Product designer. UX Designer. UI/UX Designer. Interaction designer. Experience designer. There are just some of the many titles designers call themselves these days. But look deeper and you’ll quickly realize that one’s company product designer is very different from another. So who’s right and what should we call ourselves? And who exactly makes the cut to be a senior designer?
Before diving into titles it helps to step back and start by asking yourself—what type of designer are you? What are your strengths, what are your growth areas? What traits are second nature and what doesn’t come as easy? If you were to make up your own title, how would you describe yourself?
Going through this exercise may seem like it’s a slow way to get started. Shouldn’t you just update your portfolio and hit up all the job boards? That’s one approach but casting a wide net without doing your homework first is bound to backfire. Companies don’t want candidates who’re just in it for “whatever they can get”. They want people excited by their mission and who can bring the right set of skills to get work done.
By understanding yourself, your skills you’ll be able to come up with a compelling value proposition that gets companies excited to work with you. Yes, this will take some time initially upfront. But by taking a focused approach you’ll not only target opportunities that are a good fit but you’ll also increase your chances of landing an offer that’s closer to your ideal role.
Product design is a field that requires a combination of many skills and traits. It might seem overwhelming at first to realize how much there is to learn but the good news is that no one is expected to master everything. Even if someone hypothetically did—they wouldn’t have the time to get everything done.
This natural constraint is a good thing as it allows you to focus on mastering a couple of skills that are in-demand and meaningful to you. As a designer you have to think about ways to creatively combine your skills to synthesize, identify the right problems and solve them efficiently.
The design industry has evolved significantly over the last few decades. Significant innovations in mobile computing have increased design scope to native and wearable devices. Larger tech companies translated psychology principles with the help of design into engaging and at times addictive products. All of this to say that the roles and responsibilities of designers have significantly changed over the last few years.
The titles of design have also evolved. Previously specialist skills present in roles such as: Web Designer, Service Designer, Interaction Designer, UX Designer, UI Designer, Information Architect are now commonly seen collapsed under the title of “Product Designer”. This sometimes adds more to the confusion since product design expectations vary by company.
confusionTo keep things focused and less wordy, throughout the book I’ll be using the term Product Design to refer to UX/UI Design as well.
While the definition of a Product Designer is in flux, here are some general things you should keep in mind if you’re applying for this role:
There’s more to being a great designer than having a collection of skills of course. Having the ability to execute and deliver work that leads to impact is the ultimate marker of success. Everything ladders up to why a designer is hired by a company in the first place, to either improve or grow the business.
Different models exist out there to map out design skills. It’s a rough science and more of an art. IDEO popularized the T-shaped designer—someone who has deep knowledge and expertise in one or two areas (e.g. Interaction Design and Research) but has broad knowledge of other areas (e.g. Service Design and Brand Design). Larger companies, usually with bigger teams are composed of a mix of designers. Some of those designers tend to be I-shaped—deep specialists in their domain (e.g. motion graphics experts).
The modern designer will typically have a variety of skills at their disposal.
It’s easy to progress at a skill in the beginning but it gets harder to get to an advanced level and even harder still to become an expert. It’s important to prioritize which skills are important to you. As you’re going through the and thinking of specific skills, consider:
Not all skills are important all the time and your needs and industry focus will change. What’s important is to be explicit about what you know, where you want to go and what’s important to you.
Beyond understanding your own skills, you should also think about how your skillsets translate to the needs of an organization. At the end of the day you’ll be hired to solve another company’s pain point that they are not able to solve themselves. These pain points vary but there’s some consistency depending on the company’s maturity.
Smaller companies, such as startups for instance, can’t afford to hire many designers so they typically bring in a senior generalist to start. Typically this designer will have a strong grasp of interaction design, research, and some visual design skills. They’ll help establish a design direction for the company, ship product, while integrating design process into the product development cycle.
As companies grow, they start to fill out the rest of the pillars based on need.
As the company grows, specialized roles get brought on such as brand designers, visual designers, researchers, and content strategists. As a team, their diversity and specialized talents allow them to create products that are of high quality.
