Consider all the products you’ve used so far today. A coffee machine, your smartphone, your water bottle…an online banking app, your favorite social media platforms, that spreadsheet or document you edited for work…
Our daily lives are full of interactions with all different kinds of products. And all of those products—and the experiences they provide—are created by product designers.
So how do they do it? What exactly is a product designer, and what does the role entail?
There’s lots to learn about this fast-growing role, and we’ve covered all the essentials in this guide. Keep reading to learn:
- What is a product designer?
- Is a product designer the same as a UX/UI designer?
- What does a product designer do? Key tasks and responsibilities
- What are the most important skills and tools for product designers?
- What does a day in the life of a product designer look like?
- How to start a career in product design
- Key takeaways and further reading
Let’s begin with a high-level overview of the role.
1. What is a product designer?
A product designer is responsible for designing new products and improving existing ones. They must understand the market their product is competing in, identify end user pain-points and design to solve them, and consider how the product aligns with business goals.
In product design, the term “product” relates to both physical goods and digital products. Sometimes, it might even apply to intangible experiences or processes. Ultimately, anything that can be used, interacted with, or experienced in some way can be designed by a product designer.
The role spans strategy, research, and hands-on design work—with a focus on the aesthetics, form, and functionality of the product. Product designers also consider the user experience (UX) of the product; that is, how easy, intuitive, and enjoyable the product is to use, and how effectively it solves the user’s problem.
Speaking of which…
2. Is a product designer the same as a UX/UI designer?
Not exactly. There can be overlap between product designers and UX/UI designers, and not all employers will distinguish between the roles. But, technically speaking, they’re not the same thing.
A user experience (UX) designer prioritizes the interaction between the user and the product, ensuring its structure is intuitive, usable, and leaves a positive impression on the user. They focus on navigation ease and the product’s overall user-friendliness.
A user interface (UI) designer crafts the visual and interactive aspects of digital products, focusing on aesthetics like color, layout, and typography, as well as the responses to user actions on elements like buttons and options.
A product designer takes a more comprehensive, 360 view of the product. They consider the design of the product itself, focusing on both functionality and aesthetics, but also the broader context around it. They look at the target market and competitive landscape, as well as the strategic objectives and business goals the product should fulfill. UX and UI design both play a part in product design, but they’re not the whole picture.
In a nutshell: UX designers focus on product structure, usability, and functionality. UI designers focus on the aesthetics and interactivity of digital products only. Product designers are more holistic in their approach. They consider both the UX and UI design of a product, as well as how the product fits into the target market and aligns with business goals.
You can learn more about the differences between UX design and product design in our full guide.
3. What does a product designer do? Key tasks and responsibilities
Imagine you’re a product designer working for a company that makes pots and pans.
Your target user base is students who are setting up their first home. You’ve got a range of pots and pans on the market, but they’re not selling super well. You need to design something better—something that your customers really need and will rush to buy.
As a product designer, it’s your job to come up with a new idea; a novel approach that will help your range of pots and pans to stand out. You start by conducting market research, focusing on your main competitors and their product offerings.
Next, you conduct user research to identify the unresolved challenges your target customers face in relation to pots and pans. In doing so, you find that the biggest
frustration for students is that pots and pans take up so much space. Most of your target users have small, shared kitchens with limited storage, so they end up leaving their pots and pans out on the side.
With this user problem in mind, you brainstorm possible solutions. Eventually, you come up with the idea of a collapsible pot and pan set that can be folded away compactly after use.
Seems like a great idea! So, you sketch out—and eventually prototype—how the foldable pots and pans might look and function. Once you’ve got a prototype, you test it to make sure it works as intended. After several iterations, you have a promising new product that’s ready to be developed and launched.
That’s a boiled-down version of what a product designer does! Now let’s see how that translates into day-to-day tasks and responsibilities.
The main responsibilities of a product designer
Product designers are responsible for:
- Understanding the target market and the competitive landscape
- Understanding the target users’ needs, goals, and pain-points
- Coming up with ideas and concepts—either for new products or for product improvements—that fill a gap in the market, solve a specific problem for the user, and align with business goals
- Determining whether product ideas and concepts are desirable, feasible, and viable
- Designing and testing new products or features, ensuring that they’re functional, accessible, and aesthetically pleasing
- Collaborating closely with product managers to ensure the product’s continued success on the market
The day-to-day tasks of a product designer
Within those broader areas of responsibility, product designers take on a variety of tasks.
Depending on the stage and maturity of the product they’re working on, a product designer might:
- Conduct market research to identify key trends and get familiar with competitors
- Conduct user research to define target personas and identify problems to be solved
- Collaborate with product managers and other business stakeholders to understand the strategic vision for the product
- Ideate/brainstorm new product concepts and features
- Create product sketches, wireframes, and prototypes—either independently or in collaboration with UX and UI designers, depending on the size and anatomy of the team
- Coordinate and/or implement user and usability tests to validate or invalidate designs
- Hand designs over for development
- Run ongoing tests and experiments to continuously iterate on and improve the product
- Establish and/or maintain design systems and guidelines
As you can gather from that list, the product designer role is collaborative, cross-functional, and very hands-on! So what skills do you need to excel in such a role? Let’s take a look.
