It wasn’t that long ago that the concept of product design was relegated to physical products. These days, a Google search for the term returns a mix of industrial design and digital design resources, but even that wasn’t the case just a few short years ago. But things are changing fast, and product design concepts are spreading across the digital landscape like wildfire.
Here is everything you need to know about the job of a product designer.
What is Product Design?
The fact that the product design discipline exists in any industry implies that there’s bad design and good design. Given this distinction, one can assume that a well-designed product makes good business sense. And it does. Design quality is often the sole differentiator for a customer. And when businesses fail to account for this, bad things happen. It doesn’t matter if that business is a scrappy start-up or a multi-trillion dollar tech company world-renowned for its design acumen.
Product design is the multidisciplinary approach of identifying real users and their problems and designing a solution to those problems.
So, how do you listen to your customers and design a better product? Hiring a product designer is a good start. Product design is the multidisciplinary approach of identifying real users and their problems and designing a solution to those problems. These solutions come by way of a human-centric design process that focuses on understanding the user and their goals and then designing a solution through ideation and iteration that helps the user achieve their goals.
Art by Morgane Sanglier
Roles and Responsibilities of a Product Designer
Above all, product designers are customer advocates. A product designer's role consists of is understanding their users' needs and problems and ensuring the product meets those needs and solves those problems. Through a combination of empathetic design thinking, deep user research, and a focused design process, they put the user at the center of the product. The best product designers have both a deep sense of empathy and analytical prowess. Where other design disciplines often focus on abstract business problems, product designers focus on concrete user problems.
When they aren’t advocating for superior user experiences, product designers work in other design areas, such as User Interface Design (UI Design) or User Experience Design (UX Design). This could be anything from sketching or wireframing layouts, designing a UI composition, or creating a high-fidelity prototype. Others are responsible for interaction design, typography, or iconography. It all depends on the individual product designer, the team they’re on, and their specialization. No matter how you slice it, product designers do a lot.
As Elona Jaquez, a Principal Product Designer at Care.com, puts it:
“A “typical” workday for me can consist of collaborating with other designers and product managers, doing competitive user research of apps and features, ideation with cross-functional peers, sketching, wireframing or prototyping (as needed), working on pixel-perfect comps in Sketch, designing iconography in Illustrator, animating in Principal, and light user testing. As a lead, I also work to keep the team running smoothly as we work together to create excellent experiences for our customers. No two days in Product Design are exactly the same, and that’s a big part of why I love it!”
Art by tubik.arts
Product designers are often the go-between for their team and the rest of the product team across management, marketing, and management. This means they need the necessary product designer soft skills and leadership abilities to communicate effectively, defend user needs when necessary, and influence their peers for the sake of human-centric design.
The job of a product designer is never complete. As long as a product exists and people use it, the product designer is there, analyzing data, increasing their understanding of their users, studying interactions, and iterating designs. Long after a product’s release has come and gone, they’re advocating for their users and refining their digital products.
If being a product designer sounds like it’s complicated, it’s because it is. Thankfully, we can stand on the backs of many talented product people that came before us to make the product design journey a little more approachable.
The Product Design Process
The product design process is a series of phases a product designer and their team follows to help fulfill their roles and responsibilities. It provides a framework for defining the product’s vision, researching the competition, identifying users and their problems, designing and testing the solutions. The process makes everyone’s job a little easier, and it helps keep the product team focused and on schedule.
It’s worth mentioning that product design processes vary depending on the team. Bigger teams with established design operations might have heftier processes, especially during the research stages. Conversely, smaller teams might have a leaner, more streamlined process. But in general, a solid product design process is going to look something like this:
- Defining the product
- Research, research, research
- User analysis
- Designing the product
- Testing and validation
Let’s dive into each stage.
Art by Karina
1. Define the Product
Long before a designer scratches a single line on a piece of paper, the product team needs to define what they’re building, why they’re building it, and how they’re going to build it. The team needs a clear vision that defines the product, the product’s features, and the problems the product will solve. They also need a strategy to determine how they’re going to achieve the vision for their website, mobile app, software, and other digital interfaces their users will interact with.
