The Secret to a Great Digital Product

Jeremy Duimstra

There is a sometimes ignored, often skipped step in the digital product design process that can make or break what you’re building. It’s not great UX, design or engineering, as crucial as those things are. The little-hidden secret? Field Research.

It’s a little sobering when you think about how much time, money and energy is being wasted building features that the market doesn’t want or need. – Christian Bonilla, Mind the Product

The best way, really the only way, to find out what features people want is to get out into the world with them. Observe and talk to them where they live, where they work, where they go about their lives. Through understanding the lives, emotions, and needs of the human beings that will hopefully experience your digital product on a daily basis, you can make sure that what you’re building has the features that they will love. However, most organizations skip this crucial step and make products that are based on their own internal stakeholder’s gut feelings. The truth is that your goals might not align with what people really need. Figuring that out happens by researching your chosen audience out in the field.

Steve Jobs famously said, “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Henry Ford stated that “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” These are the types of sentiments that often justify creating digital products in-house without any field research. However, Apple, and Ford both did, and do, tremendous research on their customers so that they can see the problems that people have and create appropriate solutions.

How do you do that? MJD has built the concept of field research into our process to create some of the world’s best digital products. Here’s how we do it:

We need to be able to understand what other people are experiencing. To do this, we need to walk around a bit in their shoes. The only way we can experience the world in the unique way that they do is to live in it with them for awhile. We need to open our hearts and minds to the problems they face, the joy they feel, the things that confuse or challenge them, the things that inspire them.

It’s important to observe them both scientifically, usually with quantitative data, as well as emotionally, with qualitative data. Understanding and empathizing with the emotional response to a situation is key to building engaging features in a digital product.

49% of product managers said that their foremost challenge is being able to conduct proper market research to validate whether the market truly needs what they’re building. When we look at only the responses from enterprise software PMs, this figure jumps up to 62%. – 2016 Mind the Product Survey

After establishing an empathetic frame of mind, we must get out into the lives of the people that will eventually use our digital product. We do this by observing them where they live, where they work, and where they hang out. We collect information on their habits, their likes, and dislikes, and we look at challenges they have that the product we are building will eventually solve. Some observation is from afar and requires no interaction. Some observation is structured and takes place during interviews and shadowing. This deep level of immersion gives us what we like to call “nuggets of gold” – moments of inspiration and insight that are invaluable to our final products.

There is an art and a science to this field work. We find it essential to have two to three people from different disciplines (UX, design, engineering) out in the field observing and collecting data. This gives us insight into problems from multiple lenses, which helps bring clarity later. By layering science onto the art of observation, we can garner confidence that we’re on the right path through statistically significant results from observations, interviews and data collection.

After observing users in the field, we have access to a lot of data. We will have taken photos, videos, recorded and written down interviews, made notes of everything we’re thinking and collected valuable numerical data to measure behavioral patterns. The last step is to analyze all of the information we have gathered and summarize into an actionable document. The “actionable” part is key here – as there is often more information than we know what to do with initially. For starters, it is essential that we put the information back into the context of your digital product. We must ask ourselves what ‘nuggets of gold’ were mined from our observations that can directly affect the product we are seeking to build. Once we have identified those nuggets, we can start to build something that will resonate with our audiences. This investment in field research is the secret step that positions us above the competition and gives our products meaning, utility, and innovation.

The MJD process is propelled by design thinking.

Design thinking is the mechanism through which innovation and creativity can be unleashed. Combining inspiration, ideation and implementation we create human-centered experiences that create major impact. This includes robust field research, the secret sauce to any great digital product.

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Prototyping: Why, When, How

Prototyping: Where, When, How

Jeremy Duimstra

Why Prototype?

People working in the UX, Design, and Engineering fields are very familiar with the benefits of prototyping, but let’s look at it from the client’s perspective. What are the main reasons that a client should want to prototype digital products and experiences before committing to a full on build?

There are a couple of main reasons: First, when you prototype, you get a first glance into what features your audience will actually use. The “If you build it, they will come” mantra does not work in the digital product development world. For this reason, testing prototypes to ensure that what you’re building connects with and will be used by your audience is always recommended.

Second, it saves money. Plain and simple. If you prototype, test, and iterate on a product early on – you will save a ton of cash before hardcore (and expensive) engineering even begins.

When should you prototype?

Prototypes play a huge role in bringing ideas to life efficiently because they provide a vivid portrayal of our creative plans and allow for quicker internal user and client feedback. Prototyping is a journey that extends from initial project ideation to user experience and design, and through final engineering.

Prototyping is particularly useful when used alongside the Design Thinking model of product creation. Our entire process is propelled by Design Thinking. For us, it is the mechanism through which innovation and creativity can be unleashed. The three stages of Design Thinking include Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation. Prototyping is useful in each stage.

During the inspiration phase, we conduct field research to gather insight from the world around us. This includes doing a comparative analysis of competitive products and observing elements within our environments that contribute to our vision for a product. Creating low fidelity prototypes at this stage often adds fire to our inspiration. Perhaps something we saw during field research resonated with us. Something as simple as a napkin sketch passed around for feedback can generate new ideas. That, my friends, is lo-fi prototyping.

