In digital culture, we are beginning to think of our output as products and of our clients as users. “Products” might be websites, apps or communities, and they might be created by startups, agencies or a couple of people at a hackathon. This shift mainly means that we have gotten serious about asking how to better serve users, which reflects a significant change in the designer’s skill set.
Designers will use the same tools they have always used, but they are now responsible for more than just the interface. Conducting usability studies, planning design strategically over the course of a product’s lifespan, facilitating communication and — above all — “shipping” are frequent requests. Whether or not a designer calls him or herself a product designer is beside the point; to remain relevant, they need to master these new user-centered values and processes.
Forget The Job Title
Designers have in the past distinguished themselves by job title, but existing titles have become inaccurate. Job expectations are no longer confined to singular tasks. Labels like user experience designer, user interface designer, interaction designer, product designer and so on may describe a person’s interests better than another, but most designers do a little of all of this, as “hybrids” (be it designer and coder, user experience and user interface designer, or designer and entrepreneur).
This trend is clearly reflected in the variety of open jobs posted. No one knows exactly who they’re looking for, so they pick the label that sounds best. Here are a few examples from the Smashing Job Board and Dribbble:
On the flip side, people who do the hiring understand that anyone can choose a title they like the sound of and slap that on their portfolio or business card, and that doesn’t change a designer’s level of experience or resourcefulness. The new product design world, on the other hand, is about being effective as a designer, a task rooted in real products and real people (think living portfolios and networks of people). Authenticity is getting harder to manufacture.
In high-profile opportunities, designers are expected to know UX, UI, front-end code, even how to write strategic business plans. Let’s look at a few of the requirements from a product designer job listing on Evernote (emphasis mine):
- Be a thoughtful voice for our users. You are constantly thinking about new and improved use cases and features that will appeal to our users.
- Work in small multidisciplinary product teams to help build products that are beneficial to our company and our users.
- Develop high level user stories, prototypes, design mockups, specs, and production assets.
- Define innovative user experiences that result in improved user productivity.
- Be equally comfortable working the details of your designs at a pixel level.
- Maintain a high level of visual fidelity across products.
- Be nimble. You will be working to define requirements while simultaneously designing for those requirements.
Requirements and Skills:
- Experience designing engaging user experiences for desktop, web, or mobile apps.
- Proficiency with the common suite of desktop applications used to create the wide variety of materials required to take a solution from concept through code.
- Ability to think about a problem from multiple angles to come up with the best design.
- Unique drive to continue pushing products forward and innovating.
- Proven track-record for shipping high quality experiences.
- Excellent presentation skills and attention to detail.
- Articulate and passionate verbal communicator.
- A strong sense of design theory and typography are critical.
- Ability to prototype designs in lo-fidelity and hi-fidelity as required.
- At least 3-5 years of relevant product design experience working on major product releases.
- A complete portfolio that shows breadth and depth of work.
- Experience working closely with other designers, product managers and developers.
- B.S./B.A. in related field or equivalent experience.
Please include your online portfolio on your resume or cover letter for consideration.
Individually, the requirements appear vague, but as a sum total, the message is clear: Design is no longer a “service” so much as it is a core offering in the “idea economy”:
“The service economy is going… going… soon to be gone like its predecessors in the manufacturing/industrial economy and the agricultural economy. […] The primary product of the Idea Economy is ideas. You and I can and must produce ideas just as those who prospered in previous economies had to produce crops, manufactured goods, and most recently, services.”
These changes in culture represent a shift in the way we value design. Designers are expected to use whatever resources they have available to build upon and sell good ideas.
It’s never been easier to “sell” design ideas to non-designers. The growing support infrastructure for designers as entrepreneurs over the last few years has had a huge impact on the culture of design, particularly with the creation of The Designer Fund, a key investor in designer-led startups, and the abundance of role models of successful designer-entrepreneurs.
