02/18/2016 - No Comments!

What makes a product designer?

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While titles in the digital design space continue to be a hot topic of debate, some things remain constant. Designer’s primary disciplines are less and less clear cut as our industry shifts and there is increasing demand for those who can spread themselves thin and touch many aspects of the creative cycle.

Recently I wrote about ways for UI designers to enhance their skill set and process in order to provide more professional services, growing out of simple service design. As its gained continuous positive reaction, I’ve decided to share more of my thoughts on this subject. In fact, I started this weekly product design newsletter to share each week’s best articles links and some of my own writing on the subject (you should join).


I have been observing that at the core of each widely varying creative discipline, there are two ways that folks tend to operate. There are the professionals and there are service providers.

So, what are the inherent differences between these two types of creators? While some think it’s simply a matter of title or seniority at a company, this couldn’t be further from the truth. What makes a product designer? The answer lies in that designer’s process.

What makes a product designer? The answer lies in that designer’s process.

Product designers are not wonky creatives or “artists”. They are analytical, hardworking professionals. The proof of this comes through in our defined processes. A professional has a defined process that they have tested, refined and proven with results over time with real client projects.

When a service-providing designer bends and adapts their process to fit the client’s needs and suggestions, a product designer will firmly and politely tell their client “no”. This is then followed up with a conversational explanation of why not and what they recommend as an alternate solution.

Product designers solve business problems.

Where a service providing designer would care about pleasing their clients or getting work “approved” product designers they aren’t concerned at all. A design professional is obsessed with finding the right blend of business needs and user goals.

This is usually informed by a lengthy research phase and the tangible visual representation of these solutions come later, near the end of their process. Professionals know that design without research is just fancy and costly guesswork.

Professionals know that design without research is just fancy and costly guesswork.

Solving a business’s problems means that design professionals need to be involved in projects from their inception. Service providing designers are brought in near the solution of a project, usually to apply a cohesive visual identity to something. The difference is that it’s already been decided what this solution is and why it should be as such. They’re operating the software and providing the prescribed deliverables for a prescribed solution to the business need.

While there is certainly a place for this, what makes me excited about our industry is the power that design can have in a business. Design makes anything possible and can be a huge differentiator in any sector when good practices are followed.

Product designers are the voice of your users.

Product designers find out who your users are, how they act and how they think. Once this is known, they use their strengthened sense of empathy to become the voice for these users as often as possible. It’s really a powerful practice, exemplified by the success of design-driven companies these days. Intuit, Nike, Airbnb and Apple to name some of those prevalent today.

Where your customers cannot be heard, the product designer’s voice is heard in their stead.

Where your customers cannot be heard, the product designer’s voice is heard in their stead. In early strategy meetings, in conference calls, and in the breakroom the professional designer should tirelessly voice the concerns of the customer. This practice rolls the customer’s needs into the very basis of the business’s decision-making process. What is a business after all if not a vessel to solve the problem of others in exchange for something?

Product designers play nice.

Design problems are communication problems. Thus, designers solve problems using communication. This means working with new people, teams and people who are very different than yourself. A process that is inclusive of teamwork and collaboration will always beat out the lone-wolf creatives.

A process that is inclusive of teamwork and collaboration will always beat out the lone-wolf creatives.

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Letterpress by Anthony Burrill

Product designers realize that they don’t hold the answers to everything, but know that some combination of the client team and any number of real users will lead to the answer.

It’s a matter of talking to folks and finding out how to collaborate with everyone who can help to strengthen a project. Working with and within teams is a key role of the professional designer.

Product designers support design decisions.

Professional designers are expected to educate for their clients from an informed point of view. Their solutions are tied to the project’s goals, your research phase or other concrete evidence.

Without informed reason as the impetus for design decisions, the service providing designer leaves him/herself to the whim of other’s uninformed opinions. On the other hand, reason gives the product designer the authority to explain and defend their rationale behind a strategy. It unlocks the power to convince and unite a team behind the solution.

Reason gives the product designer the authority to explain and defend their rationale behind a design strategy.

The best part of designing with reason is that it is a replicable process. Of course, all processes bend, evolve and are refined over time and for each use case. However, having one in the first place is a must for today’s product designer. It proves to others that you are a skilled professional who solves problems strategically.


Whichever type of designer you are, own it. Define yourself and niche down in an industry. Keep learning, keep growing. Work hard & be nice to people.

Cheers,
Ray

Published by: Ray in 2016, Best Practices, Product Design, Thoughts