The product’s vision serves as the North Star for the product team. It’s what guides them to the finish line and eventually gets the product out the door. It helps keep everyone on the same page at any given moment by providing focus and a common goal. A clearly defined product with clearly defined features.
The product’s strategy determines the path the team takes to reach the finish line. It’s the route the team plans on taking to reach the target destination. While a product’s vision should change as little as possible, the strategies employed to get there are, by nature, more flexible.
2. Research, Research, Research
User research is paramount to the product designer whose sole responsibility is to the people using the product. At this stage, product designers are purely a researcher seeking to understand everything they can about the product’s users. They do this through various interviews with users or through online surveys.
While user research is a keystone to product designers, competitive analysis is no less important. It’s imperative to know who your competitors are and what approaches they took in their design. Obviously, the goal is to gain an edge on the competition through your product’s design, but you need to know where the bar sits so that you can identify opportunities.
It’s also worth mentioning that competitive analysis includes researching products that may not seem like competition at first glance. Just because a product’s value proposition differs from your own doesn’t mean it can’t provide solutions to some of the problems your product intends to address.
3. User Analysis
During this stage, the product designer looks at all the juicy user data they collected and turns it into insights. This involves organizing and analyzing the data and inferring ideas about what the user’s goals, desires, and habits are. The product designer accomplishes this through the creation of user personas and empathy maps.
User personas are characters created by the product designer based on user research. They often represent an amalgamation of different types of users who are likely to use the product similarly. They provide a representation of key user groups that the designer can continuously refer to throughout the design process. They’re also useful for understanding user goals and motivations during the ideation phase.
Empathy maps are used to help product designers communicate what they’ve inferred about their users. They provide a more vivid picture of the user to the whole product team, helping them understand why a user wants what they want. This gives the team a holistic view of the user, and it helps keep the user in perspective throughout the entire process.
Art by zara magumyan
The ideation phase is where things really start to take off. It involves a plethora of techniques and methods for plotting and understanding user interactions and motivations, visualizing design solutions, and organizing product information. It’s a highly collaborative stage involving brainstorming sessions with cross-functional peers to come up with creative ways to address challenges. This is also the perfect opportunity for the product designer to challenge their initial design assumptions against their research.
Take a deep dive into the minds of your users.
A user journey map is a way to visualize the process a user takes to accomplish a goal. It usually depicts the steps taken by the user as they interact with the product. Journey maps can vary considerably depending on product complexity, context, and the team’s goals. In its simplest form, a user journey map demonstrates a single user path for a given scenario. More complex journey maps can show various experiences across different sessions and scenarios.
Storyboards are another way to visualize user interaction. They help teams understand how the users are likely to interact with the product in real life. This helps guide the design process by allowing designers to empathize and understand the user’s values and overall desires. Written interaction scenarios, which are short narrative experiences based on user personas, can be similarly useful for understanding how your product fits into a person’s everyday life.
Plan the product’s structure.
Information architecture, or IA, is yet another skill that falls under the umbrella of product design. It’s how you’ll determine the structure of your product’s information, and the output is your product’s menus, navigation, hierarchies, and more. Doing it well means giving the user the information they need to understand where they are and where they need to go to accomplish their goals.
Many product teams use the card sorting method to help categorize information. It involves having users sort index cards with important features or information into categories. It indicates how users expect to find relevant information grouped within the product.
Start sketching design solutions and creating wireframes.
During the ideation stage, designers can start sketching proposed design solutions. Sketching provides an easy and rapid method for conceptualizing designs, meaning designers can generate a huge number of ideas without much effort. And seeing multiple approaches all at once can help produce novel solutions the designer hadn’t considered previously.
While certainly not as fast as sketching, wireframes are also useful. They’re low-fidelity mockups that represent the product’s structure, layout, and design hierarchy. They’re good for showing stakeholders early design direction as well as for collaborating with cross-functional teams, such as engineers and visual designers. They’re especially handy for distributed teams working remotely.
Use design sprints to validate your proposed design solutions.
Product design is immensely time-consuming from end to end. There are countless variables to account for. When you’re dealing with the unpredictable human behavior of users, many of those variables are haphazard guesses. Even incredible designers with the best possible data miss from time to time. To prevent beautifully designed flops, it’s important to start validating designs as early as possible.
