What makes a great digital product?

We lay the foundation for this podcast - what makes a great digital product and answering questions that digital product owners have.

S01E01 What Makes a great digital product? - Transcript

Drew: Welcome to the Differential Product Conversations podcast where we try to demystify how great digital products are made by answering questions product owners have but are too afraid to ask.

Colin: I'm Colin Flynn. I'm the managing partner at Differential. We are a digital product agency and we work with a lot of product owners and product leads. I do a lot of our Design Sprints or upfront consulting, like how do we build digital products and working with clients to figure out the vision and strategy.

Drew: I am Drew Barontini. I am the Product Director at Differential. We are a smaller company. So I do wear lots of hats, and one of my main responsibilities is to be a product lead on one of our product teams. 

Colin: Let's start with talking about, Drew in your mind, what is a product owner and what does that mean?

Drew: Yeah, I think product owner is one of those loaded terms and anything that has product as the prefix can be a loaded term. But, I think for us, at least in our experience with what a product owner would be, is somebody that understands digital products and has an overall good understanding of the process it takes to build a digital product. 

They might not necessarily be technical where they can write code or do development work or design work, but they do have a good understanding. 

Strategy is a big piece of it. So knowing the business, how you balance solving user problems with business objectives. Being very strategic and really just understanding the internal politics and all the things it takes to actually move the product forward and make real changes. 

I guess that’s what I think as far as what a product owner is and the types of product owners we work with. 

Colin: Okay, it's like they may not be where they can do design and development, but they're also responsible for the product. They know a little bit about it, they're strategic and then they understand all the business things. 

So as we go through with that person in mind, I was trying to think about our approach to each of the episodes. I think the setup that we should use is one of us will set up a discussion, maybe something we heard from one of our our product owners during the week, maybe something that people sent in to us. Let's take a question from their point of view, and then we can try to wrestle with what are the various factors at play? And how do we wrestle with all those challenges, and then we can discuss the trade-offs that they can make and maybe we come to a conclusion? 

Maybe we don't but at least we'll address those things a little bit more than like, "oh, yeah, I don't know." It depends is the typical answer that most people give product owners when they're thinking about these things and maybe we can demystify a little bit about what that "it depends" means. 

So why don't we go ahead and just jump right in. You ready? 

Drew: Yeah, let's do it 

Colin: Cool. Since this podcast is about building great digital products, I think a natural place for us to start is in discussing what are the characteristics of a great digital product. 

So the question for us to wrestle with is "what is a digital product" and "what makes a digital product great." 

Drew, do you want to start with, in your mind what is a digital product?

Drew: Yeah, I think for us at least, and maybe this is more globally applicable, a digital product is really just kind of a web or mobile application.

Usually you can think of it as running on your phone. So you have iOS, you have Android, or a website - so using a web browser to interact with an application.  We've come a long way from what would be called a website which is more just static information and more into the web application realm which is more powerful and meshes well with the mobile applications that are out there. 

So, I think that's probably what I would define a digital product, as something digital would be a software and the product piece is that it is solving a problem or performing some sort of function for a certain user.

Colin:  Yup. That makes a lot of sense to me. So what isn't a digital product then? 

Drew: Yeah. I think we touched on that a little bit. Marketing websites in one sense aren't really [a digital product]. You could stretch and do some mental gymnastics and probably call it a digital product. But more just kind of informative websites that are out there. 

They are digital, yes. Blogs, podcasts like this, etc. Those are other things that are digital items, but I don't know if I would really say, like in the sense of what we're talking about, a digital product - something that is a piece of software and solves a problem.

You could again do mental gymnastics to probably make that definition fit for all of those categories, but I think it's those probably fall more in the line of not necessarily a digital product but more tangentially related. 

Colin: Okay, that's good. So I have some things I want to throw at you.

So I've been trying to wrestle with this question a little bit: what are the characteristics of a digital product? I have a theory or thesis, and I’d love to get your reactions to that. So, I believe you can break it down to five categories of characteristics. 

I say they're functional. It works the way that you intended to work; it can do the thing I wanted to do. 

The second one would be beautiful. I think the design being aesthetically pleasing and the design doesn't get in the way of you getting the value from the functional side. 

The third one I would say is, it is intuitive. Knowing where I am in the product and where I'm supposed to go on a certain page or screen or anything like that.

