The term "user experience" often conjures up simple, beautiful, easy-to-use feature sets that make the user’s life easier. But the core user experience is not a set of features; it is the job users "hire" the product for. Uber’s core user experience is to get a taxi. The countdown, displaying when the taxi will arrive, is a feature that expands this experience. But Uber’s product works regardless of the feature. The countdown, on the other hand, cannot live without the product. There is a one-way interrelationship between feature and product: Features don’t work without the product. This is why designers should think in terms of products first.
A product has a core user experience—i.e. the reason the product exists—and it fulfills a need or solves a problem people have. By that, it becomes meaningful and provides value. If the problem is non-existent, or the solution doesn’t fit the problem, the product becomes meaningless and people won’t use it. Wrong solutions can be fixed, but non-existent problems can't be changed at all. So, how can we be sure to tackle a real problem? We can never be 100% sure, but we can minimize the risk by observing and talking to people.
Clay Christensen, for instance, once tried to improve the sales of milkshakes. He tried to make them sweeter, offered them in different flavors, and slightly increased the size of the cups. Nothing worked out, until he started observing customers who bought milkshakes. He found out that the job customers hired the milkshake for was in fact to make their morning car ride to work less boring. The selling point of a milkshake is that it is thick and lasts longer than any other drink, plus it fills you up. This was the real problem. In the end Christensen came up with the solution to make the milkshake even thicker, which led to an increase in sales.
Product thinking helps build successful features. By defining the problems the product tackles, you answer the question "Why do we build this product?" Defining the target audience ("Who has these problems?") and defining the solution ("How are we doing this?") will lay the groundwork needed to develop a new feature.
Products become meaningful when the solution fits the problem. This solution describes how a problem will be solved. Thus, the problem-solution pairing defines the core user experience of a product. The concrete features extend this experience and support the core experience, but they cannot replace it. Interaction and visual design can make a product beautiful, easy-to-use, and delightful, but they can’t make it meaningful. This is why a proper problem-solution-fit is critical to the success of a product.
The Product Definition
When thinking in products, UX designers should be able to answer the following questions first: What problem do we solve? For whom are we doing this? Why are we doing this? How are we doing this? What do we want to achieve? Only then does it make sense to think about what exactly we are doing (the features).
Product thinking gives designers the ability to build the right features for the right people. It helps solidify understanding of the user experience as a whole; not purely as the design of features. It makes sure designers tackle real user problems and reduces the risk of building something nobody wants.
Product thinking enables UX designers to ask the right questions, to build the right features, and to communicate with stakeholders more efficiently. It enables designers to say "no" and to hesitate before adding new features. Whenever a new feature is requested or someone has an idea for a new product, designers are able to ask key questions, before drawing wireframes or crafting fancy layouts: Does it fit into the product? Does it serve a real user problem? Do people want or need it?