Is Radical Product Thinking The Future Of Digital Product Design?
Founder & Lead Coach
29th November 2021
Image credit: Holmessu/Adobe
Digital product design has come a long way in just over a decade.
However, controversies continue about how our industry contributes to mental health problems, the disruption of democracies, online harassment, tech addiction, and the erosion of work–life boundaries.
In “Radical Product Thinking”, product leader Radhika Dutt challenges business leaders and designers to focus less on growth and product iteration, and more on their vision for change.
We talked to Radhika about her new book.
Thanks for joining us! In “Radical Product Thinking”, you describe seven “product diseases”. How common are they in the apps and websites we use each day, and what are the consequences?
In the last decade, as Lean Startup and Agile have been widely adopted, we’ve come to believe that iteration is the key to building good products, that if you just iterate enough, you can build world-changing products. We’ve bought into the myth that instead of starting with a vision for the impact we want to create, we can discover our vision along the way.
Unfortunately, when we’re iteration-led, i.e. when our iterations are not driven by a clear vision and strategy, our products become bloated, fragmented, and driven by irrelevant metrics. They catch product diseases — here are three examples:
- Hero Syndrome strikes when we focus on going big and scaling while lacking a focus on what we were setting out to solve in the first place. WeWork has been a recent victim of Hero Syndrome by focusing on scale and fundraising instead of addressing a real market need with a viable business model.
- Obsessive Sales Disorder means borrowing against the long-term vision to close short-term deals. For example, at a startup where we built products for phone companies, each customer asked for their custom version. Our product soon began to look like a service.
- Pivotitis means changing direction whenever things get tough. Common symptoms include wild swings in product offerings, confused customers, and demoralized teams. This is most common in startups but is also found in large companies that change focus often, driven by the loudest stakeholder or customer.
In the book I talk about the seven most common product diseases — they make good products go bad and are often fatal to innovation.
What is the essence of Radical Product Thinking, and how did you identify and develop its five elements?
Radical Product Thinking is a methodology for being vision-driven and systematically building world-changing products. The five elements of RPT (Vision, Strategy, Prioritization, Execution and Measurement, and Culture) give organizations a step-by-step process for translating a vision into reality. RPT was born out of the realization that until now in the absence of such a clear process, it was easy to default to being iteration-led and catch product diseases.
True to the name radical, each of these five elements of RPT challenges conventional wisdom. Take the example of vision. For years, vision statements that proclaimed the company’s aspirations “to be number 1 or number 2 in every market”, or “to be the leader in
For a vision to act as a filter, it needs to be detailed and help your team visualize the end-state you want to bring about. This is why the RPT approach to a vision helps you answer profound questions such as whose world you’re trying to change, what their problem is, why the status quo is unacceptable, what the world looks like when you’ve solved the problem and how you’ll bring it about (the who, what, why, when and how questions).
Similarly, each of the other four elements of Radical Product Thinking helps you radically rethink your product and translate your vision into reality, one step at a time. The RDCL Strategy (pronounced “radical”) template helps you translate your vision into a set of actionable steps, the prioritization rubric helps you make and communicate the right tradeoffs between the long-term and the short-term on a 2x2 matrix of Vision vs. Survival. And finally, the Execution and Measurement plan helps you derive metrics from your vision and strategy so you can measure what matters for your business. These elements of RPT are helping teams around the world build vision-driven products.
How important is the “culture” pillar of Radical Product Thinking, and what’s most fundamental to a company or product team’s culture?
To build vision-driven products, you need a culture that maximizes intrinsic motivation in the team. In everyday work, employees repeatedly face the choice of taking shortcuts or putting in more effort; motivated employees are more likely to invest in your collective vision. This is why culture is a pillar of Radical Product Thinking. When you have the right culture, it makes it easier to apply the RPT approach, which in turn makes work feel more meaningful and improves culture — it’s a positive feedback loop.
Just as we work to continuously improve our products, our culture too can be thought of as a product and improved continuously. What’s most important is a deliberate approach to culture — just as we need to be deliberate about building a product, we also need to be deliberate about engineering a good culture systematically. The Radical Product Thinking book offers a rubric to help us visualize what a good culture looks like (a vision for the end-state) so we can compare our current culture against this vision, then craft a strategy to improve it, and measure progress.