In Ideation, we go to the next level. In this phase, we still do lots of sketching, but we also start enhancing our prototypes by building them in Adobe XD, Sketch and Photoshop. We begin testing these prototypes in InVision, which allows us to start clicking around from screen to screen while animating things. This is when initial user testing can begin. We like to get our ideas in front of our audience as soon as possible before a lot of budget gets spent.

Finally, we keep prototyping and testing through Implementation. In our experience, almost every significant project ‘pivots’ at least a little when you receive feedback on a prototype. Your first idea is rarely the best, and prototyping gives you that information. The prototypes used during Implementation get successively higher fidelity until you end up testing something that is nearly identical to the final product. That typically takes some iterations, but each iteration is well worth the time.

How do you prototype?

Prototypes aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Every project is different, and each stage during a project needs various levels of prototyping. We mentioned napkin sketches, Photoshop and InVision above, and those are great examples of both low-fidelity and medium-fidelity prototypes.

Before jumping into higher fidelity models, I think it’s important to reiterate how important the lowest fidelity prototypes are to product design. There is a concept in the UX world called Lean UX. The staples of that concept are that low-fidelity sketches, whiteboard sessions and lightly documented ideation are all more efficient than jumping into (or even doing) high-fidelity wireframes and information architectures. Those high-fidelity documents usually incur a lot of time to produce and become out of date almost immediately after creating them. This is the nugget of gold in this article: People can provide just as rich and insightful feedback on a crappy napkin sketch or a 30-minute whiteboard session as they can for an entirely functional, beautifully designed, finished product. Save yourself the money and show somebody a sketch.

But, I digress. There is also value in high-fidelity prototyping. Once we’ve begun testing with Invision, we can start establishing an understanding of what our audience likes about the product we’re building. We can confidently start engineering some features that have the potential of making it into the final product. In addition to initial engineering, we also use tools like Principle, Framer and After Effects to start adding sophistication, movement, and interactivity to our prototypes. These tools allow us to move things around on the screen, press buttons, hear sounds and watch video so that we can start playing with things. An extra bonus to using these tools is that they all spit out code that can be utilized once engineering starts. By continuing to test these hi-fidelity prototypes, we get closer and closer to eventually landing on things that we’re pretty darn sure we’re going to build. But it doesn’t stop there.

We continue to “prototype” products as we jump into final engineering. At this point, it’s not technically a prototype anymore. It is real, working software that will eventually ship. However, as the build progresses, we continue testing with users so that we can watch them break what we’re building, fix what’s broken, and do it all over again until the final product is ready. It’s important to note that ‘final’ does not mean ‘perfect’. If you wait for perfect, you run the risk of getting beat to market by a slightly less than perfect competitor, and you will lose your edge. Moral of the story? Prototype, prototype, prototype, then SHIP.

What Does a Digital Innovation Agency Do? A Story Mom & Dad Would Understand.

What Does a Digital Innovation Agency Do? A Story Mom & Dad Would Understand.

I love my parents. That’s them up there in the header with my daughter. We live a couple thousand miles apart, but that doesn’t stop us from talking a couple times every week. That has led to thousands of conversations over the last decade about the digital agency I help run. My mom and dad still do not know what the heck I do every day.

A couple of weeks ago I was hanging out with some friends from work and we were asked what we do by some folks at the local watering hole. We went on and on about how we work at a digital innovation agency called MJD, how we build cool digital products and experiences, that we do UX, design, and software engineering, etc. Our very polite new friends nodded as their eyes glazed over, not really understanding what we were talking about. Realizing this, I got to thinking: Why not write a post that explains how we have evolved into the digital agency we are today in terms anyone can understand? My mom and dad could read it and know that their hard earned money that put me through college actually did some good!

First Things First

Just like there are lots of different kinds of doctors (“ear nose and throat”, “family practitioner”, “cardiologist”), there are lots of different kinds of digital agencies. You’ll hear terms like “full service”, “digital marketing”, “paid media”, “SEO”, “social networking”, and many others. I’ll only explain the kind of digital agency that MJD has become over the past ten years: digital innovation through products and experiences. So this post is not going to cover a good half of what a digital agency could do, or even why we need to have the word digital in it, but it will help my parents understand what I do, help explain more why we call ourselves a digital innovation agency and what MJD specializes in.


In short, MJD is a new type of digital agency that makes the digital products and experiences that people use and interact with every day. There’s no shortage of digital things that could be made, but what resonates with us are those that enhance the human experience. A delightful interaction at a theme park that fills a child with wonder? An immersive adventure in a retail space that spurs the imagination? That’s us. A sterile workflow tool for tracking cog production in some soul-stealing enterprise hell? Not so much.

Life’s too short to churn out another banner marketing campaign that interrupts people in their daily routines; we’ll leave that to the folks that enjoy that sort of thing. What we do is unleash our technical and creative expertise on problems where digital can make a difference in people’s lives. Sure, the solutions we come up with may include mobile (iOS/Android) applications, custom software, or augmented reality—just as a soufflé includes flour, eggs, and butter. Ultimately, we seek to create something greater than the mere ingredients.