Designs sprints are an approach for rapidly generating and validating design solutions. A typical design sprint takes place over the course of five days, starting with the designer choosing a problem to address on the first day. On consecutive days, the designer moves through ideating multiple solutions, deciding on a solution to test, creating a usable prototype, and finally testing the idea with real users.
For product teams in the nascent stages of ideation, design sprints are invaluable. By rapidly iterating through numerous solutions, ineffective solutions are swept away before any focused work occurs. More importantly, the design team gets a solid grasp on the direction of the product based on real user feedback.
Art by tubik.arts
5. Designing the Product
Finally, we arrive at the design aspect of product design. It took a while to get here, but after all that hard work, the design team has clarity on the design solutions most likely to solve their user’s problems and produce a great product.
During this stage, product design teams are tasked with completing the final designs and handing them over to the development team. This also includes any assets such as icons and illustrations. Depending on the team and the tools they use, the product design team might be responsible for preparing usable prototypes of their designs.
The product designer also needs to provide design specifications for the developers. Design specs provide in-depth information about the design of a product, including details of the interface such as colors, typefaces and fonts, and detailed measurements. They might also include usability information, such as animation and motion details, user flows, and product behavior.
6. Testing and Validation
Once the product development wraps, the design team begins testing and validation. They must determine, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the product’s design produces the intended results and provides the users with a great experience. This stage also gives the team a chance to observe user behavior they may not have anticipated.
Product designers rely on usability testing to validate the product’s design with target users. This enables the team to observe and document how users interact with the product first-hand. They collect qualitative data, identify any user experience pain points and determine the user’s satisfaction. This is done through direct verbal feedback from the user as well as observable non-verbal feedback.
It’s possible that the design team spots a critical usability or design problem during this stage. If and when it does happen, they’ll determine the necessary solution, which may require revisiting the design stage. In some cases, it may be an issue that’s fixed by the development team. In either event, the testing stage starts over until the final product is rock solid and delightful to use.
A product designer’s job isn’t finished when a product launches. Product design continues after launch and lasts as long as people still use the product. Principal designers and product managers will continue to guide their product teams through adding new features and user needs change, continuously moving through the design process, perfecting the product, and championing their users.
The period just after launch is especially important for a product designer. Good research in the early stages helps create the foundations for a great product, but it’s impossible to predict how the masses end up using it in the wild. And so many teams rely on metrics built into the product to provide a continuous stream of usability data. They can monitor performance, catch bugs and identify unexpected usability issues that slipped through.
Product designers can also employ A/B testing for improvements. This allows them to implement two competing designs and randomly assign them to an equal number of users. With their analytics, they can determine which design performs better according to their goals.
Art by Dragana Krtinic
How to Become A Product Designer
If you’ve read this far, you probably have a pretty good idea of what it takes to learn product design. But there’s still quite a bit more to cover if you want to become one, so hang in there!
All aspiring product designers should know that there are no fixed paths to follow for product design. If you work in design or tech, this shouldn’t be terribly surprising. But the role of a product designer is relatively new and, as such, there are few resources tailored to learning the discipline.
Given the overlapping skillsets, people in design fields are a natural fit for product design. This is especially so for UX and UI designers, motion designers, and visual designers. People in tech are also exposed to these principles and have likely worked alongside the aforementioned designers, so moving laterally into product design isn’t as difficult.
Step 1: Learn to a “T”
In relevant circles, product design skills are often represented with “T.” We’re talking about the shape here, not the letter. The horizontal line represents the broad set of skills required. This includes UI and UX design, visual design, motion design, interaction design, design principles, user analysis, competitive research, and on and on. You get the idea.
Conversely, the vertical bar in the “T” represents deep knowledge in a single area of product design. So, if you’re a professional in any of the previously mentioned jobs, you might consider yourself an “I.” You need only expand the breadth of your knowledge.
For those without a letter-shape representation, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that the barrier to entry is low. You only need to demonstrate proficiency in the necessary skills, many of which can be learned online for free. The bad news is that doing so requires some serious dedication. But if you’re the kind of person that wants to become a product designer, you probably love learning, so it’s not really bad news at all.