If the company starts rapidly scaling, typically more and more designers get brought on with similar skillsets. At that point it’s important to hire more people because there’s more work than any one designer could do. Sometimes these roles might get filled by contractors if it’s a temporary project or if recruiting is lagging behind, other times if growth is continuous, more full-time employees are brought on. By understanding where the company is in its growth cycle and their current pain points you can match yourself appropriately.
There is no escaping it, to do strong design work—you have to be well versed in fundamental skills. It’s a pre-requisite for the job. This the raw ability to take inputs and transform them into something meaningful based on your technical knowledge of tools and concepts.
Craft is your knowledge of the tools, methods, and techniques to get the work done. A good designer has a solid grasp of the fundamentals that are usually studied in school but not everything will be or is expected to be mastered at an academic setting.
importantThe most important skill to learn there is how to effectively continue learning in order to learn new skills or renew existing ones as the field of product design changes rapidly.
From a craft perspective you should think about acquiring skills in these area:
This isn’t a comprehensive list so take it as a starting point. You may want to focus on some areas more than others. For example, if your work lies heavily on the content side, you might want to lean more into content strategy, copy and information architecture (a whole field in of itself). Or if you’re interested in doing work that spans pixels and places, you may want to understand the tools and techniques of service design.
Visual design plays a vital role in the digital experience. At a visceral level it gives the user clues on what they’re about to see. Is this experience serious or playful? An expert visual designer is able to come up with a pleasing composition of elements on a screen.
Today visual designers have more power as they play an active role in creating design systems that embed visual design and interaction rules in them which span multiple platforms.
Some of the core visual design skills include:
The best way to learn visual design is to practice. Better yet, try practicing and critiquing design with other senior visual designers. Pick up on their good habits and pick their brains on how they think through a visual design problem. You’ll save yourself a ton of time and acquire shortcuts faster.
Outside of that, make time to replicate and copy work of others to understand how they’ve made it. See if you can uncover not just the individual design elements but common patterns and think through the problem they were trying to solve.
Interaction design is about understanding true user intent and developing proper workflows to get the job done. It’s the art and science of communicating to the customer in a way that makes sense for them while pushing back on technology constraints meaningfully.
There are tons of great resources out there but if you had to read one book, then you should consider About Face 4: The Essentials of Interaction Design by Alan Cooper. It’s a great handbook to refer back to as well as a primer for anyone new to design.
Understanding the advantages and constraints of platforms is a key skills for product designers. Since product design work is so closely tied to platforms, it’s important to know the best practices for each platform and also how these platforms can work together (this is especially important when your company’s product is multi-platform). Platform knowledge means understanding best practices and trends as well general market trends, recency and adoption of a platform.
Between native (touch) and web (point and click) devices, you’ll have your work cut out for you. But if you’re in for adventure and want to explore or pioneer new methods of interaction, you’re in luck! New wearable devices are emerging all the time and the world of augmented reality and virtual reality while maturing, still has a long way to go.
Later on, we’ll get into the pros and cons of designing for existing vs emerging platforms.
As a product designer you probably don’t need to be a research expert but strong interaction design skills are complemented well with some basic research skills. Understanding your customers, their goals and being empathetic to their needs helps you focus efforts on things that truly matter.
At a large company you’ll likely have access to dedicated research professionals. But when there is a crunch or when you do need to do something quick, it helps to be familiar with core principles of doing research to get feedback and steer the work in the right direction.
Lastly, designers should also have a basic understanding of psychology:
Need to brush up on research techniques? Check out Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research by Mike Kuniavsky. This book lays out the core fundamentals while arming you with practical tips.
Product design tools are always changing. Adobe used to be the company of choice for most of digital work but these days things are changing. Sketch has come on the scene and established itself an industry leader but now with Figma on the scene, it’s dominance is slowly fading.
Some design experts say that learning tools doesn’t make you a better designer—you’re just a tool expert. I disagree. Knowing how to quickly use a tool efficiently or picking the right tool for the job will help you not only generate more concepts (and thus lead to a better outcome) but also help you get there faster. You certainly don’t have to learn every shortcut and install every plug-in out there, but having common ones at your disposal will help you be far more effective, so it’s time worth spending.
