Product design is arguably the characteristic that drives the success or failure of a product, regardless of what that product can or cannot do, its price, or availability. A poor design can sink the best product, while a successful design can elevate the amazing and the mediocre. 

Here is why product design is so important to all aspects of IT, manufacturing, and even just getting through our daily lives.

Design Determines Functionality

The design of a product is arguably the single most important factor in any product’s functionality. A good design will allow people to use a product in the most optimal method. A poor design can render a product useless or extremely limited in what it can do.

Design and the HMS Titanic

The Titanic is definitely a famous example of the importance of design in functionality.

You probably already know the story. On its maiden voyage, the “unsinkable” ship Titanic races through the North Atlantic to get to New York from England and strikes an iceberg. It sinks in remarkably little time. 1500 passengers perished in the icy North Atlantic Ocean.

Subsequent investigations found that design played a major role in the ship’s sinking and in how the passengers fared as the ship sunk:

  • Design flaws in the watertight compartments and double hull contributed to the flooding of several parts of the ship and the speed at which the ship sank.
  • The lack of lifeboats meant there was not enough room to accommodate all passengers.
  • The lifeboat release system was flawed, and several boats had open seats while others landed on passengers and boats beneath them.
  • Doors below deck were locked, trapping many and dooming them to an icy grave.
  • At least one ship turned off its communications systems and missed a Mayday call.
  • Speeding through the building of the ship contributed to poor riveting.
  • A project management design flaw allowed the use of substandard steel. 

History has judged the sinking of the Titanic to be the result of a collection of errors that built to a final, devastating conclusion. Had just one of those flaws not existed, many more lives might have been saved.

Design Determines Suitability

A superior design also allows for optimum performance. Here is a scenario that proves that out.

F1 Versus NASCAR Versus a 70’s Family Station Wagon

Consider three races between these vehicles: A Formula 1 (F1) race car, a NASCAR stock car, and an old 1970s-era family station wagon. The courses are as follows:

  • A multi-cornered, multi-straightaway road course
  • A standard stock car oval with uneven pavement, cracks in the racing surface, and variations in how level the surface is through the corners.
  • A cross-country course on regular roads 

Once each race starts, none of the vehicles can get repairs. 

Who wins? Each vehicle has attributes and drawbacks in design that help it on the courses it is designed to perform on.

Road course

The F1 vehicle’s design allows it to handle tight cornering, extremely high speeds, and corners that require the vehicle to turn right and left with the same ease. Because of this, the F1 blows the stock car away, likely beating the station wagon easily.

Oval

Stockcars are a little more robust than F1 vehicles, so they can handle the oval with uneven surfaces, cracks, and “marbles,” which are bits of debris that scatter across the course. The F1 would have difficulty navigating a very uneven surface. The stock car is rugged enough and has enough clearance to get through easily.

In this scenario, the stock car probably would win, with the F1 coming in second and the station wagon lagging in third.

Regular Roads

Here, the station wagon shines. An F1 vehicle would fall apart going over most highways and sustain damage from potholes, divots, uneven pavement, and construction zones with grated surfaces. The stock car would fare better, but even those would suffer on a standard road because of the same obstacles. 

Both would spend a lot of time getting off the highway to gas up as neither gets even close to good gas mileage.

The station wagon probably wins a regular road course and does so comfortably as long as the kids in the backseat behave and Dad does not “have to come back there.”

Predictable Outcomes Based on Design

None of the outcomes of these races is a surprise, but each shows why design is so important. 

An F1 vehicle is streamlined, sleek, and aerodynamic, with amazing cornering capabilities. A stock car is fast and rugged. A station wagon is designed for the variables encountered on a standard road.

In each vehicle’s intended environment, each is difficult to beat. When, however, a vehicle is in a foreign environment, it struggles. The vehicle struggles because its design focuses on specific performance requirements and outcomes.

UX Design Reflects Customer Desires

No matter what you are making, your design depends upon your ideal customer. The product you or your team come up with is a textbook example of UX design at the most basic level. That is why marketing, sales, and customer representatives play a major role in product design. Their input is derived directly from customer complaints, requests, and suggestions.

The only thing limiting all of those from being made into a product is the limits of:

  • What is physically possible
  • The limits of existing technology
  • Financial considerations (budgets, price points, etc.)

Each limitation factors into what gets designed. Good designs balance customer desires with the limitations above. Those products satisfy the customer, at least until a product that pushes those limits successfully comes along.

Why That Matters

No matter what you are designing, customers drive whether it is successful or not. Some design positions allow for experimentation, but if your customer, be that person a boss or consumer, hates or cannot use it, your design will go by the wayside. The “customer is always right” is a phrase we all usually learn at our first jobs, but it holds throughout our careers.

That concept holds from conception through design to the final product. A design that does not meet customer demands will not be purchased. Eventually, that design will be altered or scrapped in favor of something that comes closer to what the customer wants. 

Design Can Create Convenience

One concept that has been around for decades is the self-driving vehicle. Various iterations exist, and computers have brought it to the threshold of mainstream usability, but there is still a way to go. The reason a self-driving vehicle is attractive to some people comes down to convenience.

A self-driving vehicle can theoretically help navigate traffic and avoid accidents. It can reduce stress by not having to focus on the chaos on the road around us. Finally, it lets riders focus on other things, at least in theory.

Self-driving features already exist in many vehicles. Lane monitoring and warnings when backing up are two examples. Both keep riders and pedestrians safer and prevent backing into things. As research and designs improve, it is reasonable to think vehicles will become less reliant on humans, increasing convenience and safety.

The concept of design making things more convenient is reflected in almost everything in use today. Your computer processes faster because of its design, which makes working from home convenient. Scanners at the supermarket are much faster and more convenient than having to stand in line waiting for a human to tally the grocery bill.

No matter where you look, convenience is a major goal of most products, and it is only possible because of better and more responsive design.

Design Allows Functional Evolution

Customer demands are constantly shifting. What was once desired falls out of favor, and a new concept, design, or product becomes popular. Sustainability is popular now and was not a factor 30 years ago. Now, it is a consideration that factors into almost every product or service on the market. 

Design evolutions typically reflect the mindset of a customer. For example, the continued shrinking of smartphones reflects customers’ desire for a less intrusive portable communication device. Adding smart functionality was also a reflection of a design team recognizing a phone could make a great organizer and provide internet access. 

Customers determine product features, but incorporating them is only possible through sound design. A product that incorporates a feature poorly will not be on the market for very long. Products that successfully incorporate customer desires and needs into their design get purchased and used by customers. 

Without product evolution, products would become stale. If your smartphone still had the technology of 2004, you would not use it nearly as much as you do now. You could not use the old phone for half the stuff you do now. The sound design allowed the hardware to fit in your phone without sacrificing performance or functionality.

Final Thoughts

Design is important because the products and services in use today would not be possible or even exist without it. Poor designs quickly fall by the wayside. Great product designs last for a long time and, if altered, only get changed to add new features.