Step 2: Make Design Thinking Second-Nature
If you’re enticed by product design, the single most important concept you can learn right now is design thinking. Design thinking is a process for designing things that human beings will use. It’s about understanding a user’s needs, designing things that speak to those needs and testing those designs to make sure they work. It’s a mindset that puts a product’s users — human beings — right at the center of the whole process.
While design thinking has been around for many years, it didn’t gain in popularity until the 1990s. David Kelley, the founder of IDEO, helped bring design thinking mainstream. These days, it’s a mantra for designers everywhere. It works like this:
- Empathize: Gather information about the user’s wants, needs, and goals through empathy.
- Define: Use your understanding of the user to identify and define the problems.
- Ideate: Using the defined problems, generate potential solutions.
- Prototype: Create rapid prototypes of the proposed solutions.
- Test: Rigorously test the solutions with users to identify the best solution.
Design thinking is an iterative process, if not a recursive one. Every pass you make through it potentially reveals further insights. And more user insights mean better problem definitions. Better problem definitions mean better ideas. On and on it goes. This applies whether you’re in the early stages of a new product or you’re adding a feature to a product with millions of users.
With the user at its center, design thinking is a human-centered approach that bolsters technical innovation while adhering to business values with a single unified design process. It’s an elegant approach to problem-solving in design that increases the chances of success. With design thinking, everybody wins.
Some businesses have seen the value in using design thinking in other departments. The folks at Marvel had this to say about it:
“At Marvel, we believe that opening up the Design Thinking process to the whole company, including the sales, marketing, and support teams will eventually bring their invaluable insight into the ideation that reaches our users. It’s also why we make tools that everyone can use—democratizing design and making it more accessible will eventually lead to faster innovation.”
If you’re setting out to learn product design, design thinking is your modus operandi. Learn it, practice it, apply it and become a champion of user-centered design.
Art by Jonathan Holt
Step 3: Learn the Tools of the Trade
“Two things are infinite: the universe and product design tools; and I'm not sure about the universe.”
– Anonymous Product Designer
If you’re setting out to learn product design tools, you’re in for a shock. They are legion. But don’t worry — you don’t need to buy or even know all of them. The increasing popularity of product design and related disciplines simply means you have options.
Still, a product designer’s toolbox is heavy. In addition to the tools necessary for your specialization, you’ll need ones for the broader umbrella of product design. But keep in mind that demonstrating proficiency in your chosen tools is far more important than the tool itself, so don’t get bogged down by comparisons. Test the waters, see which tool feels best and start designing products.
1. Choose a UI design tool
Your UI design tool is likely the one you’ll use most often. It’s how you’ll design everything from user interfaces to icons. You might also use it to create simple prototypes and animations. And it plays a big role in your workflow when it comes time to hand interface designs off to the development team.
The big players are:
2. Choose a tool for motion design, animation, and prototyping.
A significant part of the user experience in product design is determining how a product responds to users when they’re tapping, swiping, clicking, or scrolling through it. A motion design and animation tool is what's used to make these determinations. While these considerations are often an interaction designer’s responsibility, a mild comfortability with one of the tools isn’t a bad idea.
Your options are:
3. Choose a tool for mockups and wireframes.
Wireframes and low-fidelity mockups are important in the early stages of product design. And of course, there’s an app for that. It’s worth mentioning, however, that many product designers simply use a sketchpad for their needs. Another consideration is that the above UI design tools often have design systems that enable functionality very similar to a wireframing tool. So again, try them out but don’t build a career on them.
The contenders are:
4. Choose tools for ideation, research, project management, and more.
Product design is a high-tech field, so you’ll likely encounter and use many tools throughout your career. Some of these are specific to or closely aligned with product design, such as A/B testing. Many others are common across the tech industry, such as file sharing and project management tools. You don’t need to run out and get them immediately, but you should be aware of them and how they impact workflow for when you land your first product design job.
A few good options are:
Step 4: Take a Product Design Course or Bootcamp
The scope of product design is immense. From understanding design concepts such as layout, composition, typography, and color theory to grasping abstract ideas about business and even psychology, there’s a long way to go. Even professional designers require significant growth to get there. If you’ve come this far, it might be time to look at a more structured approach to learning.
