The Four Pillars of Effective Digital Product Development


In 2020 alone, approximately two billion consumers purchased at least one digital product. From software licenses to mobile apps and tech tools, consumers are becoming increasingly active in the digital product market, a trend that has naturally spurred brands across a wide range of industries to reevaluate their digital product design and development process workflows.

Mastering the digital product development process can be challenging, especially when brands attempt to retrofit their physical good manufacturing tactics for the digital ecosystem. When producing material goods, manufacturers have to perform extensive prototyping so that they get their product as close to flawless as possible before it goes to market.

In contrast, digital product development should use speed as an advantage, since manufacturing delays are non-existent — even if the product in question has not yet been optimized to the developer’s liking. 

With that in mind, let’s explore the nuances of digital product development, including why and how it differs from manufacturing physical goods. We will also outline the four foundational elements of an effective digital product development process, discuss the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in creating software solutions for consumers, and examine why gathering feedback early and often is vital.


In this article, we will cover:

How Digital Product Design & Development Differs from Goods Manufacturing 

At the foundational level, digital product design differs greatly from the design processes behind physical goods manufacturing. First and foremost, digital product development teams, especially those working at startups, are often doing so with shorter runways — that is, how long the company can survive if its expenses and income remain constant — and the rise of software development technologies powered by AI and machine learning (ML) has further condensed those runways. 

Even if a company is working on an idea they believe to be unique, there is a good chance that at least one other team of like-minded developers is working on something similar that would fill the same void in the market, making the other product obsolete before it ever gains traction among consumers.

digital product development

Additionally, digital product design and development processes are far more adaptable than the workflows involved in physical goods manufacturing. In the latter space, correcting a product defect often involves issuing recalls and engaging in extensive machine retooling, whereas, in the digital realm, developers can continuously work on and push out updates that improve the user experience.

Therefore, although it may seem counterintuitive, wrapping up your digital product development workflows once you have a deliverable that a customer can at least try is a cost-saving move. Conversely, the longer you go without communicating with your customers, the more expensive your digital product development process will become. 

The old adage “perfect is the enemy of good” applies here. If your team becomes consumed with the idea of developing a perfect product, they will face seemingly endless delays, miss delivery deadlines, and take far too long to get a product in front of the people that will actually be using it.

But who better to decide whether your product is effective than your customers? The answer is clear. 

Let’s break it down with the following example: Say that you want to take a coast-to-coast road trip but choose not to pay very close attention to your GPS. Somewhere along the way, you take a wrong turn and deviate from your planned path. 

The sooner you check your GPS, the easier (and cheaper) it will be to adjust your course. If you wait until you have completed your journey, you may find that you drove hundreds of miles out of the way from your destination and wasted a significant amount of money on fuel and supplies as a result.

These same basic premises apply to digital product development. The sooner you let customers try your product and provide feedback, the easier it will be to adapt it to better meet their needs. The last thing you want to do is waste thousands in precious development dollars building features that no one wants. 

The 4 Pillars of Digital Product Development

4 pillars digital product development

If you want to succeed in digital product development, it is vital that you do the following:

Talk to Your Customers

While talking to your customers may seem like a natural first step, far too many brands neglect it, in large part due to poor planning and simple oversight, as opposed to hubris. 

The iterative digital product development workflow must always start with the “why” and then proceed to the “what.” You can work out the “how” last. In addition, every digital product design and development process should follow an audience-problem-solution flow.

In other words, you must begin by speaking to (and, more importantly, listening to) your customers, and to do so effectively, you must identify who your audience is. 

Once you know who you are trying to reach, actively listen to the challenges they are facing and consider how you can solve them via your digital product development process. Solving imaginary problems is easy, but products that remedy issues no one has actually experienced won’t sell, no matter how good their craftsmanship is. Therefore, you must ensure you are working for a bonafide audience, not a group you created in a vacuum.

Make Your Digital Product Development Strategy

After you define your “why,” “what,” and “how” (in that order), you can begin building your digital product development strategy. Now is not the time to reinvent yourself or attempt to turn weaknesses into strengths. Go all in on what you’re good at and ignore the rest, at least for now.