4. What are the most important skills and tools for product designers?
Product designers require a diverse mix of hard and soft skills, as well as proficiency in specific tools. The most important skills and tools for product designers include:
- Collaboration and communication
- Research skills
- Problem-solving and critical thinking
- Thorough knowledge of user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design concepts such as design thinking, information architecture, interaction design, and responsive design
- Hands-on design skills such as wireframing and prototyping, as well as knowledge of different user research methods
- Proficiency in industry-standard wireframing and prototyping tools such as Figma, Sketch, and Adobe XD
- Familiarity with popular project management and collaboration tools such as Monday.com, Trello, Asana, and Notion
- An understanding of the role of AI and how to leverage AI tools in the product design process
That’s just a very brief snapshot of the product designer’s skill set and tool stack. For a deeper dive, check out this full round-up of product design tools and our comprehensive guide to the most important product designer skills.
5. What does a day in the life of a product designer look like?
The role of the product designer is so inherently varied—in terms of scope and day-to-day tasks, but also in how it’s positioned across different companies. Still, with our broad definition in mind, let’s envision what it’s like to spend a day in the life of a product designer.
Setting the scene
Imagine you’re a product designer working for a virtual healthcare company. You recently launched an app that enables users to schedule and attend appointments with healthcare practitioners via video call, and to keep track of their own health records. Here’s how your working day might play out…
You start the day by checking your messages, emails, and calendar. You also check Asana (your project management tool) for an overview of what you’re currently working on and what the priorities are. You spend some time finishing off a presentation you’ll need for a meeting later on.
Next up: a meeting with the product manager and lead software engineer. You give your presentation, sharing some user feedback you’ve gathered since the healthcare app launched. Worryingly, many users are booking appointments only to find that, when they attend the appointment, they’ve been matched with a healthcare professional in a completely unrelated domain (think: booking to discuss your knee pain and being seen by a dentist).
Together, you agree that addressing this issue is a major priority. For the rest of the morning, you go back over the competitor research you conducted before designing the app. You’re curious to see if, and how, your competitors have avoided this issue. You also want some inspiration for how you can improve your own product.
After lunch, you block off the afternoon for some serious brainstorming. You need to come up with a good solution, and fast! Headphones on, you jot down as many ideas as you can. As you review your ideas, there’s one that you think could be highly effective—and not too difficult to implement.
You sketch out a basic user flow for the practitioner sign-up process, this time including additional mandatory steps that require the practitioner to select three “tags” or “keywords” that best describe their area of expertise. When users go to book an appointment, these tags will be used to automatically filter out unsuitable practitioners, ensuring a more accurate patient-practitioner match.
With your initial idea sketched out, you share it with the product manager to get their feedback. If all goes well, you’ll soon move on to creating wireframes and, eventually, prototypes, to test your proposed solution.
Before logging off for the day, you check your schedule for tomorrow and reply to some Slack messages. The product manager has responded—they like your idea and think it’s worth testing. You create a task in Asana to remind you to move ahead with the design tomorrow. And that’s a wrap!
If you’d like to learn more about what it’s like to work as a product designer, check out this day-in-the-life video with CareerFoundry graduate Florian Bölter.
6. How to start a career in product design
You don’t need a university degree or any particular background to become a product designer. It ultimately doesn’t matter where you’re coming from—as long as you can demonstrate that you’ve trained as a product designer and mastered all the fundamental skills, tools, and processes that the role requires.
So how do you train as a product designer?
If you’re brand new to the field, you’ll need a structured and hands-on approach to learning the ropes. And, as you learn new concepts and develop your skills, you’ll want to apply them to practical projects that you can add to your product design portfolio. When it comes to convincing hiring managers that you’re a competent designer, a professional portfolio is a must!
At the same time, you’ll need to focus on growing your professional network, learning how to market yourself as a product designer (this is especially important if you’re coming from an unrelated field), and mastering the art of product designer interviews.
In a nutshell, here’s what you need to do:
- Learn the fundamental product design skills, tools, and processes
- Apply them to practical projects and build out your professional portfolio
- Grow your industry network
- Learn how to market yourself as a product designer and showcase your new skills
- Master the art of product design interviews
A dedicated career-change program will take you through all the necessary steps—not only teaching you the most important skills, but also guiding you through the process of building your portfolio, applying for jobs, and preparing for interviews.
Check out the CareerFoundry Product Design Program, and see how it compares to other options on the market with our product design course comparison guide.
7. Key takeaways and further reading
The role of the product designer is varied, collaborative, and hands-on. Product designers have the opportunity to think strategically, be creative, and make an impact—they literally design the products and experiences that shape our day-to-day lives! And, with the rise of AI and other emerging technologies, the scope of the role is evolving and expanding in fascinating ways.
If you’d like to learn more about this exciting and growing field, here are some recommendations for further reading: