Futureheads

What is a Product Designer?

David McConaghy

David McConaghy

Product Design is probably one of the most used buzzwords within digital at the moment; but what does it really mean and where has it come from?

A big portion of the industry have differing opinions on what a Digital Product Designer is.

As recruiters, we have noticed that a big portion of the industry has a different opinion on what a Digital Product Designer is; their skill set, and the kind of projects they work on. So I wanted to write a piece on what we perceive a Product Designer to be in our experience from dealing with a wide variety of tech companies and studios, as well as seeing it on countless job descriptions.

Looking at Product Design broadly; it is the design of something to ensure it meets human needs. This includes ergonomics, aesthetics, general use and operation as well as how cool or sexy it looks; the combination of the two creating delight and excitement to use. In the grand scheme of things, digital products are fairly new.

In the grand scheme of things, digital products are fairly new in London

I graduated in 2009 in Product Design/Engineering and at the time there was no available option to get into digital products. When we were thinking products, we were thinking physical products. Just to put it into perspective, the iPhone 3GS had just been released, so there were apps around, but the majority were being designed and developed in Silicon Valley, not here in London. This means the majority of lead-level ‘Digital Product Designers’ based in the UK haven’t spent their whole careers within it, just the past few years.

Big companies are now seeing the value of good design, and the tech start-up world has been booming in the past few years. VC firms are investing a lot of their money in the development of mobile/tablet applications, dashboards, wearable technology, and digital services. 

If successful, a digital product could reach millions of users globally within a short space of time. Each product, or the company behind it, has access to a lot of data, large advertising revenues, and if designed/built well, good brand development.  

Multi-skilled, hybrid designers are more favorable for their versatility

Due to the agile business structure of start-ups, multi-skilled, hybrid designers are more favorable as they are versatile and can see the project from start to finish, knowing everything about the project in hand.

Looking at the design process, we can broadly split it into Research, User Experience and Visual Design.  A lot of businesses in the UK work within agile methodologies, meaning there are skilled professionals in each discipline as well as developers and product owners all working together in a small team throughout the whole product delivery process.

A lot of companies (in the UK at least) see the design process, and the process of bringing a digital product to market divided by ‘Researchers’, ‘User Experience Designers’, ‘Visual/User Interface Designers’ and ‘Product Managers/Owners’. 

Product Designers need to have a naturally entrepreneurial mindset

From my experience working with global tech firms, consultancies and start-ups, a true ‘end-to-end Product Designer’ should be taking responsibility for the design from research to delivery, either managing the product or working with a product owner/manager. They need to have a naturally entrepreneurial mindset; seeing the product from initially identifying the opportunity, through the design process, working with developers/engineers until the final finished product is delivered meeting customer needs.  Depending on the business and their practice, they will have support along the way dependent on the size of the product* and time frames they’re working to.

This can be broken down into:

  • Identifying the opportunity for a new product
  • Researching market & customer needs, etc.
  • Concepting
  • Experience Design: user research, UX Flows, wireframes, prototyping, testing, etc.
  • Visual Interface Design: colour palette, branding, general visual aesthetics
  • Interaction Design: animation, menus, general functionality
  • Quality assurance of build, further testing, etc.

*I think it’s also worth noting that different companies define their product differently. Some would consider their whole service/offering as their ‘Digital Product’ in which case it might seem unfeasible for one person to be responsible for all of this work and do it well (though not impossible). Others split their service/offering/product into sections or ‘products’, meaning a ‘product’ in their eyes may be split into a singular tab within their larger app or a new feature. 

Product Design Mindset – Agency vs in-house

This is quite a lengthy subject in itself, so in an attempt to keep it short and sweet but not failing to mention - the work flows and mindsets of digital product design within agencies and comparing them with those in-house; are different. 

Within an agency there tends to be a start and end (delivery), at which point a product is handed over to the client for their use and maintenance. Whereas within in-house teams, they are constantly making different iterations; developing the product along with the brand on an on-going basis.

Conclusion

A product designer sees the project from end-to-end

It’s hard to arrive at a universal definition of a Product Designer. However, in our experience for the most part; a product designer sees the project from end-to-end; from recognizing an opportunity and understanding the customer’s need through to final delivery. They are an integral part of every stage of the process. Leading the UI and UX design throughout but also involved in the product strategy with an entrepreneurial mindset to help get it to market. Either working as a sole designer with complete ownership or as part of a larger team working in unison with other designers/wider team.

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts and opinions on the matter and whether you can add anything to the subject.

If you are keen to move into digital product design and would like my thoughts and advice on how you could achieve that, please get in touch at david@wearefutureheads.co.uk.