What product creation should be about

Posted by Swaroop C H on December 5, 2008 Filed under: books, business, design, startup, tech

I just finished reading "Subject To Change: creating great products and services for an uncertain world". This book is written by Adaptive Path, the same guys who invented the words "blog" and "ajax", as well as creators of the Aurora browser concept.

It has been a revelatory book for me, a developer who considers himself to be the last person to know about "design." The book mainly focuses on the lessons learned from their experiences in working with clients to design and create products and services.


They define design as an activity, as opposed to a look and feel that is added later on. The activity incorporates:

  • Empathy - Design must serve a human purpose, and so design requires an understanding of how people will interact with whatever you're designing.
  • Problem Solving - Design really shines when it's used to address complex problems where the outcome is clear, many stakeholders are involved, and the boundaries are fuzzy.
  • Ideation and prototyping - Design produces things, whether they're abstract (schematics, blueprints, wireframes, conceptual models) or concrete (prototypes, physical models). Design is a creative activity and thus requires actually creating something.
  • Finding alternatives - Design is less about the analysis of existing options than the creation of new options. Sometimes that means looking at existing options in new ways, and at other times that means creating from scratch. An effective design process typically offers many solutions to a problem.

They repeatedly explain that the experience is what matters to the end-user and that's the real product rather than how it is delivered.


The qualities of a person's experience and how it affects whether they think of a product or service as a "good" or "bad" experience depends on these qualities:

  • Motivations - why they are engaged with your offering, and what they hope to get out of it.
  • Expectations - the preconceptions they bring to how something works
  • Perceptions - the ways in which your offering affects their senses (see, hear, touch, smell, taste)
  • Abilities - how they are able to cognitively and physically interact with your offering
  • Flow - how they engage with your offering over time
  • Culture - the framework of codes (manners, language, rituals), behavioral norms, and systems of belief wiwthin which the person operates.


They take great pains and length to explain Empathy, and how it is important and central to getting key insights which lead to pathbreaking products.

Empathy is an understanding of a person or group's subjective experience by sharing that experience vicariously. Empathy is something like a balanced curiosity that can lead to a deeper understanding of another person. After all, customers lives are messy and complex, not always rational or task-oriented or follow perfect paths that product-makers expect.

They talk about what's missing in our understanding are

  • The emotional aspect
  • The cultural aspect
  • The user's context

One of the best insights I read was their description of organizations evolving their product strategy from a:

Focus on Technology → Focus on Features → Focus on Experience

This is the exactly the kind of transition that we can relate to.

Parallelly, a company's view of people also shifts from:

"What users?" → Their tasks, goals and preferences → Their behaviors and motivations.

Experience, not Products

They stress to not design products, but to design the system as part of the larger experience, whether the experience is end-to-end your system, or part of a larger ecosystem i.e. understand the context.

  • Organizations find it tough to coordinate, it has to become a competency, doing cheaper/faster is not a long-term strategy in today’s world.
  • Design the product in the context of systems and strategy.
  • "Design gives form to ideas so that their value can be communicated, evaluated and improved."
  • Storyboards can be better to do first than Prototyping.
  • Strategy and Prototyping should go hand in hand.
  • "Wow!" factor ⇒ Loyalty of customers

This chapter is where I had most of my moments of epiphany.

My Takeaways

  • Customer’s experience + context/system > product/technology
  • Empathy > Throwing ideas
  • Design artifacts important
  • Design as an organizational competency → Multiple solutions, Focus, Constraints
  • The "Wow!" Factor
  • Give up control to the user

Bottom line: Agile technical implementation + Design competency + Empathy ⇒ Critical for a successful company

The downside was that it is a short book and I wish it was more concrete in its explanations and descriptions.

Overall, I highly recommend the book for anyone who is involved in the creation of products and services in their companies, especially entrepreneurs.

On a related note, Rands in Repose has some great points on his expectations of a product:

  1. Make it look and feel like magic.
  2. Work flawlessly in the first 10 minutes. If you can’t survive 10 minutes of critical analysis, I’m gone.
  3. Provide additional, unexpected awesomeness.


There's no comment box, but please do email me or tweet me your thoughts and criticisms, and I will publish the relevant ones here.