I was recently contacted by an agency leader looking to pivot their web design and build agency away from marketing sites and towards product design and development. This change evolved naturally for Inktrap over our first few years, which got me thinking, what are the main differences?
1. Longer-term projects
Web design and builds typically follow a fixed-fee, fixed-delivery date model where the site is built and launched, followed by a bug-fix period. This is typically followed by an ongoing maintenance agreement to keep the site up-to-date, amounting to a couple of days each month of ongoing work. The hope is then that the client returns for a new site a few years later, as their brand or marketing approach evolves.
With product design, that’s different. You still have the big upfront time commitment of identifying what to build and then delivering it, but products require continuous iteration. Due to the tried and tested ‘lean startup’ methodology of product development, new versions are released in cycles, requiring continuous research, design and development support. This leads to longer-term retainer work agreements where several weeks of time each month are dedicated to updates instead of days. This is a broadly accepted industry practice, so if you’re working with clients who are experienced product people, it won’t surprise them; it’s just a case of identifying the right volume of support required at which price point.
2. Ways of working
Due to the longer engagements during the ongoing product design process, you’ll need to adapt to this new way of working. This means managing projects on a feature sprint basis (usually two weeks long) in alignment with your client’s development team. This means setting up / joining planning calls, daily stand-ups, demo calls and retros, with each cycle acting as a mini-development process. You may already do this with your web design and build projects over months, but with product builds, these sprint cycles can continue for years.
This also means organising your work in a new way, not focusing on what’s quickest for you now, but figuring out what will save the greatest amount of time in the long run. Essentially, you need to think long-term to make your life easier.
3. Less subjectivity
Marketing sites are more vulnerable to subjective, unsubstantiated client feedback. This can take the form of “There’s too much blue in the header” or “There needs to be more information ‘above the fold’” which are difficult to rebuke without saying, “I’m a professional designer with years of experience, please just trust me”. Product design, in its nature, is component based: you can’t make changes to one without influencing others which impacts consistency. There are also built-in ‘design patterns’ (best practices for how to implement functionality) which facilitate a universal language of how to navigate through interfaces. These rules must be followed for the product to be intuitive.
Having this set of rules in product design makes it much easier to justify designs without having to fall back on your own unreliable charisma to convince.
4. Financial stability
Longer projects, predictable income, easier to plan, easier to package (productise).
One of the indirect benefits of longer client relationships required to support a digital product’s evolution is consistent income, not just in frequency but amount. Projects require long-term planning, which requires a fixed, predictable pace of work. This means days are planned well in advance every month, creating longer-term engagements that have uniformed monthly billing.
The nature of product development means a product is never ‘done’; it only ever evolves. Marketing websites are typically delivered at a fixed price, but there can be a 5-year gap between design updates, with just essential maintenance conducted within that time. Products, however, must adhere to continuous improvement in order to remain competitive - stand still for too long, and the competition will overtake you. This is baked into the common Lean Startup methodology, leading to the expectation of longer-term, continuous engagements to keep the product moving forward. Therefore when a longer project engagement, and thus an increased budget, is suggested, clients are more receptive to the idea.
This is beginning to happen with the rise of marketing site subscription services, but it’s still early days, with the majority of clients expecting an initial fixed price and a basic ongoing maintenance plan.
5. Different skill set
Training and practice (which takes time) are required in order to make the switch.
I differentiate marketing sites from digital products by user intent - marketing sites are there to persuade digital products to facilitate. It will always be a blurred line, but if there’s more facilitating than persuading, then it’s a product.
Facilitation is more practical, has fewer frills to create the perception of value and is more focused on the bare bones of what needs to be done. They’re tools for performing tasks which require knowledge about how best to create those tools. Therefore, in order to create the best user experience, you must understand the motivations and workflows of that user. This means conducting a discovery phase (it could be several weeks long or several hours) to understand the problem to be solved before starting work on the solution. With website design, the research is focused on how will you persuade, whereas, with products, it’s how will you facilitate.
In summary, it’s a different way of thinking, best learnt through practice. So get out there and start redesigning a poorly implemented app - there are enough of them out there!