What exactly is product design? And how do you differentiate between a good product designer and a great one? Today we’ll look at the scope of the role of product designer as well as discuss a few traits of great product designers.

But first, a hypothetical: If you were the product manager for a car-stereo manufacturer, would you want your products to have clearly marked, easy-to-reach “off” buttons on their control panels? Or would you prefer instead to build ultra-sleek stereos with, say, no visible buttons at all?

The way you answer that question has a lot to do with your understanding of what makes a great product designer…

What is Product Design?

Product design is a cross-functional role. Usually, product designers work closely with engineering, marketing, sales, and the product management team. They are typically responsible for some or all of these functions:

  • User experience (e.g., UX, UI)
  • Visual design
  • User research
  • Data analysis
  • Information architecture
  • Product prototyping
  • User empathizing

That last bullet probably isn’t in any actual job description. But many organizations believe it’s the most important aspect of a product designer’s role. To understand why empathy is important, let’s review what product designers do.

What Does a Product Designer Do?

The day-to-day tasks on a product designer’s to-do list could include:

  • Talking with customers
  • Studying processes and systems
  • Working with manufacturing on packaging or delivery issues
  • Mocking up software wireframes
  • Or attempting to streamline an parts of an existing product to improve usability.

Fundamentally, a product designer’s job is to solve problems.

Product designers identify specific user problems or objectives and then help design solutions. The product designer’s overarching strategic approach is knowing and empathizing with users. (This of course sets aside the the tactical details of how they do this. Tactics may include: user research, data analysis, system design, usability tests, etc.)

Now let’s discuss some of the skills and best practices of great designers.

3 Key Traits of a Great Product Designer

1. Great product designers design intuitive products.

This principle might seem counterintuitive. Should product designers make onboarding part of their design? On occasion, yes. But, great product designers know how to develop intuitive user experiences. They strive to build interfaces so intuitive users don’t need walkthroughs or onboarding.

And, great product designers don’t assume their designs are intuitive. They’ll gather evidence.

For example, software product designers may run usability tests. During these, they ask users to perform a list of tasks using the product. They’ll then watch as users navigate through the app to determine if the product is truly intuitive.

If your product has many points of friction for users, it’s probably not as intuitive as it could be.

2. Great product designers create invisible designs.

Apple is, to many people, an icon in product design. The tech company has a reputation for its beautifully designed products and packaging. But what exactly are we describing when we say “beautifully designed products?”

As Antoine de Saint-Exupery famously said, “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Are Apple’s products adorned with ornate graphical elements or elaborate, eye-catching shapes? Of course not.

Apple designs and packages its physical products with almost no ornamentation at all. Their flagship products, the iPhone and iPad, couldn’t be more visually simple. Rectangular. Solid colors. Almost no graphics, text, or physical buttons. They’re simple.

That’s what makes these products beautiful.

3. Great product designers are customer-centric.

This one might sound obvious, but if it were, then companies would be releasing only products clearly designed for their target customers’ specific needs and preferences.

So how would you explain the number of products you yourself have tried—products designed, theoretically, with people like you in mind—that you found frustrating, cumbersome, and not worth the effort to keep using?

Consider research from a couple of years ago. About 1 in 4 people who download a mobile app will use it once and then abandon it forever. Even worse, the study found that 63% of users dump an app within one month after downloading it.

Clearly, the idea of these apps, the solutions to customer problems that they’ve promised, resonated with users. If they hadn’t, these people wouldn’t have gone to the effort to download them. But unfortunately, the data show, these apps then failed at actually delivering on that promise.

Common Reasons for App Abandonment

There are many reasons an app might fail to connect with users. Each reason gives you an idea of what product designers, like product managers, need to think about as they develop their products.

  • Is the download process simple and intuitive?
  • Will the user be able to figure out the app’s interface immediately, or is it too complicated?
  • Are the key features placed front-and-center in the app, or will users need to go looking for them?

Product designers for mobile apps need to think through every aspect of user experience. For a mobile app, as with any type of product, the product designer thinks through every aspect of the user experience. Every step is considered, from the moment they go out to an app store to download the product.

Product Design and the On-Off Button

Finally, let’s go back to the car stereo example.

In his newspaper column, economist and author Thomas Sowell once complained that so few of the devices he buys—computers, TVs—have clearly labeled power buttons.

He told the story of having an aftermarket stereo installed in an old car and not being able to figure out how to turn it on. After reading dozens of pages into the 100-page manual, he learned the on-off function was accessible only via the “source” button. Furthermore, the source button was not labeled source on the control panel.

The engineers who designed this stereo were probably enthusiastic about the ultra-cool product they were building. Maybe they thought adding a word like “on,” “off,” or “power,” or even using the universal symbol would detract from the stereo panel’s cool look. But they forgot they weren’t designing just for themselves. Car stereo buyers aren’t all engineers!

A great product designer would give thought to the most important functionalities for users. Starting with turning the thing on!

That designer would then have mocked up a prototype control panel with those key features displayed prominently, asked a group of potential users to perform some basic tasks—turn the radio on, find this FM station, load a CD, connect your iPhone, etc.—and then continually improved that experience until users could easily perform all of those tasks.

Bottom line:
If your users have to spend more than a few seconds staring at your product wondering, “How do I turn this thing on?” then you’ve got more product design work to do.

If you’d like to dig a little deeper into this topic, check out our posts on Why Product Managers Should Use Design Thinking and 5 Design Principles from the World’s Most Product-Centric Companies.

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