Fourth one would be reliable. It doesn't crash. It doesn't break when I'm using it. I can consistently get that value from it and it doesn't have these big glitches or problems with it as I'm using it.

And then the fifth one is an engaged and growing user base. I believe great digital products have users, which they should, but there are users actually using the products, so they are engaged and that user base is growing.

Now some startups may have a huge fast-growing user base, but I think as long as you're getting more users than you're losing, I think the product’s great because that means people are engaging with it and getting value from it and they're solving a problem. 

So I'll say [a great digital product] is functional, beautiful, intuitive, reliable, and have some kind of engaging growing user base.

What do you think about that? 

Drew: I mean, honestly, I think that's probably a good summary of a limited set of things that would encapsulate all of those visceral feelings we get when we use a product. We probably don't think about, like, oh, wow, this thing is very intuitive. You're probably not thinking that in your head, but you are just naturally doing things intuitively, which is proving that it is an intuitive product.

Colin: Let's dive into some examples then.  Drew what are some of your favorite digital products and we can wrestle with them and test the waters of, are they software, are they a product adding value? And then, how do they fit across these kinds of characteristics?

Drew: Yeah, probably the major ones that you can think about that fit into these categories or have large user bases that are very popular obviously, and fit in this category, I would think would be social media sites.

So Facebook. Instagram and Twitter would fall in that category as well, where these are large digital products. I would say we probably all argue on the merits of the five different characteristics of these fitting all of them, but I do think they fall generally in that category.

Google search is a product that solves a massive problem that's existed for a very long time and then you have more niche smaller ones. Notion is a newer one that's been built more modern web technologies, that's just for taking notes online; Basecamp project management software; Todoist to do management.

GitHub is another big one and a lot of times I think for me, everybody probably has one of those characteristics that sticks out the most to them. Reliability is a huge one and being intuitive. So if I know the tool will be there and it will make sense when I use it, that's what usually matters the most to me. Obviously being functional, beautiful, and having a lot of people using it helps. But, I was just always [focused] around the intuitive nature and reliability. 

Colin: Yeah, I would add to that list. Some of the ones that I think about are really functional ones. Like, I love that it gives me utility. So I think banking applications are typically really good. I used to have to go into a branch, and now I can do 90% of my transactions from my phone.

I think about those as good utility apps. In the beautiful [category] it just has to pass the bar for me, but it definitely can't break. It has to be reliable. And then, other ones if you're into sports or athletics or things like that, like Run Keeper or Strava for bike riding, running, cycling. Just tracking that and using that technology in a way to get analytics that I didn't have before. There's some functional benefits there and then both of those products have been beautifully designed. 

So, any other ones or any other niche ones that you’re loving right now? 

Drew: I think what's interesting about these characteristics, like beautiful as one of those, is that I have some apps that I've used in the past that no one would objectively call it beautiful, but it's so functional and works so well that I tend to get over that. And obviously beautiful is a hugely subjective term. 

So, something might be beautiful to one person might not be beautiful to another person. Sometimes functional beats that out which I think that this is why those characteristics and the weight of them for each person falls differently. There's all sorts of apps I think fall in that category where they could probably use a fresh coat of paint so to speak, but they work so well and they're so reliable that you tend to not notice.

Craigslist might be a good example of something that would fall in that category. There's thousands of Dribbble redesigns of Craigslist and all of this and they just kept the same, and well, you know how to use it and it works. No one's going to call it beautiful, but it works. I think that one fits in there and there's probably other ones that I've come across that fall in the same sort of chaos. 

Colin: It's like we use those characteristics just as levels of them. Each person is different and how they weigh those and you've been talking about, but also there are probably different levels of how much do you need to do and probably in the life cycle of a digital product you need to focus on different ones early on in the cycle.

Reliability may not be a thing because you're just watching it for the first time. But once you're in a bigger production state and you have lots of users, that becomes one of the most valuable factors that you need to do. To start MVPs, you need to just have the functional needs to do the thing that it set out to do and can you actually do that. 

Colin: So in summary, I'd say a great digital product has to be digital software and is a product that is solving some problem or pain point that people have. And, then we discuss the five characteristics [that make a great digital product] of functional, beautiful, intuitive, reliable, and having an engaged and growing user base.

Thanks for listening. As always, we want to hear from you. So please reach out and give us your questions and challenges. We will try to address them in a future episode. You can reach us at podcast@differential.com or you can find us on Twitter at @BeDifferential.

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