In 2020, the pandemic taught us a lot, including what is really important in life, how to cherish in time, how to connect with each other when we are apart, and more. As a Taiwanese who has been in product design for more than eight years across different fields, I’d like to share what the “Taiwan Model” taught me and how to apply the learning to the product development process.
Know your Users, their Culture & Values
To tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, if any other countries want to, they could just duplicate what the Taiwan government did and apply it to their countries. However, if they do so, it is highly possible that they will see different outcomes in their countries.
For instance, let’s consider the need of wearing a mask to contain the spread of the virus. It wasn’t intuitive to me that in many western countries, people were protesting due to the government asking them to wear masks. However, wearing masks for Taiwan residents is a common thing, not just because of the prior experience of the country with SARS (back in 2002 – 2004) but also for the temperature difference across the seasons.
The similarity with Product development
Just like what you see in the market, if a company just duplicates what the competitors have done, the consumers in different markets may react to the same feature differently. We saw that in different markets. What makes sense to the product team, the users may not have the same reaction as the team or people around the team do.
Along the product development process, the team should always keep in mind and ask themselves these questions:
How well do you and your product team know about your target audiences in the market?
Do you know how their beliefs connect to reactions invoked by your product or new features?
If YES, how do we know we’re doing a good job helping our users after launching the features? What are the potential signals that help us investigate the positive (or negative) effect of the new feature?
If NO, what should we do to learn from our users?
What do we need to know to ensure we are solving the right problems for the users?
How do we know our solutions can solve the problems for the users (hopefully didn’t create new problems for them)?
Play with your Strengths & make the most of your Resources
Taiwan has been taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously since the beginning, not because it knew the pandemic was going to be huge, but because it knew that Taiwan would not be able to access the latest health information as other countries would due to political reasons. That could have been a shortcoming in Taiwan’s response to the crisis but it ended up being Taiwan’s strength. Taiwan was aware of the unique constraint, so it prepared in advance.
The powerful manufacturing industry in Taiwan is its strength. Taiwan utilised this strength to their advantage by setting up the assembly lines of making masks and scaling productivity in a short period of time.
The similarity with Product development
Not having enough resources is a common reason why a company is not able to succeed. However, if the team is small, it should be able to adapt to the market rapidly compared to the giant, well-polished companies.
What are the team’s strengths and the resources it can take advantage of?
Compared to the competitors, does the company have stronger branding? Talented team? Local knowledge? Benefited partners? or any other strengths or resources to utilize with?
Set the right leadership, nurture a positive environment
Taiwan’s response to the pandemic was led by the qualified people. For instance, Vice President, Chen Chien-jen, is an epidemiologist, and Vice Premier, Chen Chi-mai, is an expert in the public health field.
With their expertise, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) was set in place in the early-stages of COVID-19 spread. Minister of Health and Welfare, Chen Shih-chung leads CECC in this pandemic. He held the official announcement in the press conference regularly and shared the latest status, announced the latest policy, and answered all the questions from the public.
Taiwan Digital Minister Audrey Tang, is one of the key people who enables “Collective intelligence and Social Innovation”. They have explained the situation to the public scientifically, demonstrated the principles of preventing inflection publically, and shown the right attitude to face the crisis continuously. All these form a positive sentiment in society. With that, the epidemic experts can focus on investigating the solutions based on the knowledge, the latest status they observed and support from the local industry.
Other than that, no one would know how the situation in Taiwan would be without the first mask map from an engineer, or the open letter from a Taiwanese student, and the crowdfunding project led by a YouTuber. However, I think it’s fair to say they definitely helped push things forwards and inspire more ideas.
The question is, why would the engineer, the student, and the YouTuber voluntarily put the effort to contribute?
Also when they did something, others listened, echoed, inspired, supported, and more voices spoke then inspired more. The positive environment encourages the members to contribute when they want to.
The similarity with Product development
The dynamics of a product team is definitely one of the crucial factors to form the A-Team.
Everyone would prefer to work in a team with these factors:
Leaders in the team or the company explain what we, as a team, want to achieve logically
Members are convinced and aligned to the approach the team is going to take
Leaders respect the experts in different fields
Diverse voices are heard and encouraged
Different departments or cross-functional teams support each other and follow the process
With mechanisms to enable the new ideas from the ground
New ideas will be taken into consideration and getting feedback
Positive mechanism and loop of “initiative, listened, considered, reacted, and inspired the next initiative” in place
Yes, this seems a lot and definitely not an easy journey.
