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Bridging the Gap: Highlights from ITX’s 2nd Annual Product + Design Conference

ITX hosted its 2nd Annual Product + Design Conference on June 22-23 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel Ballroom in downtown Rochester. The 2023 event’s 225+ Keynote Day attendees included every fashion of product maker and leader.

They may have entered the conference as product managers, designers, engineers, QA specialists, and content strategists. But they exited as members of a product team, collectively responsible for solving one shared problem: how do we improve the lives of our users?

“Turn Toward Each Other.” – Jesse James Garrett, Design Leadership Coach

In preparation for his keynote, Jesse James Garrett asked his 8,000 LinkedIn product manager and designer followers to share their biggest complaint regarding the other.

He transformed their feedback into his first new talk in 5 years, a frank, honest, inspiring presentation that shined a light on product team dysfunction and offered advice for bridging the gap between them.

Product teams spend too much time and energy working on the wrong things, Jesse said. We lose sight of the who, what, and why we’re solving for and instead direct our attention to winning the decision-making power over research, requirements, resources, and roadmaps.

He urged product leaders and designers alike to “turn to the center, toward one another. Product + Design are both stronger when you work together.”

“Making Futures Work” – Phil Balagtas, Futures Design Expert

Phil Balagtas draws on 20 years of experience designing digital products, the last 10 thinking about the future. Not about predicting it, but about creating scenarios that help us prepare for life’s “inevitable surprises.”

Ours is a VUCA world, he continued, filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Phil introduced the Futures Wheel as a tool – a map of implications, he said – to help us identify the potential consequences of trends and events and understand how today’s decisions bring direct and indirect consequences / opportunities for the future.

Phil uses design programs to help us envision future opportunities and challenges and ask ourselves, is this the kind of world we want? and with the future always upon us, how do we want to prepare for it?

“Radical Product Thinking” – Radhika Dutt, Entrepreneur, Product leader, Author

One of the key threads woven through the 2-day conference was the notion that problems need to be understood before they can be solved.

Radhika Dutt, author of Radical Product Thinking: The New Mindset for Innovating Smarter, has observed and studied the many problems that many product teams face. During her presentation, she shared not only her diagnoses, but their remedies as well.

As organizations have transformed from sales led to engineering led to product led and beyond, they experienced obsessive sales disorder, narcissus complex, pivotitis, and locked-in syndrome – each, Radhika says, is the result of product iterations that lack clear vision and strategy and is often fatal to innovation.

Radhika described Radical Product Theory (RPT) as a methodology for building world-changing products and gave attendees a step-by-step approach for engineering transformation within their organizations.

RPT comes in five key components, she explained. And when big-picture vision joins strategy, tactical prioritization, and roadmap execution (+ metrics), organizations can apply all of these ideas to enhance their culture.

“Ways to Measure Design” – Krissi Xenakis, Product Design Leader

Actually, the complete title of Krissi’s keynote presentation includes the parenthetical “(without selling your creative soul).”

Product design leader, advisor to startups, and an educator at the School of Visual Art’s Products of Design MFA program in Manhattan, Krissi Xenakis is a lover of design. She’s also a lover of the people whose lives are improved by design. It’s why she finds it so difficult to separate her design craft from her design hobby.

It’s also why she struggles with what she described as “sad soul scenarios” – comments that diminish the contributions designers make every day, like:

  • “We already know the pain points; we don’t need to do research.”
  • “It’s okay if it doesn’t look good; we just need some wireframes.”
  • “What’s the ROI of Design? Can’t Engineering do their work without design?”

Using delightful illustrations and examples, Krissi responded to each with an assortment of “creative soul” remedies:

  • Put distance between yourself and the work using hypothesis tests and project constraints.
  • Always align design work to company goals, and use design principles to measure what matters.
  • Show cost savings through risk mitigation and design program optimization activities.

“How Design Can Lead the Conversation” – Jocelyne Dittmer, Design Leader

Jocelyne Dittmer is a design leader with over 14 years of product, industry, and consulting experience.

“Designers contribute great insights into user needs, the problem that needs to be solved, and how to get to a solid outcome,” Jocelyne said.

Design is about solving user problems. But too often design seems to be included as an afterthought – too late in the conversation to steer the strategy and direction of a project.

Who among us hasn’t had that brief land on our desk with the technology in place or the solution already identified. Right?

Using a model centered on effective communication, Jocelyne revealed the many pitfalls and lessons learned from leading over 50 client engagements. She also suggested new tools and techniques we can all use to get design leading the conversation.  

When design leaders find the empowerment and support they’re after, good product outcomes will follow, she concluded. But even more than that, their newfound influence will accelerate the structural outcomes that encourage organizations to think differently about the value UX designers bring.

“Product Waste, Discovery, and Stakeholder Input” – Rich Mironov, Product Management Coach

Rich Mironov has been doing product for 40 years, and he continues to learn and write and blog and mentor new product managers. He authored The Art of Product Management in 2002, which many rely on as the “how to guide” for product management.

“There’s nothing more wasteful than brilliantly designing and engineering a product that drives business results or boost customer joy,” Rich declared.

The job of product is to extract more value from the development/design effort by giving them the guidance and space to do their best work and deliver the outcomes the product vision calls for. And it helps if product managers are multi-lingual, Rich joked, as they need to understand their many audiences (stakeholders).

“If you’re in the product chair,” he concluded, “you need to communicate a lot of stuff to people who don’t speak your language.”

Key takeaways:

  • Product and design deliver more value when they lean on honest discovery, a shared focus, and making the difficult choices, Rich explained.
  • This is not about velocity. Product waste happens early in the process, with strategic failure.
  • Stakeholders care less about process than they do about outcomes.

“The $1 Million Notebook” – Mike Belsito, Co-Founder of Product Collective

For the second consecutive Product + Design event, Mike Belsito seamlessly guided attendees throughout keynote day. By introducing each speaker’s keynote and facilitating attendee interaction in between, he served to connect the learning with its application.

Mike also urged attendees to use the notebook ITX provide to all attendees, describing it as a simple but powerful notetaking tool to (maybe) capture the next “$1 million idea”!

Mike is not only a good friend of ITX, he’s also the co-founder of Product Collective and co-organizer of INDUSTRY: The Product Conference.

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Peter Sullivan is Producer of ITX’s Product Momentum podcast and a student of Product and Design processes that work. As ITX”s Marketing Content Lead, he spearheads our efforts to deliver thought leadership that helps Product makers and UX designers understand and shape the future. 

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