'Product Designer' is a job title that has been growing in popularity over the past few years, but there is a lot of ambiguity around what it actually means. It’s traditionally been used as a way to describe industrial designers, the people who design cars, appliances and other physical objects. However, it’s becoming an increasingly popular way to describe folks like myself who work for software companies and design digital products. We’ve called these people UI, UX or Interaction Designers for a long time now so why the name change? Is there a real reason behind it or is it just another Silicon Valley buzzword that will eventually fade into obscurity?

There is a real reason and it’s actually a reflection of a much larger trend in the industry. Technology companies are starting to embrace a more holistic approach to design. As technology becomes more advanced and accessible companies are shifting away from the model of endlessly adding features and starting to focus on delivering simple and pleasant experiences that solve real problems. Design thinking and the ability to connect with the end user of a product are becoming an increasingly significant competitive advantage for technology companies. That means that design is becoming more deeply integrated into the product development process and the role of a modern designer is starting to evolve.

While the evolution is exciting, as a designer it can be difficult to know exactly what your role is and even more difficult to describe that role to someone else. For the longest time I struggled to come up with a simple description of Digital Product Design that really resonated with people.

That changed when I started at Airware. I came on board as the first Product Designer and I was asked to give a “What is Product Design?” presentation for some of the managers and engineers. It’s pretty much the most fundamental question you can be asked as an employee, “what do you do here?” and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to give a compelling answer. So fueled by some healthy panic I came up with a way of describing things that really clicked with people, and actually helped influence the way I think about my own job.


I described to the group that the real purpose of designers is to enable people take advantage of very complex technology without forcing them to understand how it actually works.* What designers really create is an abstraction, a mental shortcut built on concepts with which the user is already familiar. In most cases this abstraction will be very different from the way that technology is implemented under the hood, it will be simplified and more in line with how the end user sees the world.

Even though the space is evolving rapidly there is always going to be a need for creative people to shape that layer between the technology and the end user. In fact, that ability to humanize technology is going to become even more critical as the technology itself becomes more more powerful, connected, and more ubiquitous. That’s because the more possible ways there are to solve a problem, the harder it is to choose the right one. However, even as this evolution happens there are two key principles will always be crucial in creating a well-designed product:

Understand your user

Who are they?

This may sound obvious, but you need to know who your users are to effectively design for them. Define the group of people for whom you are designing early and avoid falling into the trap of designing a solution that does everything for everybody.

What are they trying to accomplish?

Validate that you are building something that people actually want as early as possible because it doesn’t matter how good your solution is if you’re solving the wrong problem. That doesn’t mean asking a bunch of potential users “what do you want?”, although it would be great if it were that easy. In reality, you need to have long conversations with people and really listen to them, put yourself in their shoes and try to infer what their core problem is based on everything that they tell you. This is the idea of empathy that they talk about so much at Stanford’s D School.

What do they already know?

An intuitive design is one that leverages what your users already know. Designers identify paradigms with which users are already familiar and build on them. Every unfamiliar concept you introduce in a design should be carefully considered as it will place a significant cognitive burden on them. For example, some of the early projects I worked on at Airware were very technical tools for a very technical audience: software that assisted aerospace engineers in assembling UAVs. After some trial and error I figured out that the most successful designs were ones that borrowed and repurposed concepts and terminology from other forms of aviation. We ended up with a product that was a hit with the engineers but if my audience was my pretty much anyone but that group it would have been a terribly unsuccessful design. I would have been explaining complex unfamiliar concepts to describe other complex and unfamiliar concepts.

Understand the technology

You can’t effectively simplify something if you don’t understand how it works. It’s not necessary for designers to be writing production-ready code, but you do need to have a high-level understanding of how all of the technical pieces work together in order to ensure that your vision is fully realized.

It’s also important to understand the limitations of the technology that you are working with. When starting a new project designers should strive to generate as many ideas as possible while taking care not to not stifle their creativity by obsessing over what’s technically feasible and what isn’t. However, beyond the early ideation phase a designer’s ability to understand and embrace the constraints of the technology with which they’re working is crucial. At the end of the day you need to ship a product and that means working around technical challenges that will inevitably arise during the development phase. The more the designer understands the technology, the more likely the are will be to help come up with fixes for these technical problems that will not impact the end user.

Although some of these concepts may seem very basic, I’ve seen no less than 10 “What is Product Design?” type of articles pass through my various news feeds over the past year which leads me to believe that there is a real definition problem. It’s a topic that I’ve spent a lot of my time thinking about and in doing so I gained a deeper understanding of what I do everyday. So I felt compelled to submit my view on the matter in the hopes that it might help some people do the same.

* This idea is inspired by the concept of mental models, represented models and implementation models as described in About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design, a book that I highly recommend to anyone looking to get started in this field.

Thanks to Eric J for reading drafts of this post.

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