What is Product Design?
The definition of 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 understanding 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 empathy and knowledge of their prospective customers’ habits, behaviors, frustrations, needs, and wants.
Ideally, product design’s execution is so flawless that no one notices; users can intuitively use the product as needed because product design understood their needs and anticipated their usage.
Good product design practices thread themselves throughout the entire product lifecycle. Product design is essential in creating the initial user experience and product offering, from pre-ideation user research to concept development to prototyping and usability testing.
But it doesn’t end there, as product design plays an ongoing role in refining the customer experience and ensuring supplemental functionality and capabilities get added in a seamless, discoverable, and non-disruptive manner. Brand consistency and evolution remain an essential product design responsibility until the end of a product’s lifespan.
And it’s much more than just what users see on their screens. System design and process design are critical behind-the-scenes components that eventually drive users to see and interact with the interface design.
What is the 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 worldwide 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.”
Before 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. In contrast, product design can refer to any product—even digital, virtual products such as software apps.
What are the Types of Product Design Jobs Available?
What different companies think of today as product design jobs might include several roles under different names. For example:
User-experience and interaction designers focus on refining a product based on how their research into user behavior suggests people will get the most satisfaction from using the product. UX designers aim to increase users’ happiness.
The most artistic job within product design is creating the graphics, icons, logos, and other visual elements of the product experience. Their purview is as broad as selecting a color scheme to as narrow as tweaking individual pixels.
If the product experience involves elements “moving”—be it slick transitions or a user-controlled avatar—these specialists work on this extremely complicated part of the design. They don’t create the art, but they bring it to life.
In a large enough product design organization, they are solely focused on understanding customers. Interviewing, running usability studies, presenting prototypes and mockups for feedback, and building out demographics and personas that fall under their purview.
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 product team members 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 product designer job. Other companies will handle some of the bigger picture, strategic elements of developing new product ideas. There, other professionals in the organization take responsibility for things like—user research, UX design, information architecture, etc.
What Do Salaries for Product Designers Look Like?
Like all skilled professions, salaries increase with experience and tenure, plus location plays a big role. Product Designer salaries average around $105,000 in the U.S., while a Senior Product Designer makes nearly $130,000 per year on average, and a Lead Product Designer often makes in the $140,000 range.
What Does the Product Design Process Look Like?
The details of the product design process will vary from company to company, but these professionals 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 the design process doesn’t necessarily move in a linear path, although arranged linearly. Sometimes the results learned in a given step lead the team back to repeat or refine an earlier step.
The product design process never truly stops, even once a product reaches maturity. That’s because technology and how users interact with it keep evolving.
Take the ever-increasing importance of mobile devices. For years, mobile apps and phone-friendly websites had limited capabilities, while the bulk of the user experience required a full computer.
But product designers have had to keep pace with shifting usage patterns, bringing more and more functionality to smaller screens to meet the real-world usage preferences of customers. And with each new technological innovation, product design must determine its potential impact on the user experience and adjust accordingly.
Lean Product Design
Bringing innovative products to market as quickly as possible is the bedrock of Lean, Agile, and other popular approaches to software development. But Lean Product Design goes one step further, introducing rapid iterations to the pre-coding product development phase.
The process identifies the product’s key value proposition and differentiators, speedily introducing a working-yet-limited product to spark the feedback loop immediately and begin generating sales or queue up interesting prospects to establish and quantify product-market fit.
The journey to product introduction
Facilitating this expeditious journey to product introduction requires lots of cross-functional interactions and collaboration. It’s not uncommon for product designers to partner with product managers or business-side experts for the initial concept development before joining forces with a lone developer or small team to generate working prototypes and early versions of the product.
These Lean teams succeed because they share a common goal and both welcome and incorporate user feedback swiftly. The focus on reducing waste—a holdover from Lean’s manufacturing origins—applies in these cases to maximizing resource utilization and not sweating the small stuff until the major components are proven to resonate with users, solve their problems, and create value and satisfaction.
Lean Product Design only works in organizations that embrace continuous learning and accept that they already know everything. Moving forward with unknowns and unanswered questions doesn’t always sit well in larger enterprise settings. In these settings, they build, measure, and learn in the face of well-plotted master plans. The plans stretch out years into the future.
Chunking out larger solutions into smaller, discrete products or features may calm some of that trepidation. It gives stakeholders a chance to see progress and watch how the continuous feedback loop and rapid iterations result in solutions that truly meet the market needs in short order. It may feel risky at first, but Lean Product Design is actually a far safer bet than building a huge product over months or years with zero external input until it ships or moves into a beta program.
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:
- Journey mapping apps
- 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 writes, “product design is the whole process.” You evaluate problem validation, as well as crafting, designing, testing, and shipping the solution.
See also: Product Designer, Product Architecture, Design Ops, Design Thinking.