We’re a new type of digital agency that helps clients understand how digital interacts with the physical world around us.

Industry Jargon: UX

When we build a digital product or experience, our goal is to create something that enhances the real world around us, not just interrupt us to sell something. For instance, we built a mobile application for Viper that allows people to turn on their cars with a watch. (Dad, it’s kind of like Kit from Knight Rider.) We built a mobile app and website for Disney Imagineering that made their Haunted Mansion attraction come alive online, on your phone with augmented reality, and in the park with a personalized ghost story.

Our job as a new type of digital agency is to make sure that the digital layers we are adding onto these physical environments are simple and beautiful. The experience could be many things—fun, inspirational, thought provoking, educational, functional—but it is our job to make sure it’s worthwhile and valuable for those using it. There are lots of digital experiences that suck. Banner ads come to mind. Or anything that uses Papyrus font. We strive to build the opposite of “suck”.

So, how do we arrive at this understanding of what’s valuable to the user?

First, we seek to see the world from their perspective—to empathize with the folks that we’ll be building for. Through some fancy-sounding activities (“field research”, “empathy mapping”, “contextual inquiry”) we gain a meaningful understanding of what the user thinks, feels, and wants, as well as the context in which they’re doing their thing. Really, this boils down to talking with them. Asking questions, observing, listening and deeply identifying with their views. We can then take what we’ve learned through dialogue and create a way to think about who they are (“personas”).

From here, we begin to marry what we know about the user with what our clients are looking to achieve from a business perspective. Now, you could take a concept, design it all out, build out every screen, and say “okay, here’s what we think we heard the user say”, but that’s a (very) expensive way to do things. Instead, we go light and lean and sketch out our ideas—sometimes literally on paper (“prototyping”). We take these sketches and present them to test users, get their feedback, and iterate. This screen doesn’t make sense? How do I get from here to here? Okay—let’s whip out a new sketch. In this way, fixing issues and streamlining interactions can be done in minutes instead of months, which makes everybody happy. This (“user testing”) is one of the most fun parts of what we do. We get to spring new ideas on unsuspecting folks to see what they like, what they hate, or worst of all, are just kinda “meh” about.

Our goal is to only build digital products that people will find useful. There’s simply no point in spending time and money building something people won’t use.

We’re a modern digital agency that designs digital products and experiences that are beautiful, simple, useful and innovative.

Industry Jargon: Human-Centered Design

There is so much noise around us. We aim to create peace amid the digital chaos of the modern world. We do this by designing intuitive interfaces that a person won’t have to figure out in order to use. The UX process above enables us to remove all the extraneous stuff and identify the essential. From here we innovate.

Design innovation can take two paths: evolution and revolution. Apple didn’t design the first digital phone interface, but with iOS, they evolved what already existed into the best version yet seen. On the other hand, when Chuck Hull designed the first 3D printer in 1983 it was the revolution of an entire industry. Never heard of Chuck Hull? That’s because evolutionary design (Apple) is usually easier and a lot more profitable than revolutionary design. Creating entirely new industries is really hard work.

Here are some examples: Qualcomm Ventures required a site that provided easy access to information, with a forward-thinking interface that demonstrated their position in the market. We evolved the established conventions of the modern business website to create a progressive experience that highlights their investments and expertise.

For Stride Rite, we built a revolutionary shoe sizing iPad app for kids and parents. Kids no longer have to endure the cold metal of the Brannock sizing device on bare piggies. Instead, parents can just take out their tablet, aim it at their feet, and BAM! you have a foot size. This had never been done in the industry, and it created a disruption.

We’re a new breed of digital agency that builds products rather than doing marketing or advertising.

Industry Jargon: Engineering and Development

This one might not be as obvious as it sounds. It is easy to talk about building products, but rather difficult to actually do. Turns out, there’s actual science in Computer Science. Thankfully, a whole lot of smart people have developed ways to not only build great things but build them efficiently and reliably. We can quickly get in the weeds talking about how things are built (“test-driven development”, “pair programming”, “decoupled architecture”, “software development life cycle”), or what’s used to build them (“message broker”, “data store”, “Xcode”, “Kotlin”, “noSQL”), but nevermind all that. The important takeaway is that we are grateful to be able to stand on the shoulders of technology giants and produce things that are—essentially—magic.

And just like the construction and manufacturing industries that fueled economic growth when mom and dad were growing up, it’s digital products that fuel today’s growth. Instead of steel, heavy machinery, concrete, and glass, our version of the Industrial Revolution involves software, mobile apps, websites, virtual and augmented reality and data. Unlike past economies, our products have the opportunity to benefit humanity faster, and at a larger scale than ever possible. Digital products can open borders, spread ideas, enable economic prosperity, entertain, and profoundly impact our daily lives.

While that’s a few too many words for mom and dad on a phone call, it boils down to this: Through hard work, we figure out people’s needs and our client’s goals, bring them alive with crazy and fun ideation, and get our digital products and experiences in people’s hands. And that is a pretty fun thing to tell the parents.