How to Design the Foundation for a Digital Product Customers Will Love

By Thomas DiNatale
August 31, 2022

Designing a digital product is like designing a house: before you start drawing wireframes or sketching floor plans, you must know your customer’s needs. Understanding their needs is critical for laying a solid product foundation. Otherwise, everything will fall apart. Once you support that strong foundation, you’ll have the opportunity to add new features, rebuild existing ones, and evolve others.

Unlike building a house, though, designing a digital product doesn’t come with blueprints. Instead, digital products evolve, and you must keep coming back to your customer’s needs to ensure the foundation of your product is still providing value.  

There are best practices to ensure your product’s foundation is stable and secure. And because of that groundwork, you can make better design decisions, grow your product, increase conversions, and even see better team alignment. 

In this article, you’ll learn five strategies to lay a solid customer-focused foundation for your product. We’ll tell you: 

  • Why forming a customer-focused foundation is an imperative
  • How to use competitive analysis to define your table stakes
  • What it means to define a UX differentiator
  • How experience principles align teams
  • How a ‘sparkle moment’ makes for a richer experience

Why Forming a Customer-Focused Foundation is Critical to Your Digital Product’s Success

When you’re undergoing a significant product redesign or bringing a new product to market, competing stakeholder voices are amplified, and customer assumptions are rampant. Unfortunately, marketing’s great ideas differ vastly from the product team’s. So, aside from battling it out in a tournament of wits, how do you determine how to proceed?

Easy: Talk to your customers to understand their motivations and unmet needs. Learning from customers will guide the design of your product’s user experience, quell assumptions that could be causing team discord and reduce the risk of designing and building a product no one wants.

Starting the design process with customer and competitive research also means your new features and enhanced offerings can evolve as user needs change. After all, you wouldn’t build a five-bedroom house on a foundation only meant for a two-bedroom, right? When no one agrees on the next best step, referring back to your customer research realigns the most salient priorities.

Spell Out Your Digital Product’s Table Stakes

Table stakes are the baseline set of features your product must offer for a customer to choose your digital product — the bare minimum. And they’re imperative to define first because if you don’t provide a key feature that your competitor does, your customers might cancel and move on to a competitive product.

You can establish these benchmarks by conducting a competitive landscape analysis of your competition’s features. So here’s your mission: Browse your competition and create a matrix of features organized by UX themes. Defining a UX theme clarifies how your feature solves user needs versus how the user interacts with the product.

What do they all offer? And what’s unique?

For example, you might describe a UX feature theme in a subscription service as “customers want the flexibility to manage delivery dates” This description is broad and speaks to the why not the how. The how is the UI, which you could describe as a modal calendar that displays week-by-week delivery options with radio controls and a ‘Save’ call to action.

Pay close attention to repetitive messaging and notable UX moments. These moments aren’t features; they are when your competitor explicitly addresses their customers and positions the product to meet their needs. Most likely attributed to insights from customer research.

For example, in a food subscription service, you might zero in on the “How it Works” section of the homepage. These modules are broadly similar: Fill Your Box – Receive Delivery – Heat & Eat.

If you dive deeper into the messaging, you’ll discover how the company positions the product to match a customer’s need. For instance, they may repeatedly speak about sustainably-sourced, chef-cooked options, eco-friendly packaging, or zero-prep. Each of these descriptions resonates with a particular shopper type.

Declare Your Digital Product’s UX Differentiator 

Your product must have a unique value proposition to compete and succeed against competitive products. But defining your UX differentiator will really make it stand out.

A UX differentiator is the game changer that describes the high-level experience the product delivers to solve your customers’ pain points. It’s why your customer will pick your product over your competitors.

So, where do you start? First, use discovery research to learn more about your customers. Understand your customers’ current values and behaviors and where existing digital products are not meeting their needs. 

For example, if you want to establish the UX differentiator for a subscription kids’ clothing company, a sample set of questions for your customers may include: 

  • What do they value in kids’ clothing?
  • How do they currently shop for kids’ clothing?
  • Where do they currently experience pain points when shopping for kids’ clothing?
  • What influences their shopping behavior?
  • What preferences do they have when shopping for kids’ clothing?

To continue the kids’ clothes shopping example, you could conduct customer interviews and participate in customer shop-a-longs to learn what they look for when eyeing kids’ clothing. For example, maybe you learn they stay away from buttons because their child won’t wear anything with buttons. Wouldn’t that filter be helpful for them if they’re shopping online? 

