.

Provide paths through the bureaucracy.

The manager must act as a shepherd[…] executives must protect those doing creative work from a hostile environment and clear paths for them around obstacles.

Create a filtering mechanism.

Managers must not only water and fertilize, but also kill off the stuff that holds no potential. For every idea with real commercial promise, there are dozens that aren’t worth pursuing.

Fanning the Flames of Motivation

Motivating people to perform at their peak is especially vital in creative work. An employee uninspired to wrap her mind around a problem is unlikely to come up with a novel solution.

Provide intellectual challenge.

Researchers at Duke University research project surveyed a large R&D organization to find…

which workers were more intrinsically motivated—fired up, for example, by intellectual challenge or independence—and which were more extrinsically motivated, by such things as salary, benefits, and job security. The researchers looked at patents filed by each respondent as a reasonable proxy for innovative output. Their finding was clear: Early-stage researchers who were more motivated by intellectual challenge tended to be more productive. (Interestingly, this did not hold true among the group doing later-stage work.) A stronger desire for independence was also associated with somewhat higher productivity. It wasn’t that extrinsic motives were unimportant; a person’s greater emphasis on salary was also associated with greater productivity. The desire for intellectual challenge was, however, much more strongly linked to it.

Allow people to pursue their passions.

If the keys to creative output are indeed intellectual challenge and independence, management must find ways to provide them. In large part, that demands awareness of individuals’ interests and skills. […] some people are simply more revolutionary in their thinking than others and therefore more suited to radical projects.

Be an appreciative audience.

employees doing creative work are more motivated by managerial behavior, even seemingly little things like a sincere word of public recognition, than by monetary rewards.

Embrace the certainty of failure.

Arguably, the managerial reactions that speak loudest to creative workers are reactions to failure. […] managers must decrease fear of failure and that the goal should be to experiment constantly, fail early and often, and learn as much as possible in the process.

Provide the setting for “good work.”

work that is excellent technically, meaningful and engaging to the worker, and carried out in an ethical way.

Learn More from IDEO

IDEO has created a course called Leading for Creativity. I will provide a review of the course on this blog soon.

Influencing People

We are wired to be influenced through social means. Social influence, in fact, is so powerful that it often bypasses our cognition such that we don’t realize that we are being influenced. Here, I explore some mechanisms of social influence.

Social Proof

Social proof is an amazingly powerful influence tactic. It’s demonstrated best by the test of social influence and conformity designed by Solomon Asch.

Asch highlighted two forms of pressure towards conformity. The first is Normative Pressure–the avoidance of discomfort in disagreeing with the group. The second, more worrying condition, is Informative Pressure–the changing of one’s judgement in the belief that the majority has to be correct and, therefore, the self has to be wrong.

Informative pressure leads to strong social influence.

Alex Laskey built company called O-Power entirely based on the power of social proof.

Some other mechanisms to activate social proof:

  • Benchmarking
  • Showing endorsements of high status others
  • Calling for a vote when you have majority on your side


Symbols and signs of authority easily influence people into compliance. Titles, signaling your expertise, the way you dress, business attire, etc. elicits compliance with authority.

Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment showed how susceptible all of us are to influence by authority.

Recall, Framing, and Anchoring

Recall: We are highly influenced by very vivid imagery, by prominent events, and more recent events.

Framing: The same idea can be framed as a gain to influence the audience towards risk averse behaviors, or framed as a loss to influence the group towards more risk taking behaviors.

Anchoring: Negotiations and discussions can be anchored to either on high or low values– be it a budget estimate, a cost estimate, price, or an offer to a customer.

Sticky Messages

In their book “Made to Stick“, the Heath brothers talk about six principles of sticky messages.

