In its simplest form, product design is the creation of new products.
Product designers play a critical role in designing and building not only apps, websites, and other digital products but physical products and experiences, too.
Product designers are involved—to a crucial degree—in every stage and aspect of the product development process. Whether it’s brainstorming, researching, conceptual exploration, or pixel tweaking, product designers are there. Often, they’re front and center.
We’ve written this article to take a deep dive into product design. First, we’ll explain what product design is in more detail before looking at the demand for product designers.
We’ll then explore what product designers do on a day-to-day and longer-term basis and what skills they require. Our final section will be an overview of how you can become a product designer before we wrap things up with some key takeaways.
You can use the clickable menu below to skip ahead to a section:
- What is product design?
- What does a product designer do?
- What skills does a product designer need?
- Is product design in demand?
- How to become a product designer
- Final thoughts
1. What is product design?
Product design is the process of creating new or altering existing products that offer solutions to a problem in a specific market. Successful product design bridges a business’s goals and user needs.
While product design can, of course, include physical products, in this article, we’re going to focus on digital product design (although, for simplicity, we refer to it as product design).
Product design is a multi-layered craft encompassing design, user experience, collaboration, and more. Many of a product designer’s day-to-day tasks will fit into one or more of these categories.
Product design’s foundations start with design thinking, which is a user-centric way to integrate the needs of real users into technological and business requirements. To understand product design, you need to have a good grasp of design thinking.
We’ll take a detailed look at the stages of design thinking—and explore other aspects of what a product designer does—in the next section.
2. What does a product designer do?
The role of a product designer is one that people often confuse with other types of designers—especially UX designers, interaction designers, and visual designers. There’s often a huge amount of overlap between responsibilities in design positions, and designers often have to be competent in many different aspects of design.
Many companies—including the likes of Meta, Netflix, Apple, and Microsoft—have eliminated the job title “UX designer” from their organizational structures and replaced it with “product designer”.
But this fact doesn’t necessarily signal a huge shift—or any shift at all—in the day-to-day functioning of designers with those roles.
So, what does a product designer actually do in the process of creating products? Here’s a summary of what the role looks like at a major tech company (Meta).
A product designer:
- Turns broad ideas and concepts into usable, valuable, well-crafted, and executed product(s)
- Is involved in all aspects of the product development process to do this
- Brainstorms, creates visual designs, flows, and experiences
- Contributes to strategic decisions about critical company goals
- Collaborates with product management, engineering, research, and content
- Represents work to product team and wider leadership
At this stage, it’s worth noting that while the role would look similar to this in larger organizations, in smaller ones it could be significantly more wide-ranging.
Product design isn’t one-size-fits-all
Like most jobs, the product designer role isn’t one-size-fits-all. Employers can assign different responsibilities to suit their business structure and goals. In smaller companies, product designers will often end up with a broader range of responsibilities as teams are smaller and can be less-specialized.
So, as well as the six responsibilities above, a product designer might also have one or more of the following in their job description:
- User experience (UX)
- User interface (UI)
- User experience writing
- Coding (as part of user research, as opposed to programming)
- Project management
- Team management
- Planning and conducting testing
- Developer support
- Marketing support
- Meeting with clients
- Presenting the final product
Product designers are stewards of the product. They’re ultimately accountable for making sure it resolves the problem it sets out to, that it’s the best product that it can be, that it’s cost-effective and functional and that all stakeholders are pleased with the final result.
A huge part of a product designer’s process is design thinking.
Product design and design thinking
Design thinking is at the heart of product design as well—to understand product design, you need to understand design thinking. Design thinking encompasses five steps that all come back to solving the user’s problems, and we’ll explore them now.
Stage one: Empathize. To design with a user focus, product designers first conduct research to learn about who they’re designing for.
The research stage in product design is crucial for meeting user needs and guiding the design process. It’s spent getting to know the user and understanding their wants, needs, and objectives.
Empathizing normally includes some or all of the following inter-linked activities:
- Desk research and preparation: This is where existing data like market studies and competitor analyses are reviewed. It provides you with a broader context for the product and uncovers potential opportunities.
- User research: UX research methods like surveys, questionnaires, usability testing, ethnographic studies, and interviews, can help you gain a deep understanding of the target audience by collecting data on user preferences and behaviors.
- User interviews: Whether in-person or remote, interviews will be key to your user research. You should practice active listening, and open-ended questions and create a comfortable environment for users to share their experiences.
