It’s been a while since I started making websites. Back then I was one of those new artisans of the digital era, knitting websites 760 pixels wide and 420 pixels tall with just a handful of web safe fonts, html tables and stretched clear pixels in order to hold things in place. Creating those first non-standards-compliant-at-all websites required a real craftsmanship, tons of save and refresh until you got the precise result you wanted before drag-and-dropping files to an FTP client in order to put them online. Does this ring any bells?
Things have changed a lot since then. The web has radically changed the way we connect and communicate with the world around us, even the way we behave as human beings. Companies like Airbnb, Facebook or Google have a lot to do with this giant shift and so do their creators. They were all artisans of the web as well. Before turning into the businesspeople of today, they handcrafted the very first versions of what have become some of the most successful digital products ever. They not only built those genuine solutions with their own hands, they also designed them to ease the way people solve some of their most intrinsic problems. They innovated.
Building solutions for solving people’s problems and helping them to fulfil their needs is what we now know as product development. When the Internet is involved, we usually talk about digital product development.
There are no more groundbreaking artisans in the new Internet era. Many people coming from multiple different areas of expertise have joined the game, leading to more specialisation within the industry. Content strategists, product designers and user researchers are some of the roles that nowadays shape the product development space. With all these highly qualified people on board we can now find a large number of great examples of product design everywhere. This apparently ideal situation might, however, be a double-edged sword, as these examples are not only being used as sources of inspiration but also as a starting point for the different stages of the product design process, producing solutions that, although they seem adequate, aren’t a perfect fit for the problem they are trying to solve.
As product people, we are responsible for making sure that the products we ship are fully designed to achieve their ultimate purpose. How the existing competition is solving the same problem shouldn’t be the primary focus as their problem won’t be exactly the same, the people who we are designing our product for might be different and the context in which they are using our solution will probably be different too. Sometimes, it happens because of overwork, other times it’s because of laziness but worse than either of these, it’s usually because we have created the habit of copying without thinking.
This is not about ignoring how others are solving similar problems, it’s about thinking creatively about potential solutions, instead of launching our competitors’ apps right away searching for a solution that could be adapted for us. Only when we have an outline should we check if they have had a better idea than ours or if they have some detail that will improve it. It’s surprising how creative we can be just by pushing ourselves to start from scratch. In the end, the artisan approach of handcrafting solutions is our only chance of developing products that maybe someday will be seen as pure examples of innovation.
It’s been a while since I posted anything new on the blog. I’ve decided to remove all the old stuff from here as it wasn’t related to digital product development. If you are looking for my old tales, you still can find some of them at marcrourecontes.wordpress.com.