Being a product designer is kind of like being a Swiss army knife in the field of design. You need to have a broad skill set capable of pinpointing a meaningful problem, figuring out a solution, and transforming the idea into a tangible product. There are many different tasks that require different approaches and tools.
As product designers, we’re only human (surprise!), so we all have our own strengths and flaws. No one is perfect, but we should all strive to learn and improve our skill set. If you want to do this as well, I think you’ll love this article.
With that said, it’s time to get stuck in and expand our product design repertoire!
What is product design?
The essence of product design is creating products that improve the user’s quality of life.
In order to do this, product design should identify a market opportunity and a real user problem, then clearly define that problem, develop a solution and test it with users.
This product creation process makes a product designer a cross-functional and multidisciplinary role. Usually, you’ll work closely with engineers, marketers, salespeople and the product management team.
As a product designer, you’re typically responsible for at least some, if not all, of these functions:
- User experience (UX)
- Visual design
- User research
- Data analysis
- Product prototyping
- User empathizing
The scope of your tasks depends on the size of your company and your design team. But as you can see, product design always spans across multiple disciplines, which means that there are multiple areas for improvement. 😉
For some, this might seem daunting, but others see it as an opportunity to constantly grow, evolve and enhance their product design process.
Speaking of which…
Product design process – a very brief overview
Good product design is an outward-focused process. It varies a bit from product to product, but its typical flow looks like this:
Product vision answers the question “what are we trying to build here and why?”. It points you in the right direction and guides the product development team.
Your product vision is not final, and it will probably change after doing your user research. That doesn’t mean that it’s pointless to create one, though – your research will be all over the place without an initial vision to guide it. It’s much better to have hypotheses and assumptions that you can verify or disprove following your user research and testing.
During this step, you’re going to discover the needs of your users and the constraints of the problem that you’re trying to solve. The goal is to learn as much as possible about the people for whom you are designing a solution and deeply understand how the problem is hurting them. That way, you’ll be able to empathize with the users and verify or adapt your product vision.
Understanding your users is crucial if you want to design a successful product, so never underestimate it. If you’re not a user research veteran, read my guide on how it should be conducted. I’m sure it will help you with your next project!
Now that you’ve got your user insights, use them to brainstorm and come up with as many creative solutions as possible. Pick a few of the best ideas and think about how you’d develop the product. If you don’t see a feasible strategy to make the idea a reality, abandon it. You can even create some low-fidelity mockups to help you decide which ideas to prototype and test.
Prototype and test
Build a prototype (or a series of prototypes) to test your ideas and hypotheses. This will allow you to see if you’re on the right track or tell you what you need to change. If you want a detailed overview of how to conduct effective product testing, just click on the link. 😉
Iterate and refine the best solutions
Listen to your users and use their feedback to improve your product until it’s ready to launch. This has been a very brief and basic overview of the product design process. As you’ll see later on, my tips on how to become a better product designer relate to the steps outlined above.
The preferable skill set of a product designer
Before we move onto the tips, let’s take a quick look at the skills you need to be a great product designer. Your daily tasks will usually involve:
- Talking with customers
- Being responsible for owning and driving your own pieces of design work
- Studying processes and systems
- Mocking up software wireframes
- Attempting to streamline parts of an existing product to improve usability
- Working with manufacturing on packaging or delivery issues for any non-digital products
It goes without saying that there are some key areas that you need to have an understanding of. I’d say that these are the most important ones:
- User research, user analytics and recognizing behavioral patterns
- UX and interaction design and knowing when to deliver wireframes and high-fidelity mockups
- UI design
- Prototyping and knowing how to test prototypes with the right users
- Knowing how to balance user goals with business goals
- Design facilitation and understanding the implications of the design on the company’s processes and technical capabilities
- Knowing how to convincingly communicate solutions to all stakeholders
As you can see, you need to understand the entire design process – from uncovering customer needs and pain points to executing elegant interfaces. This might have already given you an idea of where you can improve and grow.
Okay, let’s get into the juicy part of this article: the specific tips relating to impactful (and sometimes overlooked) aspects of product design.
Tips for becoming a better product designer
Understand your user
Yeah yeah, it might sound like a cliche, but we’ll be taking a look at the three key aspects of understanding your user. Just bear with me. 🙂
First, you need to realize that you might be the only voice and advocate for your users in your company. That’s why you should really get to know your users as well as you possibly can. Think of them as your friends and be curious about their desires, needs, problems and all of the usual stuff.
Additionally, explore the relationship between your user and your product. That’s what a lot of people miss! This can be done by answering questions about the context in which your product is being used.
