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Product designers (nowadays intended as digital product designers, while physical product designers are more commonly called industrial designers) are some of the most sought-after professionals by tech companies today. But, despite the popularity, there is a lot of confusion around what this role is about, and I believe it’s impossible to give an exact definition, considering that every company has slightly different responsibilities and requirements attached to this position.
I heard a lot of people saying product designer is just a new more trendy and siliconvalleyish way of calling a UX designer. I do not agree. I think a product designer is a more horizontal position compared to a UX designer. A product designer should take care of, or at least be involved in, all the steps of the creation of a digital product.
Even though this is a transdisciplinary role, it doesn’t mean that a product designer should be able to do everything alone. It should know at least a little bit of everything though.
Here is an example of the skillset of a hypothetic product designer:
The height of each bar can be different for every individual, of course.
Let’s take a look at what each one of those represents and why it is important.
Design is not art. Ultimately design has to be sold. To do so, the first step in each project is research. Research on the market, on competitors, on target users and the feasibility of the project, you can have the craziest ideas, but in the end, you’ll have to stick to a certain budget.
To come up with concepts that make sense to pursue, it’s important to know what the market is, what are the chances of your product to succeed. You can even consider doing a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats).
Strategy should be one of the core skills of a product designer.
Even though in the chart above UX is just one of the columns, it actually spills over many others. Usability, accessibility, information architecture, good wireframing are the basics of any project. After researching the market and the target users, in this phase the product designer defines personas, users journeys, understand pain points and find opportunities.
A product designer should have a good understanding of how HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) works. Some possible questions to answer: what gesture could trigger this action? Is this going to be a modal, a drawer or something else? Is this contextual menu triggered by a double-tap or a long press? Etc.
The aesthetic-usability effect is the “tendency to perceive attractive products as more usable. People tend to believe that things that look better will work better — even if they aren’t actually more effective or efficient”.
In Italy, we say “anche l’occhio vuole la sua parte”, which is hard to translate literally, but it basically means “looks matter”.
Text can be both in the UI (UX writing) and in the content (Copywriting). A text can be the label of an icon, a CTA inside a button or anywhere it’s needed to help users through a particular flow. As much as UI, motion and sounds it helps to set the tone of the product.
It’s not enough for things to look good, they also need to move in the right way. Movement is important not only to please the eye and delight users, but also to provide feedback, to clarify hierarchy, to enhance interactions and make them memorable.
Also, microinteractions (for example animated icons) are a very important component of today’s products.
This often goes together with motion. Sounds can also provide feedback and they can set the mood of the product, along with UI. UI, motion, and sound should work well together in perfect harmony.
Product designers don’t need to be musicians or sound designers, but they should be able to understand where a sound is needed and what kind of sound fits best in that particular case.
I wrote a full article on this topic. To sum it up: no, you don’t need to be able to write code, but having a basic understanding of how code works can be REALLY helpful, to understand the feasibility of a project and to talk with developers and give them the right feedback.
On this topic, I’m reading right now a very interesting book by John Maeda, called “How to speak machine”.
I won’t annoy you with the usual “content is king” (Bill Gates) thing, but yea, of course, depending on the kind of product, content plays a key role. The product designer should also understand and define not only what’s the best way to present content inside the app/website, but also what this content is and how to design it.
The life of a product heavily depends on marketing (among other things). Marketing can be the tool to drive the critical mass that makes the difference between a success and a failure. This should start to tickle the interest of the target users even before the product is out in the wild, and then push it as high as possible, the sky’s the limit. If a product is not marketable, there must be something fundamentally wrong in its concept and/or execution.
ASO (App Store Optimization) is the app-world version of SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Grasping at least the basics of these could make a huge difference. ASO is not just about keywords and description, but also sizzle reel, icon and screenshots.
User testing can come into play way before the product is out. It can be used to test a particular feature or interaction, a component and more. Depending on the methodology you could have or not user testing, maybe you release and MVP and test with real users a limited version of your app on which you then iterate future releases. In this case it’s important to be able to read and understand analytics, find what is working and what is not based on data and charts and come up with improvements.
The product designer shouldn’t be a one-man-band taking care of all the above alone, but she/he should be the conductor of an orchestra of specialists.
She/he can take care of one or more aspects of the app creation, if she/he has the right skill set to do so, but has to get the support of a team for all the rest.
To complete the chart above, the relationship could something like this, with each vertical role covering where the product designer alone can’t reach with her/his skills:
As I mentioned in the beginning, it’s hard to give an exact definition as the role has a very blurred perimeter, varying quite a bit from company to company, also depending on how the team is structured. But I believe the product designer should, in any case, be a horizontal figure with a wide array of skills and possibly 1 or 2 vertical ones, in what is often defined as a T-shaped role.
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