The 4 Tensions of Digital Products

Physical products, like say, your car, take years to bring new versions to market. Even that latest Samsung or iPhone you have? It was in development for years, so it goes for sneakers and fridges and stoves and so on. Hundreds, if not thousands of people winding a product through it’s development phases. Like digital products, phyiscal ones have roadmaps. But with much longer cycles and often much bigger budgets. Constant iterations of physical products aren’t possible like digital products.

One of the great things about digital products is their fluidity. Constant evolving and getting better, sprint by sprint. It is an elegant and intricate process. Well honed teams are constantly tweaking the process, a dance between designers, strategists, marketing, DevOps and engineering that never ends.

Physical products face tensions for ongoing development, attempting to look forward two to three years or more around where consumers are going and anticipating what they want, or will want even if they don’t know it. Digital products face tensions as well. In my experience, I’ve come to find the four main tensions digital products face on an ongoing basis.

The image below shows them. They are intertwined, just as product development teams are with each other, stakeholders and the customer.

Customer Experiences: Digital consumers are constantly evolving. Some embrace and look forward to new features, others don’t like too much change, or prefer change to functionality over features. Good product managers are always looking at user feedback and planning. There are also changes in devices and OS’s that can impact delivery of features or functionality. The product has to align all these elements and more. When big changes come to an OS, that can make things much more complicated for a while too.

Stakeholder Demand: These can be tough. I once worked with a company that had a board of directors force the executive to develop a free version of the product and divert a $3 Million budget into it when product management and the executive said it wouldn’t work. It didn’t. That’s stakeholder ego. The farther away from the actual product a senior stakeholder is, the greater the gap in truly understanding the market needs and wants. This can create tensions and requires great diplomacy.

Digital Infrastructure: This is mostly of concern to engineering but also to DevOps who may be concerned more with cybersecurity and privacy issues. As privacy regulations change around the world and as new infrastructure technologies evolve, backend issues can be become ever more complex. As more digital products come to market and people increasingly become more digital in their daily lives, this places new strains on products and the infrastructure. Facebooks recent outage was due to a DNS problem. And the DNS system goes back prior to websites even. It’s a very old technology supporting a very different world.

Market Forces: Beyond the customer experience is the rapidly shifting forces of the market itself. Potential new disruptors, competitors making sudden and surprise changes that eat at your base, mergers and acquisitions, investment trends, social media. All add another layer to the tensions of digital products.

Product owners and managers and the executive have to juggle these tensions in a strategic way. It’s part of the reason UX research should be a constant, and another reason a UX strategist can be leveraged to keep an eye on these tensions. Stakeholder tensions will fall mostly to the executive when those senior stakeholders are involved.

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