From there, you need a great story, one that lays out the sort of change you are going to bring about with your digital product. Don’t focus too much on the fine details here, such as your product’s look or functionalities; instead, keep the process high-level and look at the big picture. 

The basic premise for your story may go something like this: “We want to develop a digital productivity app for iOS and Android that helps busy retail store managers better manage their schedules.” 

While your story does not have to be overly specific, it does need to identify what you want to do (develop a digital productivity app), how you want to deliver it (on iOS and Android), who it is for (retail store managers), and what it does (streamlines schedule management). 

Identifying your target audience is particularly important — it not only helps you better tailor your app to a user, but it also helps you weed out less relevant user feedback and fine-tune your focus. In this case, feedback from retail store managers and assistant managers would be most relevant, while feedback from the owner of a landscaping service would not be very valuable.

With a story and the foundations for a digital product development strategy in place, you now need to get a consensus on what you’re good at. Here is how to do it:

Use the Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin framework helps you tackle organizational challenges by categorizing situations into one of five domains, each of which is defined by a specific cause-and-effect relationship. The purpose of the Cynefin framework is to help you diversify your decision-making approach, thereby encouraging adaptability.

The five domains of the framework are as follows:

  • Clear Contexts: The Domain of Best Practices
  • Complicated Contexts: The Domain of Experts
  • Complex Contacts: The Domain of Emergence
  • Chaotic Contexts: The Domain of Rapid Response
  • Disorder

When developing a product, hundreds to thousands of microtasks must be completed before you can go to market. The Cynefin framework helps you zero in on tasks that require unique, custom effort and separate them from those that can be commoditized. The purpose is to devote most of your time and resources to a few custom aspects while outsourcing everything else to accelerate the development process. 

Conduct Wardley Mapping

A Wardley Map is a problem-solving tool that allows you to visualize the digital product development landscape. It features a value chain, which outlines what activities you need to complete to fulfill your consumers’ needs. The chain is graphed against evolution, which refers to how individual activities change amidst shifting supply and demand conditions. 

Furthermore, using a Wardley Map increases your situational awareness and helps you identify shared assumptions between you and team members. It can also shed light on your available options based on the value chain and expected market evolution. 

Pinpoint Key Differentiators

Both a Wardley Map and the Cynefin framework are excellent tools for exploring your problem and the landscape in which you are operating. You can use either of them to examine the challenges you are trying to solve, and if desired, you can even combine them to unlock complementary insights in your digital product design and development journey. 

Regardless of whether you use a single framework, both, or another approach entirely, your goal is to pinpoint the key differentiators that your business brings to the table.

You must be able to answer questions like, “What makes our business capable of solving the consumer’s problem?” and “How are we going to deliver optimal value for our audience while simultaneously making our product stand out from the competition?”

Do What You’re Good At — Outsource the Rest

collaboration on digital product developmentOnce you have crafted a compelling story and identified your key differentiators, it is time to put these insights to use. What that entails is doing what your company is already best at — outsourcing everything else. 

Focusing your time, resources, and energy on areas in which you are most talented maximizes productivity and allows you and your team to perform at your best during the digital product development lifecycle. When team members encounter a task that falls outside of their skill set, they can turn to your outsourced development partners for support. 

Outsourcing is more efficient and cost-effective than attempting to upskill your team on the fly, as well, especially when facing time crunches to meet fast-approaching deadlines. 

Determine How Many Times You Can Be Wrong

Like it or not, digital product development is a process driven by repeated trial and error. No matter how talented your team is or how careful you are during each phase of the development lifecycle, you will get things wrong. The question you must ask yourself in these moments is how many wrong turns your project can weather before it goes off the rails.

If you were developing a physical product and couldn’t verify its functionality and completeness until it was time to ship the whole thing, for instance, you couldn’t be wrong, but people aren’t perfect. In light of that, it is impractical to go into any development process with the expectation that you will make it through with absolutely zero mistakes.

