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How to think like a Product Designer
Spoilers: Creating nicely-looking interfaces is not the answer.
There have been a lot of discussions about the differences between Product Design and UX/UI Design, but not many people talk about how these dynamics play out in practice. So I gathered some of the talking points from conversations I had with a junior designer I’m coaching, hoping that these insights would also help some other folks who also desire to pursue this work.
It is common for non-designers and designers alike to think that a Product Designer’s job is to create design artifacts, which is inaccurate. This particular misunderstanding can create tension and confusion for design graduates (and even seasoned designers), reflecting in how they (mis)communicate while working with non-designers and how they practice the Design craft.
Design, especially Digital Product Design, is about good thinking and teamwork. Everything else is documentation. Unfortunately, producing artifacts is how most schools and courses teach Design, which teachings are often confined within the design team. Meanwhile, we rarely talk about how Design functions beyond the design team. And as you may already know, the real world is more colourful and complicated than that.
Everyone in a business, including non-designers, influences the final designs whether they realise it. I’m not going to talk about why this is the case since many people have already discussed this topic. A Product Designer’s responsibilities go beyond design execution and require one to act as a gatekeeper of bad designs and to develop a culture where good design decisions get made by everyone involved.
So, it falls on us designers to learn about ourselves and the world, a world beyond Design. Teaching how to do is easy while teaching people how to think is incredibly difficult. The Design craft asks us to practice empathy not only on the days we run Empathy Mapping workshops but also when we work on the Figma designs and when we’re off work hanging out with friends. Empathy is a muscle we need to exercise constantly, or we risk unforeseeable, sometimes devastating, consequences.
Sometimes Design is just a job. Other times, it’s a lifestyle.
Design is inherently political; it’s about people, those we work with, and those we design for (even though we’re often pressured to keep the workplace conversations somewhat sanitised of such topics). The Design craft requires us to understand social and power dynamics, especially those of us who are marginalised. Because to create well thought-out outputs, we need informative non-biased inputs.
Since Product Designer has become the next hot job that everyone wants in, there are a lot of designers out there fulfilling only half the responsibilities of their jobs. Not all of this is their fault; however, it is how we’re currently teaching and talking about Design. More confusing yet, these responsibilities are sometimes not discussed or even recognised by non-designers, who continue to hire for design roles without a good understanding of what a good designer looks like (hint: it’s not just about their pretty portfolio or shinny resume). On the other side of the coin, many designers struggle throughout their careers without understanding why.
The other half of our job involves communications. We need to provide transparent communications, always: in writing, in our Figma files, on Miro, in our presentations and questionings of the status quo. And yet, confident and transparent communications are one of the most challenging skills for anyone to master. No wonder most of us suffer from imposter syndrome at one or many points in our careers. But how do we communicate well when Design is muddy and intangible, an ever-evolving discipline when we can’t even agree on what a good product looks like?
There’s no easy answer for this, but building good habits can go a long way. First, we can start with being organised and disciplined, sweating the details when no one else does. Then, we need to practice over-communication instead of under-communication, striking a balance between providing contexts as needed yet not over-explaining our decisions — giving space for others to absorb our ideas. Meanwhile, ideas are given the respect they require to be collected, considered and evaluated.
Because Design is a team sport, trust needs to be built early. In practice, we can get buy-ins early, building relationships, presenting and discussing ideas: some of which we can execute with the resources we have at any given time to create a cohesive, accessible and delightful experience for our products. And to facilitate communications effectively, we need to learn and be aware of our biases and assumptions.
Our primary job is to facilitate and guide our team through uncharted territories, to face uncertainties with conviction. At the end of the day, designers are humans, too, and we don’t come up with the best ideas every day, and that’s okay. We simply need to be courageous.
Due to the elusive nature of creative labour, some folks believe Design is easy as long as you have the talents for it. The reality is talents only get us so far. Design is complicated in many ways so trusting our instincts is crucial. Our jobs are more tangled with our personal lives than most as creative workers. Good ideas require clear thinking, which involves a healthy mind and body.
On the ground, it means we might need to constantly compromise and negotiate with product managers and developers day in and day out. This work requires us to be vigilant and relentless when opportunities present themselves so that we can push against the grain for better outcomes.
Above all, we need to have faith in ourselves, in the process, and the work we’re doing: understand the problem and its constraints, think about who we’re solving it for, and then how we can do that effectively. We need to be aware of our intentions and which tools and processes needed to achieve our goals. And then, it’s a matter of practice and tenacity to find the right solution for one problem at a time.
Is this job easy? No, not in the slightest, but it can be rewarding (not just financially), but maybe if we take the more arduous path and do what needs to be done, we might actually change the world for the better.