The great thing about launching a small business is that it doesn’t necessarily need to be strategy-heavy; much of it is about meeting a demand in the most direct way possible.

Take, for example, the inventors of the Mallo Cup candy bar.

During the Great Depression, few consumers had the budget for luxury items. But cheap thrills like penny candy were within reach for most Americans, and so the industry saw an unprecedented boom.

Two brothers, Bill and Bob Boyer, saw their opportunity, and began making Mallo Cup candy bars in their kitchen. It was a huge success, and the company still exists today.

Easy, right?

Credit: Boyer Candies

At the start, sure. But small businesses won’t survive in the long-term on one idea that works for the moment. Consumer tastes change over time. Competitors come in and saturate the market, forcing earlier businesses to create new products and differentiate themselves if they want to survive (even the Boyer brothers). And all those businesses that saw a quick shot to success will eventually find themselves at a loss to explain why the new product they thought everyone would love completely bombed. At it's foundation, this is a customer persona and journey issue.

Whether you’re a professional considering a move into product development or a business undertaking development efforts for the first time, here’s what you need to know about incorporating product design into a business.

Product designers come from a variety of backgrounds

What kind of professional experience should a product designer have?

First, understand that product design or user experience degrees are a fairly new area of study at universities. When I was in college, there were no degrees available for product design as it exists today. “Usability engineer” was still one of the more common terms for product designers, and most designers were on the graphic design side of the spectrum.

As a result, product designers (also known as Interaction or UX designers) came into the field from a number of related areas of study: industrial design, architecture, graphic design--even anthropology or psychology for those who were more on the research side of the discipline. What everyone had in common, however, was the desire to deliver something better for the user and to design according to real human needs.

What business wouldn’t want to hire a designer with a lengthy background in product design? Businesses are betting their money on someone, and will search for the most qualified person--which they think is someone with a degree in UX, thus justifying a steeper fee.

The truth is that most product designers didn’t start out that way, and that can actually bring big benefits to the process.

I studied architecture in college, and started out doing commercial projects for a construction firm--kind of like an architect in training. But like most fresh-out-of-college professionals, I realized my area of study wasn’t what I had envisioned. It didn’t help that I couldn’t relate to my industry; I was a young woman working mostly with older men in an industry that lacked the kind of dynamism and opportunity I thought it would have. So I moved to San Francisco, where I heard about this thing called “user experience.” That’s the short version of how I ended up in product design. It felt natural to me, and gave me an opportunity to apply my schooling in a different way.

Another example is the shift to digital educational curriculum; a host of former teachers have moved into product design for education technology companies, bringing with them extremely valuable knowledge of classroom dynamics and the learning process.

In other words, businesses on the hunt for the most qualified designer should consider that what qualifies them may look different from their original assumptions. For professionals thinking about making a career change into product design, consider how to leverage your current experience to be good at a product design job.

On that note, product development tends to be the least glorious of the design disciplines.

If you do your job well as a product designer, no one may really know. To someone else, certain features may seem obvious (like, yeah, shoes need shoelaces)--but it’s surprisingly hard to get to those “obvious things.”

Sometimes the most elegant solutions translate to common sense in hindsight, but they are very hard to arrive at when you’re looking at it from the beginning.

We live in the era of Apple products, where design is equally as important as what the product actually does. The assumption is that if a product designer has done their job flawlessly, the end result is not just perfectly functional but also elegant and beautiful.  

For businesses, the allure of appearance can be a fatal mistake--without having the foundation of well-designed functionality. But how do you ground product decisions with the customer? Building a customer persona in combination with the customer journey is one of the most powerful tools of the design process.

Customer personas and journeys work best when they are designed collaboratively

The concept of a “persona”---how your archetypal customer behaves and what their needs are --is fundamental to any product design effort. What do customers say they need, and how does it differ from what they might actually need? What is their day-to-day, and how does that relate to the product we are designing?

I’ve found it incredibly important to also develop the persona’s User Journey through the product. What does the Persona’s actual journey through the product look like? How are they trying to use the tool, and what kind of problems are they solving? What are the obstacles they are running into? Getting those answers and turning them into something takes a carefully executed approach for both the designer and the company.

Having a customer journey and persona finalized is only as powerful as the team's consensus, as well as empathy generated for the customer, during the creation process.

Every department needs to align on, “This is the customer and this is how they interact with our tool.” In fact, I would argue that the co-creation of the persona and the user journey—the alignment of perspectives—is more important than delivering the perfect document. It's the process of doing the work and truly creating a common understanding of the customer experience, which pays huge dividends in the long-run.

Doing this well requires an open and collaborative effort from all decision-makers. It will better unify the company, and will help the product designers generate as many insights as they can in a shorter amount of time.

Case study: Customer persona and journey at SupportBee.

When I began working with SupportBee, an SMB that provides customer support ticketing to other SMBs, they had been in operation for ten years. They also used their product to manage their own customer service. In this case, they wanted to expand to new markets.

I came in with design experience but I could sense that I was working with a group of people who really knew everything there is to know about the customer and their own product--it’s one of the biggest advantages of doing product design for a small business. This goldmine of customer insights and domain knowledge formed a foundation for our user experience documents, while simultaneously allowing me to view the customer with fresh eyes during interviews.

Together, we created a new persona and user journey to gain clarity on the Product Roadmap and priorities for the coming year. But there’s my point--the documents genuinely inform their entire approach. It’s not just another document that looks nice on the wall; rather, it has become part of their thinking and decision-making process.  

Growth comes in all shapes and sizes.

SupportBee has no plans to be a unicorn; they simply want to be better for their existing customers and increase their reach. Venture-backed startups with big aspirations, as well as large companies, are driven by the desire to own the entire market and move to more lucrative customer segments. More often than not, I’ve found this kind of pressure to be counter-productive for a large swath of the early customers, leaving many SMBs in the dust in the process (when they don’t find themselves priced out).

I personally find the environment of a company with a commitment to keep its existing customers while expanding to be much more user-friendly.

Here was our final product:

Three useful tips for developing customer personas and journeys

Just like the ingredients for a meal, picking the right customers to interview is essential. You’ll know you’ve hit the right customer group when the interview insights are aligned enough to be actionable, while the group also represents a customer segment large enough to generate business growth. If you’re not getting actionable insights, it's a sign that you should adjust the target group and keep going with the interviews.

Make sure to listen for the needs and behaviors of the customer first. On the surface, two customer interviews could feel like complete opposites in demographics, industry, and tone--but if the needs and behaviors in the product are aligned, none of those differences actually matter.

Finally, translating insights into opportunities is part art and part science. Keeping good notes is essential as you review them for patterns later and generate insights based on those patterns. Even counting the number of times a theme or insight comes up will bring a bit of objectivity to your process.

If you’d like to dive deeper into how to translate personas, customer journeys and product design into retention and new business, check out SupportBee’s blog post, “4 Stellar Strategies to Keep Customers Coming Back for More.”