In the final part of the book, you talk about “digital pollution” and the ethical responsibilities of product teams. If a designer could change just one thing about their thinking or practice, what should it be?
The one thing designers need to change about their thinking is to embrace responsibility for avoiding digital pollution. Digital pollution is the collateral damage our products cause to society. Just as the industrial boom has created environmental pollution, carefree growth in the digital era has led to digital pollution.
Let’s look at increasing inequality, which is one of the five types of digital pollution that I talk about in the book. It’s tempting to think about equity at a superficial level — we could focus on creating the perception of inclusion by using inclusive pictures or the perception of accessibility by making sure there’s alt text for images. But to truly create an equitable world that works for all, we need to think about equity at a systemic level. We must ask the question, “Is the product we designed creating equity in society?”
For example, in designing an educational product, using inclusive images is important but not sufficient. To avoid digital pollution, we need to think about what an equitable outcome in education looks like. We then need to test if our product is bringing about that world by observing how it’s affecting people of different gender and racial identities as well as economic backgrounds.
If someone doesn’t have time to read the whole book, but wants to start experimenting with Radical Product Thinking techniques in their work, how should they begin? Are there other resources they could take a look at?
A good place to start is by crafting a detailed vision for your product using the free Radical Product Thinking Toolkit. I’ve found that even when you know you have to write a detailed vision, starting with a blank sheet of paper is counterproductive and leads to an intense game of wordsmithing and vision bingo.
The Radical Vision Statement in a Mad Libs format helps you answer the profound who, what, why, when, and how questions without getting stuck in the words. Once you have a clear vision, you can start to use the toolkit to continue to each of the elements of RPT. The book offers a good voiceover for the entire toolkit and has both inspiring and practical stories to help you apply all the elements of Radical Product Thinking, including culture.
Lots of courses teach students to use cycles of feedback and iteration to improve their designs. What are the risks of being too focused on product iteration, and how can designers find a better balance between vision and iteration?
The biggest risk of being too focused on iteration is the product disease Hypermetricemia. It means focusing excessively on optimizing for metrics, without first understanding whether those are the right things to measure. This is a common disease that frustrates designers when there’s a culture of “Measure everything, test everything!” In such a culture, we may test to decide whether a button should be red or green but there may be a lack of vision and strategy behind the design changes being requested. It can also be frustrating for designers when there’s a constant iteration on design to deliver marginal improvements on a product that don’t move the needle.
Iteration is only helpful when it’s driven by a clear vision and strategy. Designers can help guide teams towards being more vision-driven by asking questions when design changes are being requested. Instead of changing designs just for optimizing metrics, it’s helpful to bring back the focus back to strategy, i.e. what pain points the users have and how these iterations or features might address those pains.
If you were in a position to rethink or redesign the product design industry today, what would your vision be? And what should the industry's strategic priorities be in realising that vision?
My vision for the product design industry is that we should be working to create a more equitable world, one that works for all, through the products we design. As designers, we have an important role in bringing about such a world.
To bring about this vision, we need to raise awareness in organizations and product leaders that the role of design is help the organization create its impact on the world through the identity and interface of the product. Organizations often view the role of design as creating the user interface that maximizes user engagement and optimizes metrics. This current mindset means that designers are often just expected to keep iterating to maximize moving irrelevant metrics up and to the right.
Instead, if each designer can embrace this vision for design and help spread awareness of the role of design in the organization, it will help elevate the role of design. Instead of being pixel pushers, every time we’re asked for design iterations, we can align everyone around the question of what’s the change we’re trying to create and then systematically translate that into the design.
How can students or design beginners start to adopt the Radical Product Thinking approach in their work?
Just because you’re a beginner or a student, don’t let that stop you from taking ownership of the vision. You can start to use the elements of Radical Product Thinking even as a beginner — don’t feel like the vision has to come from someone else. This mindset will help you take on a more strategic role earlier in your career.
Start by crafting a vision statement for your product and think through the RDCL strategy. You can also think about how you would prioritize features using the Vision vs. Survival 2x2 rubric. Finally, you can think about what metrics will help you validate if your vision and strategy are working. By thinking through these elements, you’ll be able to communicate them to your colleagues and take a bigger role in shaping the direction of your product even as a beginner.
Conflict of interest statement: We did not receive payment for this feature, and this page does not contain affiliate links.
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