The role of a digital product designer

3 minute read

Have you ever wondered what makes a product designer… a product designer? Why do we differentiate ourselves from, say, UI designers? Or graphic designers? Aren't we all the same thing?

What makes us tick

Product designers are translators. An effective product designer is able to take business requirements and user research and translate that data into practical workflows and features.

We’re not merely artworkers under close control of a creative director. In many modern tech teams the product designers are given the autonomy to validate (and even define) business decisions. We’re expected to have enough expertise and domain knowledge to come up with viable solutions without hand-holding. And we’re ultimately responsible for championing the resulting solutions through to implementation.

In an ideal world (well, we can dream eh?) we’re involved right at a project's inception. At that early stage we're able to validate initial ideas, then we see them all the way through to feature-launch, and then we follow up post-launch to understand how our users’ experiences differ from our assumptions.

A digital product designer's skillset

Given our uniquely broad remit, we're also required to develop a uniquely broad skillset…

  • a questioning mind to validate directives, understand the wider context of a problem, and separate out implicit needs from the noise of what might be actually described
  • a rigorous process that uses research and data to justify decisions and maximise objectivity
  • the ability to clearly communicate those decisions with sketches, mockups, or prototypes
  • a deep understanding of the medium that we design for (i.e. code!), the limitations and opportunities that the medium presents, and the complexities of breakpoints, states, accessibility, etc. — Pro tip: learning to code will give you a serious edge
  • strong visual design skills with a keen eye for hierarchy, balance, proportion, and rhythm
  • willingness to design within the constraints of an existing design language
  • excellent language and writing skills for crafting efficient micro-copy, succinct documentation, team feedback, etc.

An inquisitive, exploratory attitude to our product is also vital, because over time product designers should be building up their domain knowledge to ‘expert’ standard which would include…

  • familiarity with the whole product, in order to understand how workflows interlink and interact, and to make sure the wheel isn’t always being reinvented
  • technical knowledge/awareness of the app’s code and its limitations, coupled with accounting domain knowledge, to be confident that proposals are viable before committing time to their development
  • a deep awareness of user demographics and habits, to be sure that solutions are accessible, inclusive, and fit-for-purpose