- Analysis and reporting: This is when you analyze your data through categorization, coding, and synthesis to extract insights. You’ll need to be ready to report your findings clearly and actionably, with visual aids like charts and graphs if appropriate.
- Creating personas: These fictional characters represent different user segments based on real data. They’ll help you empathize with users and make design decisions aligned with their needs.
Stage two: Define. Based on users’ needs and insights, you can clearly define the problem.
This is a pivotal phase where the groundwork for the entire project is laid. The findings from the first stage are used to give crucial shape and direction to a product idea.
With strategic thinking, visual representation, a deep understanding of the customer journey, a compelling value proposition, and clear product definition—stage two is a critical bridge between ideation and execution.
Defining normally includes some or all of the following inter-linked activities:
- Product definition and strategy: This is about asking fundamental questions like what the product will be, its goals, features and functionalities, and how it aligns with broader business objectives. This definition serves as a guiding light for the development process
- Visual thinking: Visual representations—like diagrams, charts, and mind maps—help you to understand, conceptualize, refine, and communicate the product’s definition.
- Customer journey: This involves creating detailed maps to outline the entire user experience, from initial contact to final interaction. It helps in identifying pain points and opportunities for improvement.
- Value Proposition: Defining the product also involves clarifying its unique value proposition. What sets it apart from competitors? What problems does it solve for your users? The answers to these questions help you create a compelling product proposition.
Stage three: Ideate. Develop a robust solution for the problem you defined by beginning with a wide array of potential creative solutions.
Here’s where your creativity takes center stage as ideas, concepts, and innovative solutions are born. You’ll hold ideation sessions—with techniques like brainstorming, mind-mapping, bodystorming, provocation, and more— to develop as many new angles and ideas as possible.
Ideation generally includes some or all of the following inter-linked activities:
Information architecture: Creating the product’s information architecture includes working on the structure, navigation, naming conventions, and search functionality. All have to be organized in a way that’s intuitive for users.
User Scenarios: User scenarios—focussed on the personas established in stage one and their needs—will help you to envision how users would interact with the product. This can guide your ideation phase toward user-centric solutions.
Lo-Fi Sketching: In this stage you’ll need to put your ideas on paper quickly and informally. These sketches serve as a visual brainstorming tool so the team can rapidly explore concepts.
Benchmarking: Benchmarking involves studying competitors and industry leaders to gain insights into best practices and innovative features. Doing this can help you identify opportunities to differentiate the product and excel in the market.
Accessibility: This is about evaluating ideas not only for their creativity but also for their potential to create accessible and inclusive experiences.
Design studio and design critiques: Collaborative brainstorming sessions—also known as design studios—often take place during ideation. And design critiques are an opportunity to review and refine concepts, and get feedback from your peers. As the ideation stage draws to a close, you’ll narrow your ideas down to a few to move forward with. Both design studios and design critiques can help with this.
Stage four: Prototype. Using the solutions from the ideation phase a prototype (or multiple prototypes) will be built for testing. Prototypes give you tangible evidence that you’re on track (or not) and can reveal new insights.
This is when abstract ideas and concepts are transformed into tangible, interactive representations of the final product. It’s when the design truly comes to life. Prototypes (scaled-down versions of the final product based on solutions identified in the ideate stage) are a critical bridge between design and development. They allow for user testing and refinement before building the final product.
Prototyping generally includes some or all of the following inter-linked activities:
UI Design: This is when you take the concepts and visual designs from the earlier stages and translate them into a fully-fledged user interface. This includes refining the layout and visual elements, ensuring consistency in design elements, and crafting a UI that’s visually appealing and functional.
UX writing: UX writers play a crucial role in the prototype stage by creating and refining the UI copy and microcopy. They create clear, concise, and user-friendly copy to guide through the product with intuitive messaging.
Responsive web, mobile, and natural user interface design: Prototypes must be responsive, so make sure your product’s UX is consistent and optimized for responsive web design, mobile applications, and natural user interfaces like voice or gesture interactions.
Working with the development team: A lot of collaboration between design and development happens in the prototype stage. You’ll work tightly with developers to ensure that the design vision can be effectively translated into code. Expect discussions on technical feasibility, optimization, and any potential challenges.
Rules, practices, and limitations of implementation: This is related to the above. Designers and developers must follow specific implementation rules and stay on the right side of technological limitations. This includes platform-specific guidelines, coding standards, and the constraints of your chosen technologies.
Stage five: Test. Here’s when you refer back to the users to make sure your designs are working the way that they had planned. This leads back to the ideation phase for design and product refinement until it is just right.