To prepare for the inevitable mistake, you should keep the following tips in mind:

  • Know Your Thresholds

    Determine your organization’s risk tolerance. If something does not go as planned early on in the digital product development lifecycle, you need to know whether the C-suite will be willing to see things through to completion or if they’ll be ready to scrap everything. If you are the chief decision-maker, you need to be able to specify just how much risk you are willing to absorb when creating a product.
    Setting these thresholds before work gets underway will help you avoid over- or under-committing to a project, and planning for the unexpected enables you to take mishaps in stride, so long as the issue does not push your business into the red. Even if a project drifts outside of your comfort zone, you can mitigate the damage and cut your losses before it’s too late.
  • Set Your Runway

    As touched upon earlier, startups and ventures backed by venture capital (VC) in the world of digital product development use the term “runway” to refer to how long they have before they run out of funding.

    For instance, if a VC-funded team had $150,000 of capital and is burning through it at a rate of $15,000 per month, their runway would comprise ten months. When the firm reaches the end of its runway, it needs to be ready for “take off,” so if the project is still incubating, it will need to be scrapped or raise more money to continue its development.

    Even if you are not backed by a VC firm, you need to set your runway clearly. Treating a project budget as if it is VC-backed creates a sense of urgency while also ensuring that you do not overspend. Give yourself a cushion, as well, should the project not get up to speed as quickly as you expected.
  • Don’t Let One Slip-Up Prevent You from Succeeding

    A single mishap, especially if it is severe, is capable of derailing an entire project, meaning you can’t let anything like that happen.

    To safeguard your project from the unexpected, explicitly list and rank your assumptions based on the likelihood that they are true. With regard to digital product development, assuming a piece of software will function in a certain way without evidence to support your belief can be detrimental to the project’s outcome.

    In addition, you must express to your team (and remind yourself) that iterations end when a customer can try the product, not when your Kanban or JIRA board says you are done. In digital product development, shorter is better, so build for “the now,” not the future. 

Only Build Enough to Learn — Build to Get More, Then Adapt 

digital product development

As your digital product design and development process begins, keep the 70% rule of information in mind; that is, you have to build everything with about 70% of the information you would like. Apply the concept to your project and build your information architecture first. Everything else can stem from that, as all of your other team members can work on the information architecture simultaneously, including API developers, UX designers, and product managers.

As you build out your project, there are two additional concepts that you should apply, which are as follows:

Craftsmanship Is Not Your Friend

“Premature optimization” is often considered to be the root of all evil in the world of software and digital product development. The term describes situations in which a developer allows performance concerns to influence the design of their code. In other words, premature optimization refers to trying to perfect your digital product while it’s too early to do so. 

Overemphasizing the quality of the craftsmanship of your deliverable before you have gathered any real-world performance data or consumer feedback is like trying to solve an algebraic equation without defining any of the variables. You may get lucky, but it is much more likely that you miss the mark entirely.

In digital product development, a poorly-crafted item in the right market will sell despite its lack of craftsmanship. In contrast, a well-crafted solution in the wrong market will not sell at all, even if its craftsmanship is exceptional.

That said, you need to focus on three key areas if you want your digital product to perform:

Digital Product Performance

  1. Attention: Make it worth your customers’ time to use your product
  2. Transactions: Make your product worth a customer’s transaction
  3. Productivity: Make sure customers can get their work done more efficiently with your product

Keeping these facets in mind during every stage of development will transform your budding digital product into a massive success.

Isolate the New Parts and Shim the Rest

When you begin your digital product development journey, you will undoubtedly experience sentiments like “ We could build a better [X],” but if that variable is not what you are testing or taking to market, don’t pursue it. Instead, buy it or outsource its function for a limited time to see if your assumption is correct. Some good candidates for software-as-a-service (SaaS) outsourcing include authentication, building pipelines, and email functionalities. 

Just as you would when following the scientific method, you can control and minimize the variability of non-essentials in your digital product development workflow as you test your assumption by doing the following:

  • Buy and integrate SaaS products whenever possible if not the main test
  • Use large ecosystems on custom builds wherever possible until you have time to build your own
  • Learn the players and know who can offer you services at a fraction of the cost of building it

Set the Stage for a Successful Digital Product Development Process

Mastering digital product design and development can be a challenging undertaking, but you can tap into the tools, technologies, and insights you need to succeed by connecting with UDig. 

We have helped several clients revamp their digital product development strategies and progress toward their growth goals, so if you would like to learn more about how we can support your company’s digital product development initiative, contact our team and schedule a consultation today.


About The Author

Hugh Dillon is a Principal Consultant, focused on product strategy and design.