Why Product Designers Earn 20% More Cash Than UI/UX Designers

Five reasons learning Product Design might be your next career move

I haven’t always been a product designer. And most product designers I know haven’t always been one either. The path is a bit unorthodox, the role isn’t always clear, and the short answer to your aunt at Thanksgiving when she asks what you do is somewhere between “evil genius” and “computer person,” depending on which aunt you’re talking to.

But there are so many reasons why switching to product design is a worthwhile decision. Here are my top five:

1. It’s a role where your diverse skillset matters

I heard a recruiter tell a designer buddy that no one wants a “jack of all trades, master of none” and designers have to pick one thing and specialize if they ever want to get a job. But who wants to be really good at pressing one button for the rest of their lives?

A great product designer functions as a combo of UI, UX, and marketer. The best UI designer I know has an artist’s love for pixels, color, shadows, depth. He cares deeply about the way things look and move, but he designs screens not flows. The best UX designer I know is admirably process-driven, research-oriented, and an edge-case expert, but she isn’t really aesthetically minded and probably doesn’t know the difference between Android and iOS design patterns. And the best marketer has the long-term vision, advertising skills, and great communication.

A product designer’s ability to flow between these roles is what makes the job. Jumping between the diverse skills of UX, UI, and thinking about overall product goals is necessary and valuable to building a great product.

2. It *literally* pays

Freelance product designers make about $20,000 more per year than UX/UI designers with the same level of experience.

Freelance product designers make about $20,000 more per year than UX/UI designers with the same level of experience.

Freelance product designers make about $20,000 more per year than UX/UI designers with the same level of experience.

Product designers make 20% more than UI and UX designers on average. According to Bonsai, freelance product designers make approximately $20,000 more per year than UX/UI designers with the same level of experience.

Why is this? Product designers must understand the big picture in order to know which details are important and which are not. They use skills in UX and UI to make the business grow, while considering the entire experience from start to finish. They are the helm of a little ship, and their decisions directly affect the business. That’s definitely worth more cash.

3. It’s a place where curiosity is finally rewarded

Isn’t it amazing? You are not supposed to know all the answers. A good product designer is a lifelong learner and getting curious about the who, what, where, when, and why is part of the job description. (PHEW)

Like a modern-day Sherlock, you get to explore corners of human behavior and figure out how to make something people actually want. Why did they try to click on that? How long does someone really exercise before giving up? Why do social plans fall through when invitations are too big? There’s also an incredible humility in the best product designers I know — they are there to explore with you, just one or two steps ahead, yet equally eager to learn and ask questions.

When I joined my first startup as a cofounder of a loyalty program mobile app, I didn’t know anything about loyalty programs, small businesses, or even mobile design. I guess this didn’t scare my cofounders because they didn’t know much about those things either. I was, however, curious and wanted to learn about all of it, so my real world education began with a ton of questions and almost no answers. The best we could do was ask, build, and learn. One year later, we were acquired by Google, and my education continued.

4. You get to be in a role that directly impacts people and businesses

As a product designer, your research-driven approach and user-focused process keeps you close to the action with a lot of influence on the core product. Unlike a strictly UI or UX designer, the decisions you make affect the whole course of the product, not just one visual part or one interaction.

Over the last year, I’ve been a designer on a project called ReadScripture, an app that encourages people to read the Bible everyday. Last time I checked, we had more than 40,000 users averaging 10 minutes per day in the app. It’s great to encourage one friend or even yourself to read the Bible for 10 minutes a day, but it’s also great to encourage 40,000 people to read the Bible for 10 minutes a day. The impact you can have as a product designer is monumental, and the potential to positively change someone’s behavior is incredible.

5. There will always be work for you to do

Product design isn’t going anywhere. The skills you learn as a product designer are applicable to everything from banking to brochures to baby food. You learn how to deeply understand a problem space, how to communicate through design, how to systematically get feedback from real users, how to work across disciplines, how to make the best next-step decision, and how to repeat the process over and over again as needed. Even companies you wouldn’t expect to value design benefit from design thinking, like two 100-year old Fortune 500 companies that I recently worked with. From sexy startups to huge established companies, good product design is here to stay.

How to *Actually* Become a Product Designer

Three practical things you need to do to land that job

I get a lot of questions from friends and students about becoming a Product Designer.

“Is this Expensive Fancy Boot Camp worth it?
Do I need to go back to school or take The Big University Extension class?
What do you think about The Tech Company’s Conference?”

There’s a growing number of educational options promising everything from certificates to six-figure salaries. It’s a struggle to navigate what’s worthwhile and what’s a waste of time. Where do the different types of classes fit in with what it really takes to become a product designer?

Before you choose a school or course, here are the three things you *actually* need to break into product design or grow as a designer. See how the various classes or degrees you’re considering fit into these three critical buckets to help you get to your dream career.