Having been on the hiring end of product teams, I can confidently say, yes, the portfolio is important. Yes, experience is important. Yes, an intricate mastery of our craft (typography, grids, layout, etc.) will get a designer noticed. But in addition to these skills, you can be sure that employers are looking for big-picture thinking that will directly add value to their team and their product.
“The real audience were the people out there in the real world who were going to be stuck with whatever it was I was designing. […] The more you can be their advocate, the better the design will be. That’s not just the goal of identity design, but design period.”
– Michael Bierut, in an interview with designboom
Everyone has intuition or experiences that shape their judgment in interaction design, including developers, product managers and other members of the team. And why shouldn’t they? We are all users, after all. The designer no longer lays claim to be the sole advocate of a user’s experience, and their opinion has become less relevant without evidence to back it up.
I think this has happened for a few good reasons:
- User testing has never been more accessible.
- Perfectionism is less valued than it used to be.
- More people recognize good design as more than a veneer.
Regarding the first point, a plethora of articles (such as those on Design Staff) have made it impossibly easy to do what used to be the siloed and specialized skills of human factors and user-centered design. It’s often as simple as following a set of instructions. The up-front cost, given tools like Silverback ($70) and options like UserTesting.com (from $100 for three participants), can be as minimal as paying a staff member — such as a designer — to write the testing criteria. Moreover, businesses understand that the payoff for conducting a simple study, with even just five participants, is huge compared to the risk of not talking directly to users early on.
Nielsen’s diagram depicts a diminishing amount of useful feedback after testing with just five users. (Image: Jakob Nielsen)
Paul Graham of Y Combinator talks about early testing in his essay “Do Things That Don’t Scale”:
“In software, especially, it usually works best to get something in front of users as soon as it has a quantum of utility, and then see what they do with it. Perfectionism is often an excuse for procrastination, and in any case your initial model of users is always inaccurate, even if you’re one of them. The feedback you get from engaging directly with your earliest users will be the best you ever get.”
For designers, a bit of time spent writing surveys and scenarios, creating a testing environment (however simple), making prototypes, interviewing users, gathering data and then analyzing that data are all experiences that will feed directly back into the designs. This is not about being a perfectionist, but rather about nimbly applying appropriate tools to inform good work. Design, as a utilitarian vocation, will thrive on this, and the wider acceptance of user testing in the product world will mark the transition of good design from being a veneer or ethos to being a very real part of the product.
Design For The Minimum Viable Product
Founders often believe that getting users and investments means being in the right place at the right time, which nearly always means now. Designers and developers are expected to keep up with this pace. If a good idea is on the table, they’d better build and release, or else someone else will beat them to the punch.
Sketch notes for minimum viable product UX (Image: Dean Meyers | Large view).
This manic environment can pose a particular kind of hardship for designers; we care about the utility of our designs, and we may even see the larger business case for launching early, but we also carry an inherent respect for the subtleties of our craft that create the larger experience and that take time (often a lot of time) to develop.
Timelines, however, rarely shift for perfection, especially in product design (and, really, they don’t need to). Does this mean that designers — if they really care — should work all hours to perfect the interface and experience before the big launch? No.
Designing for the minimum viable product (MVP) means designing with a strategy. It means knowing up front that the website will not be built responsively, but that it should be designed as if it were. It means accepting that the user experience can’t live up to MailChimp’s at first launch, but still designing with that ideal in mind. It means realizing the difference between a minimum viable product and a minimum delightful product, as well as which works for your target audience.
“You’d never find the magnetic click [from an Apple power cable] on an engineer’s list of MVP features or user stories. It’s really easy in minimal viable products to actually design the delight out of them.”
– Andy Budd, in an interview with Inside Intercom
A big challenge of MVP design lies in sacrificing your darlings for the benefit of an early release. A bigger challenge lies in knowing where to follow up and prioritize design improvements for the next release. Luckily, user testing should help with this, but a level of intuition — or awareness — is still needed to determine which piece of the puzzle should fall into place next in order to gain a clearer picture.