Emotional context is all about how your user feels when they’re using your product (and also before and after). Try to figure out their mental state during its use – are they usually stressed, bored, happy or frustrated? Knowing this should impact how you design your product and how you present it to your users.
Environmental context explains where your users are when they’re using your product. You want to know what else is fighting for their attention and what they’re doing. Are they in a hurry? Are their hands free? Are they cooking, lying on a couch, running, or maybe even driving? These are all important things to consider.
Social context explores how others perceive your users when they’re using your product. Will it make them feel classy, cool or proud? Or will it embarrass them because it reveals a private problem that they have? Always remember that Segway thought its users would be perceived as cool and futuristic trendsetters. They weren’t. People thought they were weird, nerdy or lazy.
And that brings us to the mantra I want to emphasize: you are not your user. Please, always remember that. If you don’t, you’ll be oblivious to significant gaps in your knowledge and you won’t ask the questions that lead to breakthroughs and amazing products.
Identify a meaningful problem and solution
As a product designer, you must understand that solutions are meaningless if they don’t address a real problem. That’s why user research happens so early in the process.
There are still plenty of product designers who fall into the trap of ‘a fantastic idea’. They try to reverse the process and find the problem that their cool solution might solve. They are biased and in 99% of cases, there will be no real need for their solution. Don’t do this. You’re just going to waste your time and energy.
Even when you do find a real problem, ask yourself if your solution is necessary and meaningful.
For starters, answer the following three questions:
- “Will this product make the user’s life better?”
- “How big of an impact will this product have when used?”
- “How often will the user use the product?”
If your product is something that will be used on a daily basis, it doesn’t need to have a huge impact to be significant. However, if your product is something that’s used every few months, it should make a big difference to the user’s life if you want the solution to be meaningful.
Once you’ve answered these questions, it should be much easier to decide whether you want to keep, iterate, or abandon your idea.
Focus on the product…
You might be familiar with the quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupery:
A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
This also holds true for product design. Successful products are often simple and clean in terms of graphic design. They may not help artists to showcase their skills, yet they still make the world a better place.
Dedicate yourself to mapping, sketching, wireframing, prototyping and improving the user experience. That’s what’s most important. A polished user interface is neat, but it won’t save a product that’s lacking when it comes to its core functionality.
That’s another trap to avoid – don’t take an awesome design and try to build a product around it. It won’t work. Make a kick-ass product first and then, by all means, make it sleek and beautiful.
… and how the product is made
Focusing on the product brings us to another important tip: understand how your product will be made, especially if it’s not a digital one.
Every business tries to produce the best results with minimal timeframes and resources. If you learn about the entire product development cycle, you’ll be able to stay within the limits of the common tools and machines of your company. This will significantly impact costs and timing. It will also completely change how you view your designs and make them more realistic.
It will be so much easier to present and sell your idea to your executives if you explain how the company can efficiently manufacture the product. Trust me, it makes a world of difference and significantly raises the value of your work.
What this doesn’t mean is that you should let manufacturing rule your design. Learn enough so that you can find a balance and exploit manufacturing processes to create wonderful and useful products. If you start exploring the world of manufacturing, it might even give you some new ideas as you discover processes that you never knew existed. 🙂
Aim for intuitive design and go one step further
A great product does not raise questions; it only provides answers.
And great product designers strive to design products that are so intuitive, their users don’t require walkthroughs or onboarding.
However, you should never assume that your design is intuitive. Instead, gather evidence that this is the case.
If you are a digital product designer, run usability tests. Observe users performing the task at hand. If there are many points of friction for users, your product is not as intuitive as it could be.
Listen to feedback and recall all of the best UX and UI practices that you’ve learned throughout your career:
- Focus on visual clarity
- Create simple navigation
- Ensure layout consistency
- Enforce adaptive design
- Constantly and continuously simplify
Always think about how you can go one step further to make your product surprisingly easy to use.
Let’s say that you’re testing a physical product and you want to assess its ergonomics. Tell users to:
- Try using the product with their non-dominant hand
- Grease up their hands with oil, then try using the product
- Try using your design one-handed if appropriate (but even if not, you might learn something)
- Try using it blindfolded
These artificial disability tests will give you a sense of the boundaries of your product’s usability. Depending on the nature of your product, such tests might also be very relevant: people often find themselves in situations where they are somewhat ‘disabled’, such as getting their hands soapy or greasy, having one hand full, or perhaps needing to do something when there is insufficient lighting.
Don’t obsess over perfection
“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late,” said LinkedIn’s founder, Reid Hoffman.
While I might not agree with him completely, I’m sure that you get the gist of his statement. Your job as a product designer is to gather feedback, iterate, and deliver a useful solution. Your job is not to create a perfect product. At the end of the day, you need to deliver something and you mustn’t let perfection get in the way.
