Avoiding diminishing returns in the product design process

An actionable guide for the design generalist


🗓 4th September, 2019

There’s no doubt that us product design generalists have a lot on our plate. We’re researchers and analysts on some days, experience designers on other days, and pull off anything in between that ultimately effects the customer.

With so many aspects to cater for, it’s easy for us to begin at the wrong place and jump over several steps that would’ve set a solid foundation for better outcomes. Even though the design process is circular and going back and forth is inevitable, I’ve learnt that there are three particular phases that when cycled in a specific order, yield better outcomes.

These three phases are:

  1. Value creation phase (VC)
  2. Experience design phase (XD)
  3. Sensory design phase (SD)

When followed in this specific order, each phase will allow product design generalists to set up a robust scaffolding to support the next phase.

Outcomes can only turn out as great as the foundation set in previous stages, if there is little substance to leverage then that will pose limitations down the line. You may have heard the phrase "Garbage in, garbage out" before.

This is why it's important to set ourselves up for success one step at a time and avoid the inevitable diminishing returns that come along with the limitations posed by each phase.

It's normal for us to feel overwhelmed by the hundreds of things that need to happen before a product is ready for shipping. This sense of overwhelm may leave us wanting to cut to the chase, however here's what happens each time we rush:

  • Jumping over the value creation phase (VC) will likely leave us with a product or service that doesn't deliver anything deeply valuable to the customer, business or team. We'd have to ask if it was worth building at all by the end of it.
  • Jumping over the experience design phase (XD) will likely leave us with a product or service that works for some in a few ideal use cases and punishes everyone else as the experience falls apart for 'them'.
  • Jumping right to the sensory design phase (SD) will likely leave us with a nice looking product or a smooth service that also doesn't deliver more than mere sensory joy.

Can you see where this is going?


My experience has thought me to spend quality time in the earlier phases and to always set broad foundations. This is because covering more ground earlier on leads to better quality decisions down the line which ultimately allow for a higher level of positive outcomes.

Simply put, the broader each foundation is, the less diminishing returns will be experienced in each phase that follows.

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Value creation phase (VC) - phase 1


The VC phase is where we have the opportunity to discuss ‘why’ we came together to create something for the customer and how that will benefit them, the business and the teams building the product in some cases too.

At times we can easily forget that nobody uses products to admire them except people who build products.

People use products for the value they deliver and for the people they become as a result.

In the VC phase there can be no diminishing returns as this is were it all begins. A great rule of thumb in order to hit the ground running is to focus on having quality, macro conversations and to stay away from solutions, details, opinions and personal preferences.

The VC phase is highly abstract because discussion, metrics and white board sessions inspire all the tangible and detailed output that will follow later. The risk of getting too tangible and specific at this point is skipping over to the next phase prematurely and triggering a first round of diminishing returns as we’ll discuss later on.

Here’s an incomplete list of topics to consider discussing during the VC phase:

  1. Target audience (Who’s our target audience?
  2. Need finding (What are our customer’s greatest needs?)
  3. Problem to be solved (What problems will we solve for our customers?)
  4. Value gaps (What are some value gaps we should fill?)
  5. Value proposition (Why is our idea valuable to customers?)
  6. Market research (What research can we leverage to be more relevant?)
  7. Competitor analysis (What does the competitive climate look like?)
  8. Brand opportunities (Where does our brand allow us to deliver more?)
  9. Strategy (What will our approach be to deliver to the market?)
  10. Risk analysis (What are some risks and how might we mitigate them?)
  11. Scaling (How will we serve more customers moving forward?)
  12. Pricing (What’s the right pricing for this product or service?)
  13. Hypothesis (What’s our hypothesis?)
  14. Outcomes and key results (What outcomes should we aim for?)
  15. Learning opportunities (What should we learn from this?)
  16. Success criteria (What does success look like?)
  17. Metrics (How will we measure the outcome?)

Experience design phase (XD) - phase2

The XD phase is where the raw value proposition is converted into intricate systems which are designed to allow customers to discover, access and experience our products and services as they were intended.

Most products and services we work on will be used by different people separated by factors such as age, cultural norms, behavioural patterns and geography to name a few. The XD phase is the right time to take all relevant considerations in mind and design all of the systems that will support the sensory level.

In this phase, the first round of diminishing returns will kick in because the systems we design are only meaningful if they deliver value in the first place. If little substance emerged in the VC phase, then the systems designed in the XD phase will be similar to highways that lead to nowhere.