I like to think of good MVP design as holding on to your dreams and showing up to work every day; having a vision, but also having the practicality to break your vision into small goals.
Lastly, MVP design doesn’t mean releasing work early to be done with it. It means returning to good but difficult-to-execute ideas that arose in early planning, learning from users, and having the discipline to keep iterating. It means seeing a project through from its messy beginnings to its final finesse.
Communication And Facilitation
Building fast, smart and targeted necessitates a good understanding of different facets of production. Knowing what makes a product tick, the implications of how and why something is being developed in a certain way, and how best to communicate the user’s needs will put the designer in a position to design well. There is no end to the questions designers can ask; any question is relevant.
Now more than ever, design means taking off the headphones and coming out from behind the computer screen in order to talk to people, expose problems and offer solutions. As a team member who tends to see a project holistically, the designer has more opportunities to make connections between people and establish decision points to keep a project on track.
This role shouldn’t be confused with a project or product manager, because design is still a designer’s main deliverable. However, it is worth noting that the designer who communicates well will take a more central role on the team, and more often than not this is the expectation rather than the exception.
“Design is all about relationships. Unfortunately, many designers don’t fully appreciate this. Some of the best design work I’ve ever done was drinking coffee or beers with engineers, marketing people, and business development hustlers. And I wholeheartedly mean design work.”
– Daniel Burka, in The Pastry Box Project
Surviving in a digital industry means learning hard skills all the time, but communication will be a valuable soft skill for the entirety of a designer’s career. It’s worth working on.
Getting It Done
“During the past few decades […] global trade and technology have made it all but impossible for any industry to make much profit in mass production of any sort. (Companies like G.E., Nike and Apple learned early on that the real money was in the creative ideas that can transform simple physical products far beyond their generic or commodity value.)”
The emphasis on “transform” is mine, because transformation is a lot like good design: It is active. Good design actively contributes to the execution of an idea.
Davidson goes on to present a compelling argument for nixing the billable hour, explaining that such a payment structure incentivizes long, boring or redundant tasks and reduces professionals to “interchangeable containers of finite, measurable units that could be traded for money.” Granted, he is talking about accountants, but this easily applies to design as well. Are we not more than the time we spend doing something? Is time-spent how we value the success of good design?
The culture of “shipping” is becoming increasingly important to designers. (Image: Busy Building Things)
In product design, the answer, of course, is no. However, it is not just the idea that matters either. A product begins with an idea, but it is ultimately evaluated by what is released into the world.
If you are a designer who has ever had to mock up every page of a website just because a client insists, then the reason for this shift becomes clear: It is much better to test work in a living prototype, so that it can be played with, iterated on and further developed.
“At the end of the day, is an iPhone and an Android not the same idea, just executed differently? Execution is what really differentiates products or companies, not ideas.”
– Ross Popoff-Walker, in Ideas Do Not Matter: Here’s Why
The penultimate value of a product is in the creative execution of the idea. In other words, what have you released lately?
The Real Value Of Design
“The war is over. Design has won a place on the team. We can lay down arms, fuck around in text editors, and stop fighting the battles of yesteryear. If you’re still fighting it at your company, quit and move to SF or NYC. The future is here, and it’s hiring.”
– Joshua Seiden, in “Designers Shouldn’t Code” Is the Wrong Answer to the Right Question
An army of designers, especially recent graduates, will still work in client services (and will gain valuable experience there), but this shift towards product design has far-reaching implications for all designers and the skills they are expected to contribute when they are hired.
The users, the product and the team are now integral parts of the design brief. Fortunately, it is no longer the value of design that we are fighting to get recognized, but the value of the product, and this means we have more resources at our disposal. Design doesn’t have to do it alone, but designers do need to recognize and learn the processes necessary for success in this new environment.
© Cassie McDaniel for Smashing Magazine, 2013.