1. Know your tools

Like any good tool, your UI and UX drawing programs are an extension of you. Whether you’re using Sketch, InVision or something else, knowing your tools means knowing where the buttons are, and how to use them. Be able to place, pull, resize, export, crop, and erase. But also be ready to use shared styles and symbols. A good place to learn the basics includes YouTube tutorials, or sitting next to a designer friend and watching them work. As long as you’re becoming more comfortable and adept at a quality drawing program, it’s working.

Another important part of knowing your tools is having a good workflow. Workflow is how you organize your files. This includes everything from what to name them, how to set up your folders, how to export assets, even how you name and sort layers within a file. Without a clear workflow, other designers, managers and clients won’t be able to follow your organizational train of thought. It’s easy to get lost in subfolders and poorly named PNG’s. There isn’t one right way to setting up a workflow, and lots of designers at lots of companies have all different ways of doing it. At Google, I would ask to see other designer’s sketch files and have them explain how it was organized. The key thing is that you have a way to organize your files that makes sense to you and people you’re working with.

Bottom line: Know how to functionally use the programs and keep your files organized. 
Learn from: YouTubers like
LevelUpTuts and Sketch Together, sitting next to designers, Sketch help page, studying the iOS and Material Design templates in Sketch, and taking Peter Nowell’s SketchMaster.com

2. Articulate your process

At Google, I sat through dozens of interviews with potential hires. Every single one included a question about process. I’d say “Tell me about your design process,” always looking for the same thing. Do they have a systematic way of working through a design problem, and can they explain it? Designers who aren’t able to articulate their process don’t have the design backbone to backup their choices with data and discernment. At the best big companies, you’re required to manage yourself and your process. At startups, you have to set a process or you’re just going to be told what to do all the time. And if you’re the one in the interview hot seat, try to find out if your future boss cares about the value of process. It matters.

It’s not just about talking at a high level and doing some hand-waving… That’s for PM’s 😂. In every interview, we wanted to see specific examples of the process put into action. Shiny Dribbble accounts might help in a UI interview, but they don’t take you very far in product design. Being able to talk about how you arrived at your design and why your design solved a problem for real-life people is paramount because that translates to dollars and cents for a business.

Some good places to learn about how to regularly design using a reliable process include Udacity, the courses from the legendary Norman Nielsen Group, and my online course Product Design Pro (based on the Google Ventures Sprint methods). It’s important that wherever you are learning, they teach you how to understand your users, iterative prototyping, and testing.

Bottom line: Explain how you systematically solve design problems
Learn from: 
UdacityNorman Nielsen GroupProduct Design Pro

3. Build your portfolio

I’ve critiqued more than 100 portfolios in the last 5 years. From Google interviews to portfolio review days at my alma mater, from friends looking for jobs to students applying for my classes — let’s just say, TONS of portfolios. In light of all that, there are three things I’d recommend.

First, work on the type of project you want to get hired for. It’s really hard for people to use their imagination and just *imagine* that you’ll be great at building medical device software if your portfolio is all emoji-sticker packs. Tailor your portfolio to include the type of work that matters where you’re applying. The downside to a lot of these boot camps is that every students work ends up looking the exact same. A friend of mine was struggling to hire a designer because it was hard for him to tell who had good work and who was just copying the teacher. In the Product Design Pro course, students work on individual projects with totally different solutions. What’s great about this is the student’s work reflects what they care about. Instead of cloning AirBnB or Uber, student’s can set themselves apart AND have real conviction about the real-life problem they’re solving through design.

Second, have at least three solid projects. It doesn’t matter if they are paid projects or not. What matters is that it solves a problem and meets the requirements. It’s really hard to take an applicant seriously when they only have one piece. Each piece should be like a really good short story, drawing the listener in to find out exactly how that paywall redesign ended up bringing in more revenue to that business. Trouble finding work to build out your portfolio? Start with something or someone you care about, and see how you can design a solution using your tried-and-true process (as recommended above). Read more from Charlie Hoehn on how to do free design work for a person or business you care about.

Third, use your portfolio as a place for you to get better at visual design. If you don’t think a piece looks good enough aesthetically, but you know it functionally solves the problem, then take this opportunity to make it shine. Enroll in something like DesignLab’s Typography course to better understand basic design principles like hierarchy, balance, color theory and scale. Ask a designer friend to give you feedback on your work. Once you you can talk about the process of your work and how it solves a problem, it’s time to refine the visuals and give it that polish that looks so good on hip design sites. I keep folders and folders full of screenshots to visually reference as I’m designing that I think are inspiring, fun, or just super good-looking. In the spirit of Paul Rand, don’t try to be original, just try to be good.

Bottom line: Have at least 3 tailored pieces you’re proud of
Learn from: Other designers you admire, like
Jessica HarlleeGabriel Valdivia, and Ash Huang. Learn more about visual design with DesignLab’s Typography Course and Learn Design Principles.

I would interview any designer that knows their tools, can articulate their design process, and has a cohesive portfolio of at least 3 pieces. So go ahead, take that online class, sign up for that night course, or try a part-time gig. If you understand where it fits within these three areas of a product designer’s skillset, it’s a worthy investment.

