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Product Management: Product Designer

What is a Product Designer?

A product designer is responsible for the user experience of a product, usually taking direction on the business goals and objectives from product management. Although typically associated with the visual/tactile aspects of a product, product designers can sometimes also play a role in the information architecture and system design of a product as well.

A product designer may also be referred to as a User Experience Designer, Customer Experience Architect, User Interface Designer, Interaction Designer, or Information Architect depending on the type of company, the size, and diversity of the design department and the particular individual’s area of expertise.

While companies can always benefit from a product designer, they play a particularly important role during key stages of the product development. During the initial design and proof-of-concept phase, they can translate the goal of the product into a functional user experience and provide requirements feedback regarding what must be in place for users to achieve their goals.

As a product grows and adds more features and functionality, they can ensure the user experience is intuitive and reduce points of friction. And once a product is mature they can help refine the user experience and make the product more efficient to improve page load speeds, etc.

Product designers are seen as a luxury for some companies that might delay adding someone in that role until further in their lifecycle, while others might hire a product designer before they even add a product manager. Product design can also be outsourced relatively easily, so many companies rely on outside consultants and agencies for this function.

Key Responsibilities of a Product Designer

Product designers may be asked to operate at both very high-level design (such as designing the overall system or information architecture) and very granular details (pixel-specific mockups or CSS templates). Regardless of what they’re working on, the user experience is front-and-center for their work.

Product designers have a number of artifacts they may deliver as part of their job, including but limited to:

  • Prototypes
  • Wireframes
  • Mockups
  • User Journey Maps

While the “traditional” model was to hand off a product to product designers after the requirements were set, many product designers now work hand-in-hand with the product team throughout the product development process. By being involved throughout, they can influence what the product does as well as how it does it, keeping the user experience top of mind.

Product designers typically take the reins for prototyping and user testing, as their goal is to create an excellent product experience. They may also actually do some coding (typically more with front-end presentation languages such as HTML and CSS) and create digital assets such as logos, icons and buttons, along with helping author the text used in the product.

For solutions that include physical products or hardware, a product designer has additional responsibilities, such as helping select materials, colors and textures, possibly even using 3-D printers for prototyping or recommending production methods. Product designers will also maintain the design library of the product suite for future reference.

Becoming a Product Designer

A product designer needs a unique toolbox to do their job, spanning from the “arty” to the “techie” aspects of the role. They obviously must be creative, but they also must be effective communicators and storytellers to explain their vision for the product design.

As an advocate for the customer, they must understand the business environment while also having the courage to say “no” when a decision could negatively impact the customer experience. “Customer empathy” is another common thread when it comes to describing the product designer role in this context.

Design thinking is pretty much a given for the role, as product designers will be asked to develop user stories (including worrying about edge cases), storyboard and mockup interfaces. Product designers may also be tasked with performing user research.

Visual design tools such as PhotoShop and Sketch are go-tos for many product designers, as is CAD software when its relevant. A mastery of design suites is a prerequisite for most role as they will rely on them for both prototyping and delivering finished assets to the engineering organization, as is an understanding of color palettes, typography and layout.

Some product designers may also be asked to do a bit of copywriting to add the text required as part of the UX design of a product, including tooltips and help text.

User testing is also more complicated than it might sound, and product designers may need to design and conduct the tests, analyze the results and even recruit the participants.

An understanding of Google Analytics and similar tools is also important for web and mobile product designers, as they provide key insights into real-world usage and can influence product modifications and design changes.

Starting a product design career

As for breaking into product design, folks tend to gravitate toward it from two disciplines: engineering and graphic design. For technical folks looking to tap into their inner designer, they must learn a few new tools and concepts, but it is primarily finding an opportunity to display their craftsmanship and attention to detail in a product design context. For graphic designers, the challenge is in expanding their purview from making something look great to making something work great.

Building out a product design skill set not only immerses oneself in the tools they will use once they get a job, but it also gives them countless opportunities to practice and become fluent using them. And once a certain level of mastery is achieved, there’s no shortage of opportunities to put those skills into action in the real world before getting a paycheck by helping cash-strapped startups or lending those talents to a nonprofit or great cause.

These experiences will not only be great practice, but they will augment their portfolio, which is key to landing a position in the field. This not only shows that a candidate has the skills and talent to do the work, but it also gives employers a sense of their taste and style, which are far more important in this role than they would be in others.

Luckily, someone can build a portfolio without actually having a product design job first. The portfolio should include projects that are relevant to the job and facilitate telling a story about how the problem was assessed and the solution was designed, not just the finished product.

Unlike other professions, a college degree or resume isn’t enough to land a product design gig. Just like writers and architects, examples of previous work are essential to getting the job.