Communicating to the users effectively
Lastly but definitely most importantly, the official announcement hosted regularly is spreading out efficiently. 80% of people own a smartphone in Taiwan. Out of the 23M population in Taiwan, 21M of them are on LINE (a popular chatting app in Taiwan), 19M are on Facebook. There are multiple social media and chatting services available in the market but the Taiwanese chose to use these two services the most. Identifying the mainstream communication platforms in this crisis matters. Almost all the government sectors have an official account on these two platforms. There is almost no room for fake news as the communication channels are accessible for almost everyone. The information is transparent and open for discussion. All the questions are welcomed. All the confusion can be answered by the hotline.
The similarity with Product development
So, in your product team or company,
Will you be able to communicate with your target users effectively?
If the user couldn’t figure out how to use the product, are there ways to help them?
If the users drop from a particular step, will you be able to identify that and even bring the user back to the platform?
What are some of the channels for you to collect user feedback?
Do you know their culture and taboos well enough?
Will they be able to differentiate messages from your official channel(s) and rumors?
Who can they reach out if they encounter issues or confusion?
In the early stage of planning an area of a product or service, we can learn about users and context through fundamental research. After sharing knowledge learned from the research, understanding the known constraints, as a team, we should define the problem we want to solve.
Then goes to the ideation stage where creative ideas come up. With the prototypes of the ideas, we can run user research to get feedback from our users. With the learnings from the research, we should be more confident to identify the preferred solution(s) selectively. While the product is being built, we could do usability testing to identify the usability problems early enough. We might need to build multiple versions and run A/B testing in the market and make the final call with the defined product metrics.
The process doesn’t end here. Within the company, there might be multiple teams working on a different part of the product, but it’s ONE product to the user. We should always continuously listen to the users. After the feature launched, besides monitoring product metrics, do pay attention to other channels to collect user feedback, for instance, complaints from customer service, posts on social media, feedback from market research, and more.
All these are some of the ways for the team to get closer to the users.
The product team commonly knows too much about the product, hence the “happy path” is usually obvious in the design crit or internal meetings. However, users wouldn’t want to “study the product”. Users also know much more about the real context of using the product. That’s why to build the best product, knowing more about the users is always needed.
If we see different regimes as a spectrum, from extreme liberty to extreme autocracy, in the extreme autocracy scenario, all people follow one person’s word. That will be extremely efficient, which is critical in the pandemic in the early stage. However, people won’t be encouraged to share their thoughts, neither take any initiatives. It naturally forms a “just follow what the boss said” team. In the early stage to build a product, that helps to ship things out fast.
The question is, how close is the boss to the end-users? Do they share the same life experience? Do they have the same level of knowledge? Do they physically or financially have similar abilities? Do we believe the users’ reaction can be reflected in the boss’s reaction?
In reality, people usually can’t choose which country or regime they want to stay with. Even if they want to make a change, it’s not an easy task. However, in today’s world, consumers never have so many options, services, and products as today. When the boss is satisfied with the product based on his/her preference, the consumers may or may not agree with the decision, and they have tons of other options to switch to.
On another end of the spectrum, in an extremely liberal world, everyone can share their opinion and everyone is used to sharing their opinion. The next question will be, what do we do with those opinions? How do we come out with a polished solution from those opinions? How do we communicate with the public why one or some of the opinions are selected but not the rest of the others? How can we encourage the crowds to keep sharing their opinions even though their ideas were not picked before? How can we create an open, respectful, and inclusive environment so that different voices can be heard? Don’t forget that all these processes take time and resources, like collecting ideas, categorizing ideas, discussing, arguing, selecting ideas, generating solutions, etc. Most importantly, what will be the deliverable and how to implement it?
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is just a number. That represents the outcome of lots of effort from different aspects. Once people start asking “why this is the number”, it triggers a series of explanations to help us know more about context.
Just like in the product development process, specifically for online products, the metrics on the product dashboard play a huge role. In many companies, that defines the success or failure of the features, and winning or losing the market share. Some companies take that as the North Star metric for the team. However, that is similar to the number of confirmed cases you’re seeing. That tells you “what the situation is” but didn’t tell you “why this is the situation”. That didn’t help you to know more context as well.
It took Taiwan 17 years to face the next pandemic after SARS, so that the Taiwan government can evaluate how well the approach is, but nowadays the products keep updating much more frequently than ever before. A/B testing shows us how much optimization we can make by different iterations, but didn’t help us to learn why our users react to our products in this way.
Is it critical to know “why”? you may ask.
How critical is the context behind the confirmed number announced?
The flash you’re seeing now isn’t from the current light of the star. How each of the countries reacts to the crisis not just depends on the current status of the country, but also what has happened in the past, and how the past has made the country what it is today.
I see that in the product development process as well.
You can find more about Why did Taiwan cope with COVID in this way? from this article.