What is a Product Designer, really?

Looking closely at what it means to be in one of today’s most exciting (and nebulous) designer jobs

When I was at Google, they didn’t even have a name for product designers. It fell in that deep canyon between Interaction Designer, Visual Designer, UX Researcher, and Helpful Co-worker. Now I see listings for product designers* left and right, but I frequently meet people in the tech industry (including designers) who secretly confess they don’t know even what the role really is. From my experience as a startup co-founder, designer at Google, workshop facilitator, consultant and design teacher, here’s what I’ve learned: a product designer thinks like an architect, acts like a researcher, and works like a founder.

We’re talking specifically about software product designers in this article, not hardware or industrial, but I’m sure many of these principles apply.

A Product Designer Thinks Like An Architect

My wife and I met when she was in architecture school. We first spoke when she asked me if I knew how to use Photoshop (thankfully I did), and we spent the next five years in the mess of each other’s projects and final assignments. If there’s one thing an architect is trained to do, it’s to constantly think macro and micro, big picture and tiny details, always zooming in and out. Consider the finish of a window, but also the shape of the tower in the skyline. Think about the sunlight warming a kitchen, but also the energy it takes to cool it off.

In the same way, a product designer constantly considers the big picture in order to better prioritize the small details. They’re thinking about the overall story like a user experience (UX) designer, and the visual details like a user interface (UI) designer. They’re thinking about the big things of the business, as well as the tactics of customer service and how to make things work on a personal level.

When I was working on Inbox at Google, we started by looking at a bunch of Gmail data on how people use email. Then, we explored dozens of different ways of organizing those behaviors. There wasn’t even an interface yet, we were just bucketing the main ways people sort and deal with email. Eventually we settled on three main actions and three main places, and that’s when I started to write and design exactly how one of those specific places worked, all the way down to the detailed level of how the settings menu worked.

A product designer has to have a vision for both the little and the large.They have to know when to care deeply or not about being pixel-perfect, and when to change direction altogether.

A Product Designer Acts Like a Researcher

Growing up, I was the kid that loved drawing, took yearbook all four years of high school, and made logos for t-shirts and events. When I started my first company, I got really good at drawing iOS screens, page by page, just like I was taught. But the lightbulb moment for me was when I realized I was wasting time designing the wrong screens, and I couldn’t figure out exactly what was wrong with them.

Back then, I frantically bombarded users with random and embarrassing questions like, “Um…do you like it?” while hoping to get to the heart of it. Today, I know better, and it’s way less stressful and much more informative.

A good researcher has a process-driven framework for getting unbiased feedback. A good product designer uses that process, and then figures out how to apply the feedback to the product on the whole.

I once consulted for a startup that had a strong theory about the way reporters will gather news in the future. We tested their hypothesis in a weeklong Design Sprint, and found that none of our testers were even remotely interested in their product in that form. Zero. With a research mindset, a product designer is able to say, “Hey, based on the data, this is or isn’t something people want.” A product designer maintains a curiosity about humanity, not an agenda about what the “right” answer is.

Sometimes the research is surprising. When working with FitStar in a Design Sprint (acquired by FitBit), we brought in a tester from Craigslist who met all the requirements of a perfect user. She was spending almost 10x the cost of FitStar’s exercise videos to go to multiple classes at multiple gyms. Of course she’ll want to cut costs, we thought. However, she told us that she prefers to pay 10x the cost because she needs to be held accountable through her wallet, otherwise she doesn’t have the discipline to work out on her own. We realized that maybe people who spend a ton of money on gyms and classes aren’t who we should be marketing to or building for.

These small insights into human behavior that counter our blind assumptions are exactly why it’s important to act like a researcher and listen to the results around you.

A Product Designer Works Like a Startup Founder

A product designer does whatever needs to be done to make the product successful right now. Design happens along a timeline, from idea to sketch to screen to app to getting it in someone’s hands to (the best part) seeing how it positively impacts someone’s life. A founder of a company sees the whole timeline and dreams of the end goal: making something people want. The vision is always there, and the details of UI tweaks and UX flows are necessary steps along the way. A founder works in the nebulous parts too, like what can we do to get this team to work together, or are we targeting the right audience?

Product designers don’t strictly do UX — understanding the flow from screen to screen and the experience from onboarding to daily use. They also don’t strictly do UI — manipulating pixels and color in an icon, or adjusting the padding and typeface in a header. They use skills in both places to make the product as a whole better.

On Inbox, I designed some of the initial UX, including some new ideas we patented. I also designed the UI of some of the specific features. When that was all done, I worked on the marketing with the marketing team, including the script for the launch video. Like a founder figuring out what’s best for the product right now, a good product designer does cyclical work, constantly changing and adapting to the user’s needs as best they can.

There isn’t one perfect path to becoming a product designer. One of my students was a lawyer, another one studied mechanical engineering. The process to get there can be gray and blurry, but I think you can “officially” call yourself a product designer when you’ve designed software that launches and you continue to iterate on it.