Here is how you should think about your tool stack:
Think of design tools as an extension of your skills. Are there tools that can help you generate more quality ideas faster and communicate them effectively? Sometimes the best tool is the one you have close at hand, a napkin and a pen might do when you need to capture an idea quickly. Tools will always change and evolve but great thinking is never out of style.
Design is a team sport. A designer is powerless if they can’t communicate what they’ve done and if they can’t work well with others. Strong collaboration and communication skills are key throughout one’s journey as a designer.
Initially entry level designers focus on smaller features and work primarily with oversight from a senior designer. As one’s career progresses the scope and complexity increase. While strong craft skills are still a prerequisite, one’s focus shifts towards influencing others and working with other cross functional senior leaders on ambiguous, long-term projects.
There are various models of how a designer fits into a company’s org chart. One of the more popular models these days is the squad model, where a designer, product manager and a technical lead all work together to establish the team’s day to day and overall long-term vision. However sometimes you’ll also frequently work with other specialists such as researchers and data scientists. If this is a multi-team project you’ll probably have regular syncs with the other team.
Even as an entry level designer, you’ll be working closely with the team to get your design shipped. Unless you’re also an engineer, most likely you’ll need developer support to get the thing you’ve designed built.
Assessing yourself on your cross-functional skills is not easy. The best way to get a true assessment is to ask other peers that have worked with you but short of that you should also reflect on how you perceive your current skills:
This is also a testament of your leadership and influence skills:
While these types of skills may not necessarily first come to mind when we think of a Product Design role, the more senior you are as a designer, the more important these “soft” skills become.
At it’s core, design is about communication. In addition to communicating to customers, designers also need to be masters at relaying information to stakeholders. These skills are critical in an interview setting, especially when you’re presenting your portfolio. When it comes to day-to-day work, we can think of communication from a couple of lenses: public speaking, facilitation, and documentation.
Whether it’s presenting to a small audience of designers at a design critique or presenting to the whole company at all hands, strong communication and presentation skills are critical. A couple of ways you can look into assessing your skills:
Of course practicing at work helps but you don’t necessarily have to improve these skills at work. Public speaking clubs like Toastmasters for instance, provide a community and guides for a small price that can help you level up your skills fast. That said, the best way to improve is to continuously seek out opportunities to speak and to get feedback.
Public speaking and facilitation skills go hand in hand. As a designer you’ll sometimes have to step in and lead a meeting or organize and run a workshop. Back to point number one—design is a team sport but as a designer, you can take a leadership role in getting everyone organized, excited about the work at hand and contribute to the vision.
Communication is not limited to speaking, writing is just as important especially more so when working remotely. By creating mocks, prototypes and telling a story and documenting the nuances of interaction, a designer can ensure the vision goes smoothly from concept to implementation.
Strong designers have a healthy level of self awareness about them. They can also feel the sentiment in the room and to take appropriate measures, diffusing a tense situation or rallying the group to persevere when things don’t go to plan.
Design itself is a discipline that’s based on persuasion, negotiation and often times getting other team members to buy into a specific world view. Of course those views are substantiated with evidence such as research or data but not always. Sometimes designers must rely on industry standards or heuristics when there is no resources to run a study for example.
Here is how you can touch on some of the important aspects of emotional intelligence at work:
Just like with the rest of design, the best way to improve your collaboration skills is to do so in practice. Dedicating time to assess and check-in with your stakeholders regularly not just about the work but also about the process of getting the work done will help you be a stronger leader and contributor to the organization.
That said here are a few helpful guides and resources that can help you along the way:
Should designers have a seat at the table? Depending on the organization and design maturity—some already do while in low design maturity companies designers are merely decorators late in the process. But what does it mean to have a seat and what’s expected of designers who create value beyond producing deliverables?
At it’s core, strategy is choosing to do and not do certain things. It’s about deliberately prioritizing limited resources (time, money, people) in order to create value.
Not all designers will engage in strategy. Typically this is the domain of product managers or senior level designers. Some designers might even eschew strategy altogether in favor of being a master at craft. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that but if you do want to grow your influence in an organization, understanding the business, how it makes money, and how design can help will help you advance rapidly in the organization.