As you’d expect, testing means your product designs are put to the test. This is crucial for validating design decisions and ensuring the final product meets user needs and expectations. Evaluation can happen through usability testing, analytics, and quantitative metrics.
Testing generally includes some or all of the following inter-linked activities:
Usability testing: Methods you employ might include moderated user testing, unmoderated remote testing, and guerrilla testing. All will help you evaluate how real users interact with the product.
Web and mobile analytics: If possible, you can use analytics tools to collect data on user behavior within the product. This data can give you quantitative insights into user interactions, navigation patterns, and usage metrics, all of which can help you identify areas of improvement.
Quantitative UX Metrics: Quantitative UX metrics, such as conversion rates, bounce rates, and task completion times, are used to assess the product’s performance objectively. These metrics provide concrete data to evaluate the success of design iterations.
Data analysis and reporting: This includes identifying and synthesizing patterns, trends, and pain points from the data. Your analysis will inform design decisions and improvements and you’ll have to report your findings to stakeholders.
As stated, the conclusion of the testing stage often leads back to the ideation stage, or even earlier. It’s also sometimes the case—depending on the organizational and team setup and way of working—that the steps aren’t followed linearly.
Now that we’ve explored the design thinking process, you’ll probably have a good idea of the skills that a product designer needs. But let’s take a very quick look at the overall picture.
3. What skills do product designers need?
For product designers, soft skills and technical skills can be equally important.
As a product designer, you’ll need to communicate with multiple different teams, stakeholders, and present your ideas at every stage of the process. Problem-solving on a deadline is another soft skill that product designers should master.
Product designers also rely on technical knowledge balanced with their creative ability. You’ll need a sense of visual and spatial awareness that’s balanced with commercial awareness, in order to know what looks good, functions well, and will be a viable product for business purposes.
A product designer uses software like Figma, Sketch, and Adobe Illustrator, and prototyping software to bring their ideas to life. You’ll also need to be adept at creating journey maps and conducting user research, as well as creating wireframes, prototypes, and high-fidelity designs to help make decisions and present your ideas.
Many job descriptions for product designers specify that the designer needs to have UX and UI design experience, proficiency in popular software (usually Figma or Sketch and more), and solid collaborative skills. For multinational companies, foreign language skills are often a great asset in this role as well.
Now that we’ve covered what product design is, what a product designer does, product design and design thinking, and what skills a product designer needs, it’s the perfect time for us to look at the demand for product designers.
4. Is product design in demand?
The headline is that there’s a huge global demand for product designers and it only seems to be growing.
Just looking at two of the biggest hubs for job adverts—LinkedIn and Indeed—is enough to paint a picture of an extremely healthy demand for product designers in the US, the UK, and Germany.
Together they’re home to over 12,000 product designer roles. That figure is quite staggering, especially considering the number of roles that won’t be listed on either of these sites, and the fact that we’re in a fairly slow global jobs market.
Let’s look at the stats in a little bit more detail.
Product designer roles on LinkedIn
This is an overview of the product designer roles on LinkedIn (as of September 2023):
- U.S.: 1328 live product designer roles
- 473 located in the San Francisco Bay Area and 289 in New York
- Meta, Strava, Western Union, Jasper, and eBay are among the companies hiring
- UK: 339 live product designer roles
- 196 located in London
- Amazon, Bumble, Flo, and Meta are among the companies hiring
- Germany: 2529 live product designer roles
- 612 located in Berlin
- eBay, zalando, and Siemens Gamesa are among the companies hiring
Product designer roles on Indeed
The market for product designers on Indeed is even more lively than on LinkedIn. Here’s an overview of the live roles, also accurate as of 23.09:
- U.S.: 2529 live product designer roles
- 218 in the San Francisco Bay Area
- 183 in New York
- 228 hybrid remote
- 667 remote
- UK: 3699 live product designer roles
- 1,225 located in London
- 538 hybrid remote
- 157 remote
- Germany: 2269 live product designer roles
- 619 in Berlin
- 247 hybrid remote
- 281 remote
It’s worth noting that these figures include some roles which may not have the exact job title “product designer”, and also may include some duplicate listings. They still point to a very healthy demand for product designers across the globe, though.
Now’s a good time to take a quick look at why there’s such a high demand for product designers.
Why are product designers in such high demand?
