Want to learn product design but not sure where to start? In this article, Senior Product Designer Steven Paul Winkelstein explains how to become a product designer and grow your career without any prior experience in the industry.
What is Product Design?
Product design is the process of identifying real people with real problems, and using an iterative human-centered design process to create and validate solutions to those problems—thereby helping those real people achieve some sort of goal.
Today, the term is mostly applied to the tech industry. So when we write about products, it’s digital products like apps or websites that help you accomplish something like Facebook or Google Maps.
It’s not as exclusive as you think.
One common myth about the product design world is that we designers started designing when we were babies. We grew up with a pencil and a notebook in our tiny plump hands and have been human-centered-design geniuses from diapers on. This is just simply not the case. In fact, many designers in the tech community came from a variety of backgrounds— and that’s a good thing! I’ve seen folks come into the product design field from education, marketing, social work, coding, food service, graphic design, customer support… you name it.
"In product design, it’s not about the tools you know, it’s the process you employ to help a potential user achieve a goal."
The difference between someone coming from a graphic design or marketing background versus someone coming from the food industry is merely the small, teachable barrier of learning a handful of tools like design software. And in product design, it’s not about the tools you know, it’s the process you employ to help a potential user achieve a goal.
Art by DarkCube Studio
Okay, that sounds very inclusive, so where do I start?
The question now becomes, what part of product do you want to work on?
There is a myriad of designer titles out there–UI Designer, UX Designer, Unicorn UI/UX Designer, UX Engineer, UX Rockstar, UX Product Designer, UX Researcher, Information Architect, etc. etc. You don’t need to get bogged down with all of those titles right now. Along your journey, you will learn more about product specializations, the misuse of these titles in job descriptions, and you’ll eventually grasp an understanding of the user experience spectrum.
Any good product designer has skills that can be represented as a “T”. The horizontal start at the top of the “T” represents your broad knowledge of the entire design spectrum, and the long verticle extension represents your specific focus or specialization. In practice, not everyone works in a specialization. For instance, I’m the sole designer at a small startup, so I do it all. You must understand the entire iterative design process, but you might be drawn more toward researching user behavior or perhaps the other end of the spectrum, visual design and building prototypes.
So while you don’t have to answer these big questions before you begin your journey, they should constantly be in the back of your mind, becoming more and more defined as you transform into a professional product designer.
Art by Diana Traykov
So how do I do it? I want to transform… Is there a book or something?
Actually, yes. There is a book. The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman is considered the human-centered-design bible. I suggest you read that book cover to cover. Then, if you still want to be a product designer, go get you some education.
The rise of the tech bootcamp has been somewhat of a revolution over the past decade. Bootcamps allow you to take classes in-person, online, or some kind of combination over a short period of time and get your feet wet in the field you’re pursuing. Some of these bootcamps offer scholarships and others allow you to pay after you find a job post-graduation.
"The best way to get the most from your learning experience is through highly practiced people in the industry."
Whether you’re fresh out of undergrad, high school, or already have some work experience and you’re looking for a career shift, I highly recommend a bootcamp or product design course to introduce you to the field and fill in any knowledge gaps. Alternatively, you can try to self-teach with free resources on the web, but product design is more complex than learning how to use a piece of software, so the best way to get the most from your learning experience is through highly practiced people in the industry. Whether that’s through an internship (if you’re lucky enough to get one without having any formal training) or through an online course, you’ll often get to work with real clients to build a solid start to your product design portfolio. The only way into the field is to put in the work and learn.
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Only what you take with you.
Yeah, I know that the title of this article says you don’t have any experience, but that’s kind of a lie. Everyone has a little bit of product design experience no matter their background. That experience can be extremely valuable even if you don’t recognize it yet. It’s like Daddy Yoda says to Luke when Luke asks him what’s in the dark, mysterious cave on Yoda’s swamp planet Dagobah… “Only what you take with you.”
For example, in your current or previous line of work have you thought about customers and their journies? Have you had to make systems or write procedures that clarify operations or help with training? Have you designed a flyer for your friend’s band and thought about the pertinent information that needs to be included? All of these actions have skills that transfer into human-centered design. If you really stop and think about your past experience, I guarantee you will find something that relates to some part of the design process. This will give you a little confidence boost and a leg up on your transformation.
Art by DarkCube Studio
Become a Product Designer
Now that you know how to get started, go get em’! Becoming a product designer isn’t easy. It requires a lot of hard work and persistence. But if you care about helping people achieve their goals, and you have a good mind for putting together the pieces of a puzzle, then you have everything you need to begin. Good luck and happy designing!
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