Product design is an emerging field at the intersection of tech and creative design; product design covers the research, creation, and ongoing improvement of products. Over the past few decades, digital product design has evolved as its own discipline, incorporating the best principles of classic product design while acknowledging the needs of the digital space.
All product designers act as client advocates, holding themselves responsible for seeing that the company delivers a product that meets user needs while also being safe, effective, aesthetic, and true to the company’s brand.
To accomplish this, product designers work with stakeholders ranging from sales and marketing, engineers and developers, and the users themselves. They bring together all requirements and concerns about a product in order to shape the best possible outcome.
At the heart of the role, the product designer must empathize with the end-user of the product to gain a sense of what the end user truly needs from the product. The product designer’s responsibility is to then find an appropriate intersection of client/business needs and the needs of the product end user.
How product designers create value in an organization
Product design can be a great career choice for individuals who want to understand a specific industry or industry segment, and be at the heart of their company’s efforts to provide cutting-edge solutions. It’s a highly visible role within a company, and a good product manager creates value for their organization that goes far beyond their most obvious contributions.
It takes months or years to effectively design, test, and release a product, and that means companies are investing huge sums of capital well before they are in a position to potentially make revenue.
Good product managers care enough about their industry to study it closely, and to make bold predictions about where it will move in the years ahead. Their research will be shared with the firm and can guide executive decision-making on other projects, as well as the efforts of teams ranging from engineers to sales forces.
Great product designers also plan and research how their products are being used once released, and are then responsible for improving their designs to better meet the expectations of users and the needs of the business.
This ability to shift can be especially critical in the fast-changing world of modern technology firms. A quick look at some of the top firms in technology today points to the need for constant evolution. Apple serves as an easy example of this evolution in action; Mac computer sales have fallen to just 10.4% of their revenue in 2020, from 86.2% in the year 2000.
As the market changed, Apple released laptops, iPods, iPhones, iPads, the Apple Watch, and other products to ensure they stayed relevant to the times, even if it meant changing the core of their company’s offerings. The same can be said for Amazon (once an online bookstore).
In every case, product designers serve as critical leaders in helping a firm’s executives and other stakeholders decide how to ensure short- and long-term success for their company. Existing and new customers are rewarded with better products and experiences, and the company benefits across the board
What is the difference between UX/UI designer and product designer?
As digital product design has matured, a number of specific roles have been created to support the most important aspects of the product design discipline. In essence, product design is a more general role, and there are specialized disciplines that make up the skillset of a product designer.
For example, product designers can now be specialized to focus on an application’s information architecture, data, and interfaces (sometimes called system design). In other cases, their focus could be on the interfaces that govern user interaction.
User interface (UI) designers concern themselves with the visual experience of a digital product. They deal with anything related to the aesthetics of the product, from basics (such as fonts and colors) to complex animations or special interfaces that provide the user with an enhanced and unique experience.
User experience (UX) designers are responsible for the user’s entire engagement and experience with the product from beginning to end. From the moment a customer downloads or opens a product, until the moment they finish using it, a user experience designer will have considered the overall flow of the screens or messages they see and other key details such as how and when data is stored for future sessions.
In both cases, these product design professionals are thinking about the user’s experience – and this is obviously critical to product success. But a digital product designer will be operating at a higher level, with equal responsibility for ensuring a quality user experience, and for the back end design that represents the company’s experiences with the product.
How is a product going to securely capture user data and analyze it in real time? How will data be delivered back to them? What API partnerships will be needed to connect the product to other key players in the space? These are just some of the many questions a digital product designer will consider in their work.
Anyone interested in a career in digital product management — including UX/UI design — should ensure they are comfortable with the full range of product design skills including:
The UX Process — including standard tools, market research, analyzing the competitive landscape and creating prototypes; To manage UX, you should be comfortable thinking abstractly and planning concepts.
The UI Process — including design principles, typography and design patterns, creating mockups, designing products that fit OS-specific guidelines, etc. To manage UI, you should be comfortable executing concepts at a granular level.
The overall design thinking process, including product design frameworks, conducting research, prioritizing stakeholder needs, and effective communication to all teams throughout the process.
What skills does a product designer need?