You’ll know that diminishing returns have kicked in when the only way to do better in the XD phase is to go back and challenge the VC phase. Doing so is not a bad thing at all, however covering the VC phase thoroughly decreases the chances of this happening frequently and may be a huge time saver in the long run.

Here’s an incomplete list of topics to cover discussing during the XD phase:

  1. Job stories (What will our customers do with our product or service?)
  2. Journey mapping (What are all the paths that customers may take?)
  3. System flow charts (How does each system and flow work?)
  4. System scalability (How will this adapt across markets and platforms?)
  5. Edge cases (What are some dips customers may experience?)
  6. Technical constraints (What limitations are we working with?)
  7. Sketching (What options have we got?)
  8. Wire framing (What structure works best for customers)
  9. Communication (How might we communicate effectively across touch points?)
  10. Prototyping (How should it work once it’s developed?)
  11. Feedback (What are some areas we believe we can improve before shipping?)
  12. Surveys (What are some patterns in customer’s feedback on what we’re doing?)
  13. Interviewing customers (What is the customers’ detailed sentiment on what we’re doing?
  14. Pilot testing (What are some obvious mistakes that need fixing?)
  15. User testing (Can people understand and use our product or service?)
  16. Documentation (How might we make it easy for our team to work with our work?)

Sensory design phase (SD) - phase3


The SD phase is about taking all of the systems laid out in the XD phase and designing the sensory level for each touch point.

I call this phase the ‘sensory design phase’ because not all products or services require user interfaces (UI). Sometimes physical spaces or interactions between people make final outcomes too. Whatever the case may be however, people can only access a product or service through their senses; seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching, thus the term ‘sensory design’. This phase is very much a detail oriented phase, it’s about the first things that people will absorb.

In the SD phase, a second round of diminishing returns will kick in. Details on the sensory level will only come across as irrelevant if they don’t serve as a segue to customers getting what they came for in the first place.

Over designing the sensory level unnecessarily is likely to lead to a poor customer experience. This is because the busier the sensory level, the higher the cognitive load will be for customers as they’ll need to figure out what’s going on, what it means and what to do with it.

You’ll know that diminishing returns have kicked in during the SD phase when the only way to produce better outcomes in your design is to go back and challenge the VC or XD phases. Another way to notice is if you find yourself trying hard to squeeze in additional features, functions and offerings purely based on how things are looking in your user interfaces or services.

Here’s an incomplete list of topics to consider discussing during the SD phase:

  1. Typography (How might we use typography to evoke the experience we’re trying to create?)
  2. Colour (What colours would perform best across areas of use?)
  3. Graphical content (Where can graphical content reduce or replace copy?)
  4. Videos (What type of content would be clearer or more engaging in video format?)
  5. Sound (Is there a case for using sound? How might that help?)
  6. Grid structures (What platforms and breakpoints should we tackle? What grid structures make sense to use?)
  7. Layout (What page structures work best for our customers?)
  8. Alignment (How can we align elements to create relatedness where needed?)
  9. Rhythm (How might we use rhythm to provide better scalability?)
  10. Dominant items (What should people notice first? What next?)
  11. Negative space (How might we use negative space to emphasise what’s most important?)
  12. Ergonomics (How might we ensure that the product is ergonomically comfortable to use?)
  13. Interactions (Where might interaction offer additional clarification?)
  14. Accessibility (How might we make the product easy to use for people with accessibility issues?)
  15. Tone of voice (How should we speak with our customers?)
  16. Dress code (How should we present ourselves to our customers?)

After phase 3

After covering the three phases, the next cycle may begin whether that means a new round of iteration starting from the VC phase or shipping to learn before starting over.


When a phase appears to be going nowhere, it may well be due to the fact that the project is lacking direction and a solid foundation. In such cases moving one phase back rather than forward is sensible because direction is established during the earlier phases not the closing ones.

Moving into upcoming phases too early will pose great challenges as you'd have inadequate substance to leverage and would be working with the limitations posed by the phase you're working in. In other words, you'd be forcing additional rounds of diminishing returns and jeopardising the final outcome.

Lastly, a good exercise to help us product design generalists do better is to gauge 'where' things typically fall flat for us individually or in our teams and organisation. Is it in the VC phase, the XD phase, the SD phase or a combination? Is this because of a lack of expertise, a shortage of time, disinterest in specific phases? What are some patterns and why is this so? Acknowledging and addressing recurring issues is a great first step to avoiding diminishing returns in our design process.

Product design mentoring calls with David Portelli Get help with career advice, your portfolio, personal development strategies, doing better at interviews, starting your consultancy, project feedback and more. Read more