You can iterate and improve after you’ve launched the product. Rolling out a product that is 90% where you want it to be is much better than infinitely trying to reach 100%.
Sure, do your best, but break up with Miss Perfection first.
Be open to other ideas
Plenty of product designers seem to think that the final design has to be their idea. I mean, that’s your job, right?
However, other people can have excellent ideas too. And their ideas can actually help you out a lot! If you can’t figure out the design and someone with no design experience has a real ‘eureka’ moment, it doesn’t mean that you suck at your job. Appreciate it, nourish it and develop it. If the product makes someone’s life better, then you’ve succeeded – no matter whose idea it was.
Know how to articulate your process and decisions
Having a systematic way of working through a design problem and knowing how to explain it is often the difference between an okay product designer and a great one.
I’ve learned that designers who don’t know how to articulate their process usually don’t know how to back up their choices with data, user insights or design principles.
Being able to communicate your decision-making, thought processes, trade-offs and prioritisation is a game-changer. It shows that you’re capable of managing yourself and establishing a product design process, both for your own benefit and those around you.
You also need to know how to back up your decisions because you’re usually the one who knows your users best. You shouldn’t change something just because an executive said so, especially if you know it won’t work. You are responsible for your design and you will be to blame if it fails, not the executive.
Here are some starting questions that should help you to communicate your process and decisions:
- What is the user’s need that this solution is fulfilling?
- What is the business need that this solution is fulfilling?
- How does this solution solve the need?
- What trade-offs (if any) are being made?
- What is our measurement of success? How will we know that we’ve hit it?
- What is the next step? Is it research, experimentation, or further iteration?
Revisit the product roadmap
A product is a living thing, susceptible to many changes and adaptations. A roadmap is a long-term plan which ideally makes your product vision a reality. However, if you create it and forget it, then it won’t stay relevant or helpful for very long.
You should routinely gather feedback and adjust your roadmap accordingly. Relevant feedback can come from users, developers, stakeholders, marketers, or pretty much anyone else. Weekly meetings are a good way to keep your roadmap up-to-date based on internal feedback. If your developer finds out that there’s another tool, a new build or a way to develop the product faster than initially estimated, then you’ll want to know about it.
This will help the roadmap to stay alive, guide further development of the product, and help you to stay on the strategic track for the long run.
Be an avid and pragmatic user of the product that you’re designing
I know, I know. It’s kind of a dream scenario and it’s not always possible. However, the inspiration behind a lot of the best products on the market is: “We built a product that we wanted to use ourselves and then we thought, hey, others might have this problem too!”
This just shows you how important it is to solve real problems for real users. If you have an internal project where you are trying to solve your own problems, you might want to ask yourself whether there’s a market for it. Maybe there are lots of other people struggling with the same challenge as you are!
Be curious and learn how different products work
This one is quite simple, but it makes a big difference and may highlight just how passionate you are about design. If you love design, you’ll want to understand why you like certain products and how they’re successful. This will expand your design knowledge and certainly impact your designs in the future.
If you’re not the most passionate designer and you aren’t constantly trying to dissect various designs, that’s perfectly okay too. However, I’d still suggest that you try to learn about things that really surprise you or have a huge impact on your life. I’m sure that the knowledge you gain will come in useful in the future. 😉
Understand the roles in the product creation process
The best teams are the ones that understand each other and communicate well. That’s why being able to speak the language of everyone on your team is a big deal, especially for the cross-functional role of a product designer. It will seriously improve your collaboration and efficiency.
I’m not just talking about understanding different acronyms, but actually taking the time to learn about various roles and exchanging knowledge with your colleagues.
Understanding people’s mindsets, priorities, and ways of working will allow you to make better decisions, speed up the workflow and create a more efficient product design process that your team will appreciate. Communication will be clearer and there are going to be fewer misunderstandings. Everybody wins.
That’s it! For now…
I hope that you’ve learned some things that will make you an even better product designer! If you enjoyed these tips and are hungry for more design knowledge, subscribe to my newsletter and I’ll send you a content blast once a month.
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? Oh hey,
Design strategy consultant, founder of DesignStrategy.guide
I work as a Design Strategist who holds a Master of Business Administration. I have 15+ years of career experience in design work and consulting across both tech startups and several marquee tech unicorns such as Stellar.org, Outfit7, Databox, Xamarin, Chipolo, Doodle, etc. I currently advise, coach and consult with companies on design strategy & management, visual design and user experience. My work has been published on Forbes, Hackernoon, Blockgeeks, Newsbtc, Bizjournals, and featured on Apple iTunes Store.