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What is Product Design?

Updated: May 28, 2020

Product design describes the process of imagining, creating, and iterating products that solve users’ problems or address specific needs in a given market.

It’s about the entire process of creating usable products and experiences, starting by defining real people’s problems and thinking about possible solutions. That will eventually lead to the best design.

As the name indicates, the process of creating a new product for sale to customers is known as product design. Thought this definition tends to oversimplify, product design is actually a broad concept which encompasses a systematic generation and development of ideas that eventually leads to the creation of new products. Design experts work on concepts and ideas, eventually turning them into tangible products and inventions.

The product design expert works with art, science and technology to create these products. This increasingly complex process is now supported by evolving digital tools and techniques that reduce the involvement of a large team and help visualize a product in great deal before it is created.

Good design solves a problem

Design is fundamentally about problem solving. Unlike art, aesthetics (visual or otherwise) in design do not stand alone, but are a means to an end.

Product designers specifically are concerned with the experience of products (though the definition of “product” is itself extremely broad). Though visuals are the most visible facet of a product a designer is concerned with, their reach extends into any aspect of the product that directly affects its user.

The key to successful product design is an understanding of the end-user customer, the person for whom the product is being created. Product designers attempt to solve real problems for real people by using both empathy and knowledge of their prospective customers’ habits, behaviors, frustrations, needs, and wants.

What Does the Product Design Process Look Like?

The details of the product design process will vary from company to company, but these professionals do tend to follow a similar philosophy or framework when it comes to design thinking. As Cam Sackett explains, the design-thinking process involves several steps:

  1. Empathize with people

  2. Define the problem

  3. Ideate a solution

  4. Build a prototype

  5. Test the solution

Product Design is the whole process

If you look at your Product Designer as someone that makes your solution look presentable, look again. She is there to help you identify, investigate, and validate the problem, and ultimately craft, design, test and ship the solution.

Present a Product Designer with a solution, and they will tell you what’s wrong with it.

Present her with a problem, and she will go to Analytics and gather existing user data. She’ll assemble a cross-functional team from every corner of the business and brainstorm as many solutions as possible. Then, she’ll talk to User Research and make a test plan. She’ll work late and churn out wireframe after wireframe, exploring the vast realm of possibilities. She will throw together prototypes of the most interesting ideas and put them in front of users for quick validation.

Then she will give you several fully formed concepts that all perfectly solve the problem at hand. With clear strategy for how, when, and what to A/B test, and ultimately what the build and release plans should be. And she’ll support the developers through launch. She’ll work with marketing to ensure the story is consistent with the product. She will care for the product long after the first version has shipped, following up on data and metrics to keep validating the design.

A product designer will design the solution, until the problem changes.

Product Design is adaptive

This is an ever-evolving world. We all feel it. That which was extraordinary yesterday is mundane today and stale tomorrow. Product Design is still trying to figure out its place within this highly reactive space. Hell, half the platforms we have to design for today didn’t exist a couple years ago. And you can be damn sure there will be more in the years to come.

We need to be flexible. We need to understand that design is timeless. Design is invisible. We need to think platform-agnostically. Solve the problem once. Then apply the solution. Don’t design one solution for each platform.

I recently started running a weekly Prototyping study group with my team at Spotify. Each week a member of the team presents a new prototyping tool or language that they’ve been trying out. Then we learn the basics together. We spend any free time the rest of the week playing around with it, so that the following week we all have something cool to show the others. So far it’s been a lot of fun, and one of the meetings each week that I actually find myself looking forward to the most. I encourage all Product Design teams out there to consider following our lead. It’s an excellent way to stay appraised of the latest developments and to continuously hone your Design Skills.

What Types of Tools Do Product Designers Use?

Because it covers a broad range of disciplines, the role requires several different types of tools. Among these are:

  • Wire framing apps

  • Graphic design apps

  • Prototyping tools

  • Research and data analytics tools (e.g., spreadsheets, sophisticated A/B testing apps)

  • CAD (computer aided design) software

  • Project management apps

  • Product road map apps


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