You could also use diary studies to understand what triggers them to shop (fall is coming, and my kids don’t have coats!) and their shopping behaviors over extended periods (rush to Target to see what’s on sale). 

By doing a deep dive into your customer’s needs and habits, you’ll discover unmet necessities that the competition isn’t solving, allowing you to find ways to make your product seamlessly integrate into your customers’ lives. 

These details are the UX differentiators that will make your digital product stand out. 

Define Your Product’s Customer Experience Principles

Setting your experience principles is your next step in shaping how your product can deliver on your UX differentiators. Experience principles describe the value you want your product to provide to your customers

Defining these principles focuses your product strategy on customer needs, guides design decision-making, and aligns teams. 

These experience principles must be memorable and specific to your customer’s needs to be effective. This means you want to avoid broad statements that apply to any customer experience. 

For example, a “friction-free checkout experience” is something all eCommerce companies aim to deliver. A better example might be “a checkout experience so easy, your grandma could use it.”

To surface the principles that will speak to your customers’ needs, start by revisiting your UX differentiator research. Then organize your customer needs and pain points into themes. Is there a common denominator that’s causing early drop-off? 

Next, bring your team together and discuss your ideal customer experience. You’ll notice overlapping themes from the customer research and the experience your team expects to deliver. And these themes will define the product’s experience principles. 

Once you have your experience principles, post them everywhere as a reminder for your team. Bring them into design reviews, and use them as guides to drive design critique and product decisions. Doing so is a critical step towards team alignment and creating a digital experience to which your customers will return.

Find Your Sparkle Moments

You’ve seen sparkle moments before—the interactions and messaging of whimsy, delight, or surprise in a digital product. Maybe the background color changes once you add a product to your cart. Or the copy is colorful and makes you chuckle.

These sparkle moments aren’t part of your table stakes or your UX differentiator. Instead, they’re little Easter eggs that make your customers smile. So have fun with them!

For example, if your product is personalized, how can you add customization? Maybe you could add their name to the physical product, include a handwritten note to the box they ordered, or use a ribbon that matches their purchase.  

Don’t neglect the power of sparkle moments. They surprise and delight your customer and are essential because they are unique to your user experience, just like a fingerprint. They speak directly to your customers, and your competitors are unlikely to copy these memorable moments.

You can find opportunities for sparkle moments when your team is conducting customer research and feature brainstorms. You’ll know you’ve discovered them when there’s an ‘a-ha!’ moment reflected in your customer’s eyes.

Don’t aim for these sparkle moments to solve an unmet need. But know that they do make an experience richer.

Keep Your Team Close But Your Customers Closer

The most important part of designing well-loved digital products is keeping the customer close. Think about it: How else are you supposed to learn about and meet their needs if you don’t get up close and personal? Listening to and analyzing customer feedback early and often ensures you’re not wasting your time designing something that isn’t going to resonate. 

The sooner you bring customer feedback into the process, the more likely you will design the right experience for them. So how do you consistently include customer feedback into your design process?

  • Guerrilla intercepts. For unstructured, boots-on-the-ground testing, think about implementing a guerilla intercept. Simply put, go out into the world, find users, and ask them focused questions about your product’s UX. For example, if your product’s value connects homeowners to DIY contractors, take a trip to Home Depot on a Saturday and ask shoppers to use your product. You can get fast validation of your idea and an unbiased opinion on what needs to change.
  • Unmoderated usability testing. Ask a user to interact with your product while answering questions. It’s an excellent way to receive feedback around simple user flows and tasks.
  • Moderated user testing. Complex user flows sometimes require a conversation about needs and values. This is where moderated user testing is a huge help. You walk through a customer’s experience with them while asking questions and making observations along the way. 
  • Customer panel. Sometimes you need a little inspiration. Get a group together for feedback on future product ideas and broad user experience concepts. 

A continued stream of customer feedback is a potent source of new ideas. It can also help sustain and make your product better long after it’s launched.

You can’t build a house’s foundation alone. Not easily, anyway. And you certainly can’t build your digital product’s foundation — or a better product — without your team being on the same page and knowing what your customers need. 

Lay the groundwork for a customer-centric digital product, revisit it often, and watch as it grows and becomes indispensable to your customers.