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.