  1. Simplicity: How do we find the essential core of our ideas?
    • To strip an idea down to its core, we must be masters of exclusion. We
      must relentlessly prioritize.
    • Saying something short is not the mission—sound bites are not the ideal. Proverbs are the ideal. We must create ideas that are both simple and profound.
  2. Unexpectedness: How do we get our audience to pay attention to our ideas, and how do we maintain their interest when we need time to get the ideas across?
    • We need to violate people’s expectations. We need to violate people’s expectations. We need to be counterintuitive. We must generate interest
      and curiosity.
    • How do you keep students engaged during the forty-eighth history class of the year? We can engage people’s curiosity over a long period of time by systematically “opening gaps” in their knowledge—and then filling those gaps.
  3. Concreteness: How do we make our ideas clear?
    • We must explain our ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory information.
    • Mission statements, synergies, strategies, visions—they are often ambiguous to the point of being meaningless. Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images—ice-filled bathtubs, apples with razors—because our brains are wired to remember concrete data.
  4. Credibility: How do we make people believe our ideas?
    • Sticky ideas have to carry their own credentials.
    • In the sole U.S. presidential debate in 1980 between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, Reagan could have cited innumerable statistics demonstrating the sluggishness of the economy. Instead, he asked a simple question that allowed voters to test for themselves: “Before you vote, ask yourself if you are better off
      today than you were four years ago.”
  5. Emotions: How do we get people to care about our ideas?
    • We make them feel something.
    • In the case of movie popcorn, we make them feel disgusted by its unhealthiness. The statistic “37 grams” doesn’t elicit any emotions.
  6. Stories: How do we get people to act on our ideas?
    • We tell stories.
    • Hearing stories acts as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.

Hans Rosling, in his famous TED talk, demonstrated these principles in the first 3 minutes of his talk.

Non-Verbal Influence

Top: High-power poses. Bottom: Low-power poses. Source: Carney, Cuddy, Yap 2010

Carney, Cuddy, and Yap, in their 2010 paper “Power Posing”, showed that “a person can, by assuming two simple 1-min poses, embody power and instantly become more powerful”.

There are several non-verbal mechanisms to influence others:

  • Eye-contact
  • Mirroring behavior
  • Relaxed facial expressions (vs. nervous)
  • Hand gestures:
    • Illustrational (pointing to illustrate)
    • Positive (palms up or perpendicular vs. down)
  • Firm handshake
  • Physical proximity (less than 3 feet)

May of the above gestures are highly culture-specific.

Time of Day

There is some evidence that early mornings or the time after meal breaks are the best times to engage an audience.

Danziger et al studied more than 1,000 parole decisions made by eight experienced judges in Israel over 50 days in a ten-month period. After a snack or lunch break, 65 percent of cases were granted parole. The rate of favorable rulings then fell gradually, sometimes as low as zero, within each decision session and would return to 65 percent after a break.


For more information, check out the excellent Coursera course called Influencing People, by Professors Scott DeRue and Maxim Sytch of Michigan University.


The Smart-Talk Trap

The Smart-Talk Trap by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton

Originally published in the May–June 1999 issue of Harvard Business Review


We found that a particular kind of talk is an especially insidious inhibitor of organizational action: “smart talk.” The elements of smart talk include sounding confident, articulate, and eloquent; having interesting information and ideas; and possessing a good vocabulary. But smart talk tends to have other, less benign components: first, it focuses on the negative, and second, it is unnecessarily complicated or abstract (or both). In other words, people engage in smart talk to spout criticisms and complexities. Unfortunately, such talk has an uncanny way of stopping action in its tracks.

Why Talk Prevails

Managers let talk substitute for action because that’s what they’ve been trained to do. Many executives in contemporary organizations have been to business school, and even those who don’t have M.B.A. degrees often attend executive education programs taught by business school faculty. What do they learn in those programs? That the ability to talk—and particularly to talk smart—pays.

On Complexity

Rare is the manager who stands before his or her peers to present a new strategy with a single slide and an idea that can be summarized in a sentence or two. Instead, managers congratulate themselves and one another when they come up with ideas that are so elaborate and convoluted they require two hours of multipart, multicolored slides and a liberal sprinkling of the latest buzzwords.

Organizations Who Shut the Smart-Talk Trap

1. They have leaders who know and do the work.

Companies that use talk productively—to guide and spur action—have leaders who make it a priority to learn and do the work.

2. They have a bias for plain language and simple concepts.

Companies that avoid the knowing-doing gap are often masters of the mundane. Executives devote their efforts to a few straightforward priorities that have clear implications for action. These organizations realize the value of direct language and understandable concepts. They consider “common sense” a compliment rather than an insult.

3. They frame questions by asking “how,” not just “why.”

4. They have strong mechanisms that close the loop.

5. They believe that experience is the best teacher.

Enlightened trial and error outperforms the planning of flawless intellects.