Product Design Chris Jones

The Product Designer Role

You got the go ahead to hire some in-house designers. That’s great news! Up until now you’ve been relying on an external agency for the majority of your design work and this is going to enable you to create a team that is much more responsive and predictable.

Your next task is to define the product design role within your company. This is an important one to get right. You don’t want to simply recreate an internal version of the agency model. The way that products are created has changed dramatically in recent years and new models for design are a critical part of this.

Here’s a short list of important attributes of the modern product designer role:

(1) Product Orientation

In the old model, designers took requirements or specifications from product managers and used that to create their designs. Modern product designers continuously collaborate with product managers and engineers. Rather than work on the latest project in “design phase” (ironic quotes), the modern product designer participates in all phases of a product, from discovery to delivery to iteration. Rather than sitting with fellow designers, the modern product designer sits together with his or her product manager and if at all possible the team of engineers building the product. Rather than being measured on the output of their design work, the product designer is measured on the success of their product.

Given this, good product designers have many of the same concerns as product managers. They are deeply oriented around actual customers and the value their product is bringing to those customers. They also understand that the product is in service of a business and can incorporate those concerns and constraints into the design of a product. Designers further understand that the user experience is as important to customer value as the underlying functionality.

(2) Holistic Experience Design

User Experience (UX) is much bigger than User Interface (UI). Some people even use the term “Customer Experience” to further emphasize the point. UX is any way that customers and end-users realize the value provided by your product. It includes all the touchpoints and interactions a customer has with your company and product over time. For modern products, this usually includes multiple different UI’s (web, mobile, desktop, etc.) as well as other customer touch points (email, customer support, notification, online storage integration, etc.). With some products, UX also includes offline services like riding in an car summoned through Uber, or staying in a house sourced through AirBnB.

Good product designers anchor their work with a broad view of UX. They think about the customer’s journey over time as they interact with the product and company as a whole. Depending on the product, the list of touch points could be very long. Good product designers consider questions like:

  • how will customers first learn about the product?
  • how will we onboard a first-time user and (perhaps gradually) reveal new functionality?
  • how might users interact at different times during their day?
  • what other things are competing for the user’s attention?
  • how might things be different for a 1-month old customer differ from a 1-year old customer?
  • how will we motivate a user to a higher level of commitment to the product?
  • how will we create moments of gratification?
  • how will a user share their experience with others?
  • what is it like to resolve a support issue?
  • how will customers receive an offline service?
  • what is the perceived responsiveness of the product?

(3) Prototyping

One of the most important tools of modern product teams are prototypes. Discovering products that customers love requires continuous collaboration with colleagues as well as frequent validation with external users and customers. Prototypes provide the vehicle to facilitate that communication. They are a far more accurate representation of intent than wireframes or screenshots as they are able to capture many other aspects of the full user experience.

Prototyping used to require engineers, but the quality of prototyping tools has improved so much that this is no longer the case. There are some exceptions, but today the majority prototypes don’t require engineers.  Instead, they are created by designers, and the tools they have available to them have improved dramatically. Good product designers use prototypes as their primary canvas for communicating ideas both internally and externally. They are generally comfortable with a number of different prototyping tools, and able to apply the correct one for the task at hand.

(4) User Testing

Good product designers are constantly testing their ideas with real users & customers. They don’t just test when a prototype or idea is ready, they build testing into their weekly schedule. The regular cadence means that they’re able to constantly validate and refine ideas as well as collect new insights that they may not have even been looking for. It also means that they aren’t as likely to become too attached to ideas before they come in contact with objective outside opinions.

User testing is much broader than usability testing. Product designers and their product teams utilize the opportunity to assess the value of their ideas. Will customers actually use or buy the product and if not, what would it take?

(5) Interaction and Visual Design

Visual design and interaction design have historically been considered separate roles. Visual design includes things like composition, typography and how the visual brand is expressed. Interaction design generally includes things like the underlying conceptual models (e.g. a photo management application may have “photos”, “albums”, “projects”, etc.), task flows and control layouts to manipulate those concepts.

Modern product designers may have different strengths, but generally have some level of skill with both visual and interaction design. Having a more complete toolset allows them to work quickly at different levels of fidelity depending on the context. It also allows them to design experiences in ways that wouldn’t have been possible when thinking of interaction and visual separately. This is particularly important in mobile interfaces where designers must often create new models of interaction that are fundamentally intertwined with the visual design.

So Now What?

This is all well and good you say, but these people are hard to hire.  Hiring strong people is always hard work, but just as we need to hire a strong product manager and strong engineers, it is critical to hire a strong product designer.

It’s true that you want to bring strong designers into your organization as quickly as you can, but the burden of strong UX should not come only from them. It also involves the other members of your product team like the product manager and engineers. You can up your game right now by growing awareness and setting expectations on what strong UX involves. Ensure that your engineers and product managers understand that much of the value of the product is in the user experience. Encourage them to think broadly about a holistic experience that starts before the customer even learns of your product.  Have them use prototypes and user testing to validate their ideas.

Modern product design is not simply about hiring the staff. It involves moving design front-and-center for your team and your process.