Thinking about becoming a digital product designer? Here are some of the top skills you’ll want to develop to help you prepare for finding the best career opportunities in the space.
Fundamental software to know
Digital product designers need to develop expertise in a range of tools in the design and engineering space. While these can vary by industry, some common packages will include the Adobe product suite (including Adobe XD, Illustrator and Photoshop), key product design applications like InVision or Figma, and important collaborative tools like Miro, Slack, and Git.
Of course, this industry is constantly evolving as it develops so you should be willing to learn new tools as they come on the market. Think of this industry as life-long learning. You will never be bored because there will always be something new to learn or a new product to help create.
Product designers need to understand their users and the shifting dynamics of their industry. Qualitative research skills will be needed to conduct focus groups, surveys, user conversations, and other first-hand assessments of the space. But designers will also need quantitative research skills to crunch through the hard data and identity key patterns that will drive their decisions.
Customer journeys and user flows
Once the basic product idea has been identified, the product designer will lead a process of creating customer journeys and user flows to refine the expected pathways the product’s users will follow over the lifecycle of their product use. This serves not only to identify major areas that need focus, but also to communicate the product concepts to internal stakeholders who will be involved in the product’s execution.
Wireframing & prototyping
The next steps will involve taking the product from the idea stage to the prototype stage. Basic walk-throughs of the main product offerings will evolve into sophisticated drafts of the product.
Design and create mobile and/or web interfaces
To reach the prototype stage, the digital product designer will go through the process of developing the product UX/UI. Depending on the company and product size, this may be their direct responsibility or it may involve close collaboration with experts devoted to those spaces.
An important aspect of designing any product is to determine what information needs to be available to the user at any given time. Not only what type of information should be available, but how it needs to be presented to the user in order to make it crystal clear how to utilize the product. This can come in the form of labels for your pages, menus, and buttons or how a user may navigate your digital product.
Product design is a highly visible and challenging position, and you’ll need to hone a range of soft skills to ensure your best chances of success. Proactive decision-making, strategic planning, and the ability to build trust across stakeholder relationships will be critical to your success, as will everyday admin items such as communication and project management.
But behind all of that will be your deep and genuine interest in problem solving. This may be blue-sky brainstorming, but more often it will be the very real challenge of achieving an extraordinary result in the face of limited budgets, resources, and information. The best product designers will relish this as an opportunity to apply their detailed-oriented obsession with the space, and creative design thinking abilities, to achieve great results.
How do you start a product design career?
Interested in a career in digital product design? Your next step should be to decide the best pathway forward given your time, budget, and previous experience.
Many colleges and universities have undergraduate and graduate programs in product design (in general, and for the digital space specifically). This can be a great opportunity if you are preparing to enter your college career and have the luxury of four to six years to fully study the theory of product design.
At the other end of the spectrum, numerous books and online courses exist on specific elements of product design, such as user interface theory. These can be attractive options for professionals who are focused on inexpensive learning they can pursue at their own pace, and who don’t mind the trade-offs they are making by not having access to live hands-on instruction and the other benefits that come from more intensive forms of education.
For individuals who want to get the best of both worlds, our Product Design (UX/UI) bootcamp may be the perfect solution. In just 15 full-time weeks (or longer timelines for the flexible pace program), you can learn the core skills needed to be a digital product designer, including:
The essential components of the User Experience (UX) design process, including the hard and soft skills required to communicate with stakeholders, conduct research, and create product prototypes;
The fundamentals of User Interface (UI) design, including typographic, icon, and design library principles; grid systems and other key design fundamentals; OS-specific guidelines for design; and
Live project and case study creation that will ensure you have hands-on experience — and an established portfolio that demonstrates and showcases your specific set of skills as a designer — for when you begin your career search.
Students at Flatiron School’s Product Design bootcamp also have access to experienced instructors and like-minded students to create a positive and supportive community spirit of growth.
And because most of our students are seeking to turn their education into an immediate career move, Flatiron School provides individual career coaching for up to 180 days after graduation and access to a vast network of hiring partners ready to help our graduates get their foot in the door at top companies around the world.
Ready to learn more? You can read the syllabus of our Product Design (UX/UI) course online. You’ll also find more details about our student experience, our career coaching benefits, and the next steps to take if you’re ready to begin discussing a future in product design with our team.