For those looking for affordable learning paths, there are plenty of great options available. Google created an excellent UX Design course that you can take for free on Coursera. The edX platform, which offers course material from top universities, has a few courses on topics related to product design. There are also plenty of reasonably priced courses on Udemy and Coursera. And while they aren’t necessarily professional-grade, YouTube is always a good source for learning.
For those seeking immediate results regardless of cost, a bootcamp might be money well spent. Bootcamps, the business model that rose meteorically alongside the tech careers they place people in, allow you to attend a relatively short but intense training program designed to make you job-ready as fast as possible. They vary from business to business in terms of cost, payment arrangements, and program length, but they do have one commonality: They are extremely expensive.
One caveat to bootcamps is that none of them currently offer a product design course. But there are several great options for UI and UX design, which is arguably the best place to be for product design. Springboard has a combination UI/UX Design Career track and a UX Career track. Designlab’s UX Academy teaches UX and UI design. And General Assembly offers full-time and part-time courses in UX design and a part-time course in visual design.
If you're looking for a highly flexible, self-paced certified program, check out Dribbble's 12 week Product Design Course. Launching in March of 2022, this community-based course will take you from complete amateur to career-ready in just 12 weeks.
How to make a product design portfolio
Regardless of the path you took to get here — congratulations! Learning product design is seriously hard work. Now that you’re here, you can focus on landing your first job and basking in the glow of being a talented, user-centric product designer. But first, you’ll need to make sure your product design portfolio is in order.
Showcase your design process & problem-solving abilities
"Your design portfolio is not an art piece. Your portfolio exists to help you get a job. You’re the product. Your portfolio is just packaging.” — Jessica Ko, Former Hiring Manager at Google & CEO of Playbook.com
Your portfolio is the most important thing you have for finding a job. It demonstrates your abilities as well as your thought processes during the design process. But with your newly acquired talents, you already knew that. Using the products you designed through your learning journey, design one more product: You.
Here are a few tips:
- Succinctly describe each product and its goals.
- Use case studies to elaborate on how you used the product design process to understand the user and their needs and how you came to your design solutions.
- Don’t hesitate to go in-depth regarding your design process and design thinking.
- Show images before and after you applied product design principles.
- Make sure your portfolio includes products relevant to the position you’re applying for.
- Focus on product design rather than illustration or other design aspects.
Pro Tip: When it comes to choosing which design projects to display in your product design portfolio, you’ll want to tailor your project choices based on your career goals. What industries are you most interested in? What types of projects excite you most? Curate your portfolio accordingly.
Applying for Product Design Jobs
Next, you need to polish your resume to include your new knowledge and skills. Take the opportunity to give it an overall. Because you’re now aiming for product design jobs, you need to play the part. Create an elegant, succinct resume that provides only the necessary information. It shouldn’t be flashy or overdone. The best designer resumes are beautifully simple.
Here’s how to do it:
- Keep it to a single page.
- Provide a short intro of yourself.
- Clear lists of professional experience; use bullet points for details.
- Don’t overdo your education; your portfolio matters more.
Once your dazzling product design portfolio, cover letter, and resume get you noticed, you’ll go through the interview process. For most tech companies, it involves a combination of phone screenings, portfolio reviews, design challenges, on-site interviews, team matching, and finally, a job offer. If you don’t make it through the process, don’t worry. Keep applying and you’ll eventually find your fit.
Product Designer Salary
So, what can you expect to make as a freshly minted product designer? According to Dribbble's Design Salary Data, the average product designer salary in the United States is $84,202. On the upper end, several top tech companies approach the $200,000 mark. A handsome reward for all your hard work.
Design Amazing Products
There you have it — everything you need to know about product design. If you’re just starting on your journey, there’s undoubtedly an overwhelming amount of knowledge skills to acquire; it definitely requires a lot of hard work and some serious diligence. But if you’re someone who truly believes in building amazing, human-centered products, you have the potential to grasp an immensely fulfilling and financially rewarding career. Go out there and build something great.
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