WTF is a Product Designer?

Issue 48: Unpacking a generalized title in the context of tech and software

It seems like every week I see a conversation on Twitter defining what design is or isn’t. If I see the UX/UI ketchup bottle metaphor again, I’m going to retire and start an oyster farm.

Despite the annoyance of Design Twitter, I agree definition and conversation is important; inspiring me to share my perspective on it with you. The long story short is I do believe product designer has a specific meaning that has been generalized, and the majority of product design work in tech and startups isn’t fully product design (keyword is “fully”).

Design is a practice where titles have been confusing, even the designers themselves. Am I a UX Designer, UX/UI Designer, Interaction Designer, Product Designer, or Software Designer? What's happened is Product Design has become a title used as a catch-all for tech. My theory this was done to be more generic about the role and what to expect from designers. There is likely an attempt to make compensation bands simpler (there are pros and cons to that). As a result, this creates confusion for designers and companies on what’s expected in a product design role. Let's take a look at the origins of product design, why it's changed, and where I think it's going.

The origins of product design

We in tech often feel like we invented everything. A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a tweet of someone asking if design systems existed before tech. It shined a light on how unaware people are of what came before them. Reusability and modularity existed in interior design and industrial design long before a computer even existed. Product design is another term that has deeper origins before tech companies started adopting the title.

Let's start by defining the two words in the title of a product designer.

  • Product: The item offered for sale.

  • Designer: A person who plans the form, look, or workings of something before its being made or built, typically by drawing it in detail.

Product is typically associated with software if you work in tech, and it's important to remember that it's essentially anything that people acquire because they find value in it. The original definition of product design as a verb is to create a new product to be sold by a business to its customers. A very broad coefficient and effective generation and development of ideas through a process that leads to new products. Thus, it is a major aspect of new product development. It's important to know that the origins of the term product design were related to product development, often a physical product, that would then be sold to a business to distribute to consumers.

For example, a product designer would research and designs a chair. Instead of selling the product themselves, distributors would buy the product then sell it to customers. A scriptwriter in film selling their screenplay to a film studio is an analogous inspiration of product design.

The primary steps in product design are:

1. Research/Analyze: Identifying the business opportunity, understand the demand of the potential product

2. Concept Development: Defining the requirements of developing the product.

3. Synthesis: Ideation, rapid prototyping, and validation.

The generalization of design titles, and how we landed on product designer

From Interaction Designer to User Experience Designer, to Experience Designer, and Product Designer. These all have different meanings, but I believe for compensation purposes, they get flattened and blended together, which raises the challenge: everyone has a different definition of product design and there is often misalignment in expectations. My first role in design was as a User Interface Designer (UI Designer). I was not the person responsible for understanding user problems and coming up with the strategy. It was purely focused on exploring software interfaces that work with the system and how humans interact with it. I didn’t do research and most of the direction came from a user experience designer (a person who is now my mentor). As I grew in my career, I took on more responsibilities and shifted into user experience.

In the mid-2000s, there was a paradigm shift and companies like Facebook started using the term product designer. In the last 10-15 years of product design in software, we seemed to take all the roles and responsibilities of a team of people who would develop a product and make one person responsible for the entire process.

Why product design feels different in tech companies

The majority of product design roles in tech are optimizing existing products, not designing new products. There are exceptions such as joining a startup where the product hasn't been defined or exists yet, but the majority of people in product design are likely at the service of a product that's core to the business already. I don't view it as problematic rather being clear on the expectations of the role. There is a tremendous need to work on new features and optimizing existing ones in a product. It’s still product design, but perhaps not the full scope of it.

Predictions on the future of product design

There was a shift in UX design in the early 2010s when larger in-house companies started acquiring design consultancies, with Capital One buying Adaptive Path as the flagship example. It's inevitable that shifts in how product design functions all change again. Here are a few of my predictions of where the next decade will take us.

There will be fewer product designers

I believe in the rest of this decade we'll see fewer product design roles. With the increased sophistication of no code tools and the advancement of design tools like Figma, much of the work done by humans will be automated, and I think it’s positive. This allows people in current product design roles to have more focus: becoming product managers, work closely with engineering, or have more of a business responsibility (such as a GM or product owner). The product designers who focus on craft and technical skills might specialize in a certain area of the product development process.

Return of the specialists

With fewer product designers in the future, I believe we'll see a resurgence of specialized roles coming back. When I posted a UI Designer role for Webflow, someone emailed me and asked if that's what I intended because "those roles don't exist anymore." That's precisely why I'm looking for a UI Designer.

Take the practice of medicine for example. A neurosurgeon could probably take care of your acute issue if it really came down to it, but would you want them to? Would you want a primary care physician to perform neurosurgery on you? Though it's to a different level of severity, the design used to be like this; a collective of generalists focused on certain roles with an array of specialists to work with, such as researchers, user interface designers, content writers, information architects, and much more.

Generalists are essential, but the role of specialists results in a better product because of the ability to leverage deep expertise.

Product Design and the relationship with venture capital

In Issue 43, I wrote about venture studios and my excitement for them. This could be an opportunity to return to the original definition of product design. Instead of a chair being sold to a manufacturer, it's perhaps selling a consumer app to an institutional venture firm to fund or a company (acquiring the product before it becomes a company). Innovation branches in larger tech companies often don’t have any accountability structure. In the world of venture, there would be a demand for results and business viability to greenlight a product.

Product design definition will keep changing

So, WTF is a product designer? My definition of product design for in-house and software-centric companies is:

A product designer is responsible for working with product development teams to understand customer problems, evaluating the opportunity for the company to solve customer problems resulting in outcomes for the business. The product designer is responsible for driving the process from concept to delivery and leveraging team members and resources to deliver. You might not be an expert at every step of the development process, but you know how to navigate getting the work done.

If you're trying to break into product design, don't let this discourage you. Change is inevitable so be prepared. Ironically the people who've "pioneered" UX have given up and perhaps retired.

Words, roles, and titles evolve and change. There is a lot of value in product design in tech, whatever it means. Don't worry. It will become more clear, it might change, but either way, it’s a joy to do it for a living.

Design Roles

These are not sponsored and roles shared with me

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