Put simply, product designers are the architects of the digital world. They craft our experiences in the virtual realm. It’s product designers who give users smooth, enjoyable experiences by making sure everything is where it should be. Nearly all companies now recognize that good UX is a must-have, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise the same companies are scrambling to hire the product designers who can create interfaces that keep users coming back for more.
And—as the stats in the last section show—the global marketplace is incredibly competitive. As enterprises and startups look for ways to differentiate themselves from the competition, a well-designed product is often the difference makers. It can turn a small startup into a household name or rejuvenate a legacy brand.
Product designers are the key to making products and services more appealing and functional. Ultimately, this makes them key to the financial success or failure of their company’s bottom line. Inc.com explored this in their article Why Design Is the Best Bottom-Line Strategy — it’s several years old but still highly relevant today.
A huge part of the continuing appeal of the most successful companies is innovation. They’re in very different spaces, of course, but think about the evolving product ranges of Dyson, Apple, and Tesla. They’re all market leaders who have gained an edge because of their innovation.
Product designers are the visionaries behind much of this innovation. They conceptualize groundbreaking products. As Meta says in their job description, they need product designers who can “take broad, conceptual ideas and turn them into something useful and valuable for our 2 billion plus users”.
On top of this—but equally crucial—is the role product designers play in making technology accessible to everyone. They ensure that digital products are inclusive and user-friendly for people of all abilities. Accessibility is a non-negotiable—companies who do not provide accessible apps or websites are often being legally mandated to do so.
The likes of Netflix, Amazon, Target, and Peloton have all either been sued or are in the process of being sued for not adhering to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) in providing apps or websites that are perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust enough to be understood by people with disabilities.
Not only is being sued for not providing accessible content the worst kind of PR for companies who strive to appear as modern and inclusive, it can be a major financial hit, too. The role product designers play in creating accessible apps and websites is just another reason they’re in such high demand.
Now that we’ve looked at the demand for product designers, we’ll give you a quick overview of what salaries look like.
What are product designer salaries?
As is normally the case for roles where demand outstrips supply, product designer salaries are generally high.
It’s worth saying that there can be a huge amount of variance between salaries, though. This can apply from industry to industry with, for example, major tech companies normally paying significantly higher salaries than local government administrations.
And even within any industry you’re likely to find a significant range, as you’ll see when you start looking for product design roles.
Here are the average salaries for product designers, senior product designers, and lead product designers in the US, Germany, and the UK (figures from Glassdoor and accurate as of September 2023):
- Product designer average annual salary: $95,814
- Senior product designer average annual salary: $157,394
- Lead product designer average annual salary: $163,722
- Product designer average annual salary: £57,114
- Senior product designer average annual salary: £78,721
- Lead product designer average annual salary: £88,437
- Product designer average annual salary: €61,887
- Senior product designer average annual salary: €71,500
- Lead product designer average annual salary: €85,587
Now that we’ve taken a thorough look at what product design is, the skills product designers need, and their salaries, let’s quickly look at the steps you’ll need to go through to become a product designer.
5. How to become a product designer
A lot of product designers have transitioned from other careers, and there’s no exact path you have to follow to become one.
While some have studied the craft to a degree level, many have completed bootcamps or other non-university affiliated courses. And, as with most design-related careers, it doesn’t take long before employers start valuing your skills and experience over where you learned the craft.
That said, there are some basic steps that every product design will have to go through, albeit not necessarily in the same order. Some will have started learning the tools before they read up on the design methods and processes, while others might have jumped right into a product design course.
Either way, here are seven steps that you’ll need to go through to become a product designer:
Step 1: Start reading up on product design
Step 2: Learn the key product design principles, methods and processes
Step 3: Structure your learning with a credible product design course
Step 4: Practice, practice, practice
Step 5: Learn key product design tools (Figma, Sketch, Adobe CC, etc.)
Step 6: Build your product design portfolio
Step 7: Network with other product designers
6. Final thoughts
So, what is product design?
In the simplest terms, it’s the process of creating products (digital tools, experiences, and physical goods) that both solve a user’s needs and serve a business purpose.
A product designer leads the charge in creating these products using design thinking, clear communication, problem-solving skills, and software tools. A large part of the role plays out through design thinking, a key product design process based on five stages.
While product designers are similar to other design positions, like UX design, this role is defined independently for a reason.
Product designers need next-level business acumen alongside their design skills to be successful. This makes it a great role for someone who is already a UX designer but wants more responsibilities and a potentially higher salary.
For more insights into product design and what it’s like to be a product designer, check out these articles and alumni stories: