What Is Product Design?

“Product designer” is a job title that often gets confused with other types of designers. Design positions, in general, tend to have overlapping responsibilities and designers often have to be competent in many different facets of design. 

Product designers are hired globally to work on everything from physical products to apps to grocery store experiences. On LinkedIn, there are over 30,000 open product design jobs in the U.S. alone; 4,200 in Germany; 6,100 in the UK; 3,000 in Canada; and 5,000 in India (as of this writing). That’s just the open jobs on LinkedIn!

Depending on experience and industry, a product designer can make between $50k-$128k in the United States. With a wider range of responsibilities come a broader scope of opportunities. The product design role is expected to grow by 4% across the US over the next decade and you can find product design jobs in nearly every industry. 

But what exactly is product design? What does a product designer do? We’ll answer these questions and more in this overview of Product Design. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  1. What is product design?
  2. What is a product designer?
  3. What does a product designer actually do?
  4. What skills do product designers need?
  5. Final thoughts

Alright, let’s begin!

1. What is product design?

Product design is the process of creating products that offer solutions to a problem in a specific market. Successful product design both serves a business and incorporates users’ needs. Product design includes digital tools, experience design, and physical products.

Product design’s foundations start with the design thinking ideology. Design thinking was developed as a user-centric way to integrate the needs of real users into technological and business requirements that are a result of solving complex problems.

The design thinking process is often applied to product design as well. It encompasses five steps that all come back to solving the user’s problems:

  1. Empathize. In order to design with a user-focus, product designers first conduct research to learn about who you are designing for. 
  2. Define. Based on users’ needs and insights, the designer will clearly define the problem. 
  3. Ideate. Product designers and their teams develop a proper solution for the problem you defined by beginning with a wide array of potential creative solutions.
  4. Prototype. Using the solutions from the ideation phase a prototype (or multiple prototypes) will be built for testing. Prototypes help designers see tangible evidence that they’re on track and often reveals ideas that may not have been noticed before.
  5. Test. Designers refer back to the users to make sure their designs are working the way that they had planned. This information is taken by the designers back to the ideation phase to refine their product until it is just right. 

2. What is a product designer?

The product designer role is easily confused with other design job titles (like that of the user experience designer). While a product designer uses the same design thinking process, human-centered approach, market research, and software tools as UX designers, the work they do isn’t quite the same. 

While UX designers and product designers are both user-focused problem solvers at their core, product designers and UX designers have different priorities. A product designer will focus more of their efforts on  making a marketable and cost-effective product that is also easy to use. A UX designer only focuses on the user’s experience of a product that someone else has already deemed profitable. 

There are other design jobs that are also similar to the product design role that may interest you, if you’d rather focus on the product itself and not the business aspects of what you’re designing. Some of these job titles include: 

In some cases, a product designer will do some aspects of any number of these roles, depending on how big their team is. Generally, though, these can each be found as separate positions. 

Product designer working from their laptop in a dark office

3. What does a product designer actually do?

A product designer is responsible for the user experience and business goals of a product. They use design thinking to ideate and create a solution that serves a users’ needs and a business need as well.

The product designer role isn’t one-size-fits-all. Each employer will assign flexible responsibilities that can range from user experience to full-stack designer. Here are some responsibilities that a product designer may have in their job description:

  • User experience (UX)
  • User interface (UI)
  • Coding
  • Project management
  • Problem solving
  • Team management
  • Planning and conducting testing
  • Wireframing
  • Developer support
  • Marketing support
  • Meeting with clients
  • Prototyping (sometimes with CAD)
  • Sourcing materials (if necessary)
  • Presenting the final product

Overall, the product designer is the steward of the product. They make sure it resolves the problem they set out to mitigate, 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.

The product designer’s process

Product designers go through a process that closely parallels the design thinking process, which includes: 

  • Design and prototype
  • Test with users
  • Implement feedback
  • Launch a product
  • Measure and iterate the product

While it seems like a straightforward formula, product designers are also responsible for solving problems during the design and development of the product. Sometimes their process will seem more like a big tangle of squiggly lines, rather than a perfectly straight timeline. 

4. What skills do product designers need?

For product designers, soft skills and technical skills are equally important. This role requires communicating with multiple different teams, stakeholders, and presenting 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. They 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 will use software like Sketch, Figma, Adobe Illustrator and XD, and prototyping software to bring their ideas to life. They use journey maps and user research, wireframes, prototypes, and high fidelity designs to inform their decisions and present their ideas. 

Read more: Figma vs. Sketch: Which Is The Better Tool For UI Design?

Many job descriptions for product designers expect the designer to have UX and UI design experience, proficiency in popular software, and solid collaborative skills. For multinational companies, foreign language skills are often a great asset in this role as well. 

5. Final thoughts

So, what is product design? It’s the process of creating products (digital tools, experiences, and physical goods) that both solve a users’ needs and serve a business purpose. A product designer leads the charge in the process of creating these products using design thinking, clear communication, problem-solving skills, and software tools. 

While product designers are similar to other design positions, like UX design, this role is defined on its own 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.

If you’re thinking about how to make the move into product design, why not try out this free, 6-day UX design short course?

For more insights into product design and what it’s like to be a product designer, check out these articles and alumni stories:

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