The role of the designer has changed massively over the past 20 years. What used to be a job primarily about arranging colors, fonts, and images has branched off into multiple disciplines — most of which focus on interactive design.
But, while you might have a rough idea of what a web designer or visual designer does, there’s one type of designer that often leaves people scratching their heads. The Product Designer.
This confusion is compounded by the fact that ten years ago, ‘product designer’ used to mean something else. Now, no one can really seem to agree on an official job title. Some product designers call themselves Information Architects (IA), User Experience (UX) designers, or User Interface (UI) designers — the list goes on.
As if that wasn’t complicated enough, all of these roles are standalone disciplines in and of themselves. The product designer might overlap with some or all of these designers as part of their job. Confused? Let’s dive in and look at what a product designer actually does.
Product design vs. UX design: what’s the difference?
In a nutshell, a product designer manages the product design process by studying customer needs and creating a solution to deliver an appropriate experience. Both UX and product design roles follow the five-stage design thinking process. But while UX designers work on products before launch, product designers work on them after.
Once a product is out there, product designers typically keep working on it, adding features and updates and running tests. Their quest for perfection is never-ending. Product designers have to align user needs with business goals because a product solution also needs to be sustainable and profitable for the company.
Meanwhile, UX designers are bound by time. Or, in other words, they have to fine-tune the website, product, or app as much as they possibly can before the launch date. After that point, UX designers hand it over to product designers and move on to something else.
- Design something from scratch or rework an existing product
- Get the product to a user-ready state within a set timeframe
- Solve new problems through user-centered design
- Improve designs that already exist
- Continually evolve the design to create the ideal user experience
- Make it easy for users to learn about new features
So, what does a product designer actually do?
You’d be forgiven for thinking a product designer is someone who makes physical things because, up until about ten years ago, that’s essentially what they did. Nowadays, product designers are typically digital problem-solvers. They study user problems and use their design skills to make apps and websites that provide a solution.
What do we mean by ‘problem?’ Well, let’s say it’s cold outside. The user’s problem is that they’re chilly. They want to buy some new winter clothes, so they’ll turn to the internet to stock up.
This is where the product designer shines. It’s their job to make sure it’s easy for the visitor to use an app or website to top up their winter wardrobe. But creating the right user outcome isn’t as simple as making the product bug-free and pretty. Product design is far more in-depth than that.
The first thing the product designer does is make sure the solution is unique and valuable enough to appeal to that customer out of thousands of other websites. Part of that process includes assessing the competition. In this instance, your competition could be a competitor site, a shopping mall, a central heating system, a hot bath, a cozy pet, or anything else that helps them stay warm.
The product designer works to make the site better, more convenient, and more enjoyable than all these other options. Also, the designer would plot a common path a user might take to this specific solution and design the product to influence the customer journey at every touchpoint. Of course, other factors are involved too — but the user’s needs are their ultimate goal.
Product designers focus on three types of design:
- System design is how a product is structured to maximize interaction and meet the user’s needs.
- Process design is the analysis, creation, and improvement of the actions performed within the system, such as going through checkout or signing up for a newsletter.
- Interface design is the look, style, and feel of the app or website, with the goal of making it intuitive and a pleasure to use.
A day in the life of a product designer
Every role is a little bit different, but in general, product designers grapple with the following challenges:
1. They do a lot of research
You can’t solve a problem without understanding your user’s needs, which is why product designers need to be leading experts in this field. Designers need to understand the user’s wants, needs, goals, and pain points — often using a psychological approach to better understand their thinking process as they navigate the site. As you can imagine, this is a critical job. As a result, product designers often work with UX researchers as well as stakeholders and product managers.
2. They design solutions
Product designers are problem-solvers at heart. Once they know the problem, they start brainstorming solutions, usually kick-starting this process with an ideation session. Then, they start creating first-draft designs, which could include wireframes, sketches, mock-ups, and prototypes.
3. They run tests over and over
Testing is a big and important step. It’s the stage that proves whether your designs function as they should. Tests can involve A/B testing, tree testing, user tests, surveys, interviews, focus groups, live betas, and other internal tests. In many cases, it’s a multi-stage process that involves all of the above.
The more you test, the more functional your product will be when you hand it over to the customer. Obviously, time and budget are constraints here, so the product designer will often consult with UX researchers to determine which combination of tests will be most effective (and feasible).
Once the results are in, the designer takes this feedback and does another iteration of the design — one that’s even more refined and better suited to the user’s needs than the one before it.
During the launch phase, the dev team works closely with product designers in sprints to get the product ready. Additional tests during this stage help to ensure the product is completely bug-free.
4. They look for ways to improve the product
The testing doesn’t end once the product is live — at least not for the product designers. Working closely with the UX researcher, the designers develop KPIs that act as benchmarks for success. Then, the team collects performance data, feedback, and reviews, to see if they should make further adjustments in the next iteration, the next, and so on.
Even when a product is highly successful, product designers look for sources of continuous improvement. The perfect example is a banking app. In the beginning, the product might only offer simple features, such as checking the account balance, paying bills, and transferring funds. But based on user feedback, the bank might add mobile check deposits or sub-accounts for savings goals.
After all, if product designers can come up with new ways to make users happy, they’ll continue to create value within a single product.
What tools do product designers use?
As you’ve probably guessed, digital product designers mainly use digital tools — but not always. A product designer’s job in some organizations is broader than in others, so they may be involved in more aspects of design than discussed here. Depending on the type of product and the preferences of the design team, here are common tools that product designers use throughout the creative process.
- Pen and paper for sketching
- Physical or digital whiteboards for brainstorming and sketching
- Data analytics tools for researching user needs
- Diagramming tools for visualizing system processes, user paths, product roadmaps, information architecture, etc.
- Wireframing and prototyping tools for modeling and testing designs
- Graphic design or CAD software for product development
- Project management software for tracking the design process
There aren’t many differences between the UX designer and the product designer’s roles. They both follow the five-step design process, they both design with user needs in mind, and they both use the same product design tools. The key difference between the two is their goals.
UX designers are inventors, creating a range of options with the user’s needs in mind. Product designers are editors, endlessly tweaking designs so that the next one is better than the last. As with all things in the design world, there is plenty of overlap, and the roles will probably evolve again over the next ten years — but for now, this should make things a bit clearer.
This post was originally published on December 4, 2020, and updated most recently on February 23, 2022.