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.


Prisoner’s Dilemma

Radiolab has a fantastic story about the prisoner’s dilemma called One Good Deed Deserves Another. It was being rebroadcast on the local public radio channel KQED today as part of the episode called The Good Show. Take a listen on their site.

Prisoner’s Dilemma is a classic game theory problem. In it, one tries to figure out whether it is better to cooperate or compete with an opponent when you don’t know (or don’t trust) what the opponent will do.

Try out a prisoner’s dilemma simulation here: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/pd.html.

On a related note…

Four years ago, Radiolab took their show on the road. I caught a performance in Cupertino. It remains one of my favorite theater experiences ever! Here’s a recording from their Seattle performance.

How Plants Designed Our Planet

How to Grow a Planet was a fascinating Netflix find this weekend. In this three part documentary, Dr. Ian Stewart reveals how plants, not animals, are the real designers of our planet. The air, the soil, the climate have all been shaped by plants over the last 400 million years ago to suit their evolutionary needs. We, the animals, just happen to survive on the by-products of plants’ complex energy conversion mechanism. We feed on photosynthesized carbohydrates and breathe oxygen that plants release.

Plants are complex creatures that haven’t been given their full due. I suspect that this documentary will be just the beginning of my study of the botanical world.

Here are some of my favorite clips from the show.


Flowers in UV Light

Rainforest in a Cave


Sushi-Driven Design

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a fantastic documentary about the 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono. His 10-seat sushi-only restaurant in a Tokyo subway station is a Michelin three-star restaurant.

I love this movie as a meditation on work, design, and simplicity. It’s fascinating to see how finely honed craftsmanship, deep knowledge of ingredients and preparation methods, and a touch of myth-making can result in an incredible culinary experience. It’s a product design inspiration.


Here are some of my favorite quotes from the movie.


If you were to sum up Jiro’s sushi in a nutshell: Ultimate simplicity leads to purity.

Qualities of a Great Chef

A great chef has the following 5 attributes: First, they take their work very seriously and consistently perform on the highest level. Second, they aspire to improve their skills. Third is cleanliness. If the restaurant doesn’t feel clean, the food isn’t going to taste good. The fourth attribute is impatience. They are not prone to collaboration. They’re stubborn and insist on having things their own way. What ties these attributes together is passion. That’s what makes a great chef.

How to Make Delicious Food

In order to make delicious food you must eat delicious food. The quality of ingredients is important, but one must develop a palate capable of discerning good and bad.  Without good taste, you can’t make good food.  If your sense of taste is lower than that of the customers how will you impress them?


Years of Living Dangerously

Years of Living Dangerously documents climate change’s impact in our world. The filmmaking is remarkable. The narrative weaves together stories from around the world: the stories of mill workers in Texas, rebels in Syria, palm-oil industrialists in Indonesia, and firefighters in California, among others.

Even in watching the first few episodes, I’ve been surprised by the far-reaching effects of climate change in the world. I knew about the immediate causes and first-order effects of rising temperatures, rising sea levels, droughts, and floods. But the secondary causes and effects are astonishing because they are so poorly understood in our collective consciousness.

Severe droughts caused by climate-change are a significant cause of the Syrian revolution and the rise of ISIS. The rising temperatures result in wildfires that burn longer and hotter than ever before. Our consumer economy demands palm-oil based foods and products that lead to massive deforestation in Indonesia, causing more climate-pollution than the country’s cars and power-plants combined [Mother Jones].

global_emissions_sector_2015The EPA has accurate and succinct information on climate-change if you’re looking to start understanding this topic more deeply.

Arduino Project: WiiChuckMouse

As a fun weekend project, I converted an old Nintendo Wii Nunchuck controller into a mouse for my Macbook.

I got the project idea from Maker Magazine.

Here’s how it’s done.

Get an Arduino Uno microcontroller and a Nintendo Wii Nunchuck controller. We will read the Nunchucks’s button presses, joystick movement, and accelerometer readings via the Arduino.

Connect the Nunchuck to the Arduino using jumper wires (diagram here). Connect the Arduino to your Mac’s USB port.

Open the Arduino IDE at https://create.arduino.cc.

Load the Arduino Nunchuck driver available here:


On your Mac, run my Python 2.7 script. It listens on its USB port for control data from the Arduino. Change the USB port ID in the script to match yours. https://github.com/qwertyshan/WiiChuckMouse

Now, you can control mouse movements by turning the Nunchuck on x-axis or y-axis. Left and right mouse buttons correspond with the Nunchuck’s C and Z buttons. The joystick can be used to scroll.

How Cybercrime Works


Cybercrime netted a whopping $450 billion in profits last year, with 2 billion records lost or stolen worldwide. Security expert Caleb Barlow (IBM) talks about where cybercrime comes from. He suggests that companies should share cybercrime data openly to enable the development of common strategies for fighting criminals.

Monetization of Cybercrime

It’s been 25 years since the first PC virus (Brain A) hit the net, and what was once an annoyance has become a sophisticated tool for crime and espionage. Computer security expert Mikko Hyppönen tells us how we can stop these new viruses from threatening the internet as we know it.

Global Crime Networks

Journalist Misha Glenny spent several years in an investigation of organized crime networks worldwide, which have grown to an estimated 15% of the global economy. Many of these crime networks are now involved in cybercrime.


Beyond crime, cybersecurity is also the realm of cyberweapons. Stuxnet is one of the most famous cyberweapons ever created. When first discovered in 2010, the Stuxnet computer worm posed a baffling puzzle. Beyond its sophistication loomed a more troubling mystery: its purpose. Ralph Langner and team helped crack the code that revealed this digital warhead’s final target. In a fascinating look inside cyber-forensics, he explains how — and makes a bold (and, it turns out, correct) guess at its shocking origins.

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.