What is product design?
Product design describes the process of imagining, creating, and iterating products that solve users’ problems or address specific needs in a given market.
The key to successful product design is an understanding of the end-user customer, the person for whom the product is being created. Product designers attempt to solve real problems for real people by using both empathy and knowledge of their prospective customers’ habits, behaviors, frustrations, needs, and wants.
History of product design
Product design is an outgrowth of a very similar discipline called industrial design.
According to the Industrial Designers Society of America:
“Industrial design is the professional practice of designing products used by millions of people around the world every day. Industrial designers not only focus on the appearance of a product, but also on how it functions, is manufactured and ultimately the value and experience it provides for users.”
Prior to the mass-production era of manufacturing, craftspeople built products primarily by hand. This meant there were fewer products available for sale, and that they cost more. Then, the industrialization of manufacturing allowed businesses to mass-produce products inexpensively.
To help sell their products to the millions of people who could now afford them, manufacturers enlisted the help of industrial designers to create products that were not only functional but also aesthetically pleasing.
Over time, a subset of industrial design has evolved into its own category: product design. This is because industrial design today connotes physical products such as furniture and household appliances, whereas product design can refer to any product—even digital, virtual products such as software apps.
Types of product design jobs available today
What different companies think of today as product design jobs might include several roles under different names. For example:
User-experience designers focus on refining a product based on how their research into users behavior suggests people will get the most satisfaction from using the product. UX designers aim to increase users’ happiness.
These designers focus on user research and other data to identify ways to improve a product’s layout, feature set, and visual aesthetic. In other words, their primary role is a scientific one, but they are also designers.
Prototypers are the members of the product team who bring the team’s ideas to a tangible state, to help the company quickly validate with users the product’s features and other characteristics. In a company that makes physical products, prototypers will hand-craft mockups. For digital companies, the prototyping team will develop wireframes or other virtual mockups.
Of course, in many cases a company will hire a person to handle several of the roles above, and others, under a job called Product Designer. In other companies, they’ll handle some of the bigger-picture, strategic elements involved in developing new product ideas. There, other professionals in the organization take responsibility for things like—user research, UX design, information architecture, etc.
What does the product design process look like?
The details of the product design process will vary from company to company, but these professionals do tend to follow a similar philosophy or framework when it comes to design thinking. As Cam Sackett explains, the design-thinking process involves several steps:
- Empathize with people
- Define the problem
- Ideate a solution
- Build a prototype
- Test the solution
Sackett also points out that although it’s arranged in a linear way, the design process doesn’t necessarily move in a linear path. Sometimes the results learned in a given step lead the team back to repeat or refine an earlier step.
What types of tools do product designers use?
Because it covers a broad range of disciplines, the role requires several different types of tools. Among these are:
- Wireframing apps
- Graphic design apps
- Prototyping tools
- Research and data analytics tools (e.g., spreadsheets, sophisticated A/B testing apps)
- CAD (computer aided design) software
- Project management apps (e.g., Trello)
- Product roadmap apps (e.g., ProductPlan)
Product design is a far broader, far more strategically central role than most people realize. It is not simply the process of making a product look better. As Eric Eriksson argues, “product design is the whole process.” And that includes problem validation, as well as crafting, designing, testing, and shipping the solution.