What is a digital product?

Over the past few years, I've found myself trying to articulate the terms 'digital product design' and 'user experience' to folks both outside my industry (the 'so what do you do?' question) as well as to colleagues and clients I work with.

It's usually a clunky exchange that invariably involved me talking with my hands a lot... large, sweeping motions that somehow help convey a sense of 'connectability' and 'holisticness' - yeah those aren't words. I checked. Online.

So what better way to kick-off Digital Product Month on the ZGM blog, than by taking another, hopefully more graceful stab at defining what we mean by digital product, and why product thinking is an increasingly important aspect of an organization's digital presence.

When people hear 'product' they usually think of physical products - something tangible they can touch and possess. A digital product by contrast is web-enabled software in the form of a website, mobile app, desktop app, smart watch app, conversational interface, kiosk touchscreen, digital car console... you get the idea.

Colloquially, we often refer to anything with a digital interface, such as brochure website, as a product.But there's a key difference we should underscore here: people buy products. A product serves a need, solves a problem, or otherwise provides value. If it didn't, it would soon vanish from the shelves (you're welcome for the 5th grade business lesson 😉)

So for a physical product to be successful, there needs to be a value exchange; someone sees it as valuable and is willing to part with something, dollars in this case, in exchange for it.

A digital product fills the same requirement, except the exchange is for access or use rather than physical ownership, and in addition to or instead of spending money, we are often 'paying' with our time and attention (both of which are non-renewable resources I might add). Let's look at some digital products:

    • eBay: creates value by facilitating a safe online marketplace for buying and selling second-hand goods.
    • Spotify: creates value by putting millions of songs at their fingertips without taking up space on your devices or record shelf. 
    • Facebook: (in theory anyway) creates value by allowing you to more easily keep in touch and share photos with friends and family.

Now the above examples are tech companies, who's business models are rooted in digital technology. I start with these in the analogy because it's easier to see how software made by Apple is a product.

But you don't have to be a tech company to exercise product thinking. Many digital products are extensions of 'traditional' businesses trying to disrupt a market and deliver more customer value by leveraging technology (Netflix anyone?).

Let's take a coffee shop's website for example. It has strong branding. Beautiful photography. Clear, concise copy communicating the company's history, mission, and vision. It features the current special offers, lists all the locations, provides contact info, and so on. How much value does this have for customers? No doubt it has some. Would someone pay something for this experience? Probably not, as it's little more than what the yellow pages have provided for years for free. It's simply a one-way communication channel.

Now, let's say it also included every menu item available for purchase in-store, with all the nutritional info listed? And you could also create a log-in, pre-order your coffee, and have it ready for pickup. And it remembered your previous order to make your next purchase quick and easy. And when you went to pick it up, a barista greeted you by name and handed you your order. And it billed directly to your Apple Pay, Google Pay or credit card. And after 9 coffees, it automatically gave you your 10th one free. And it gave you advice on how to claim coffee as a tax deductible business expense... ok, forget that last one. The point is, understanding your customers, clients, or, users' needs and goals allows you to think more broadly about how you can deliver something of greater value. Now it's a product. If designed and built right, using the product results in an improved experience for the customer. Might someone pay something for this version of the coffee buying experience? Well now we're talking! The beauty is that this product won't cost any extra money for a patron to use, it's just a website. But they are much more likely to spend their time with this version over the previous example because you've actually given them time back with an expeditious morning coffee ritual. It may even impart a competitive advantage over other coffee shops.

Product thinking is not just for tech or retail either. It can be applied to other sectors like government, health care, hospitality, travel & tourism, the list goes on. It's about finding new ways to bring value to your users and customers by understanding their needs and goals. The more someone might 'pay' for something, the more value you've likely provided.

The caveat here is that you have to actually understand your users' needs and goals in order to provide value, or else you risk creating the world's worst digital Swiss Army Knife. Enter user research, which we will have to cover in another post.

Ok, now now we're all on the same page about what makes a digital product, right? Phew. I hope that analogy holds. 

But can a website ever just be, you know, a website? Of course! Sometimes a purely informational website or marketing micro-site is all that's required and fits perfectly into a campaign or corporate communication strategy. But for better or worse, our attention spans are shrinking, while our expectations around the role technology plays in our lives is growing. WIth over 1.5 billion (200 million active) websites on the internet, all competing for time and attention, you may want to pause a moment to consider whether your website or digital product is providing meaningful value to your users and customers, and whether they will deem it worthy of trading their limited time and attention for.


February is ZGM's Digital Product Month

We'll be talking about Digital Product all month on all our channels. Did you know we also have a podcast? Tableside Mashed Potatoes is a podcast where Peter Bishop, Scott Irwin and Derek Hovinga talk all things digital marketing. On this week's episode we talk about Website Usability. Go to our webpage and subscribe to Apple Podcasts or Spotify to give it a listen.



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