When you’re interviewing, demonstrating that your work has led to success will make you stand out. Yes, it’s hard to get crisp data and many designers struggle with showing results of their work beyond the deliverable. If you are in this situation, follow-up with your team. Get the data. Get the information you need, not only will it be important for interviews—it’s important as a feedback loop overall.
One way to determine one’s level of strategic prowess is to look at the scale of your impact—how effective was your work and who benefitted from it?
The impact of scale is also relative. For example, improving a particular feature may affect a small population of a company’s user base. However if this feature dramatically improves their experience that that impact can be still considered significant.
Design exists to solve issues but measuring efficacy of solutions is often fraught with complexity. It’s not as simple as showing that doing Y improved a metric X by 10%. That said, ideally before engaging in any project you have a rough sense of baseline measurement and understand how the experience is currently performing - what parts are working well and which aren’t.
In your work you should ask yourself:
Sometimes it’ll be impossible to get any quantitative data or you may have already moved on from the company by this point. If that’s the case, you can reach out to the company to see how your project(s) have fared. Alternatively you can also find other ways to measure success for example by including a customer testimonial or playing back clips from research participants delivering a similar message. Don’t constrain yourself to quantitative feedback alone.
This one is natural to all design processes. Understanding the problem that you’re trying to solve for and the opportunity that’s ahead of you will help you make appropriate decisions when you’re deep in the design process. Waiting too long on gathering all the problems will hinder momentum but not taking the time upfront might also cause you to solve the wrong problem and not make any progress on the underlying issue.
Consider these questions:
Problem framing is a whole exercise unto itself. Many times, it’s not as simple as writing out a problem statement, agreeing on it with the team and calling it a day. Often times additional problems come up and as a designer you’ll have to come back, reassess and make calls of when to pause and when to execute on the work.
Framing the problem is half the battle. If the solution to the problem isn’t well thought out or built, than in some ways the steps that come before that were a waste.
In the professional world of design, as mentioned previously quality varies depending on what you want to learn. Sometimes it’s paramount to launch fast with minimum features in order to learn, other times it’s important to have the final polish to stabilize the experience and potentially even solve for new issues that customers may not even have encountered yet.
Strategy is a big topic and resources abound, here are a couple that you might find useful:
Aside from having a well honed skillset designers posses traits that help them get quality work done while elevating people around them to do their best work. Strong designers raise the quality bar and are seen as leaders to emulate due to the positive examples they set in the workplace. Here are a couple of traits that you should consider examining.
Design is a team that continues to evolved and rapidly grow over time. No one knows everything but how you handle the lack of knowledge is a key difference. Having a “growth mindset” (as coined by Carol Dweck) opposed to “fixed mindset” help you continue to push when the going gets tough and to learn from failure.
Designers with a growth mindset:
Although “mindset” is singular, this is not a binary switch that you flip on or off. Unlike craft and collaboration skills, we usually think of mindset as an either or. While people do have certain preferences or attitudes and a certain inclination, a helpful mindset can be developed and cultivated.
There are many ways to solve a problem in design.
To understand your level of comfort with ambiguity, ask yourself:
As you mature as a designer your level of comfort with ambiguity and complexity should increase gradually taking on larger and more undefined projects.
In design, there are many ways to solve a problem. You can choose to wait until perfect data and research comes in but often times, realistically—there is not enough time and waiting too long is just as bad as moving too quickly. As your experience increases you’ll know when to move fast and when to wait. Senior designers don’t wait for problems, they seize the opportunity, create solutions for the future and rally the team around them around implementation.
From a design manager’s eye—this is the type of designer anyone would want to hire. Instead of having them wait for work to come in, this designer is restless and will focus on creating value and identifying the biggest gaps that they can close while delivering maximum value to the company.
Design work is never done and often times the first iteration of a design is missing many things about it and needs to evolve further. It’s up to the designer to determine the type of feedback they need to seek out in specific parts of the process while moving with quality and little supervision.
This isn’t about hedging or sweeping mistakes under the rug but rather admitting fault or calling for support and help when needed.
As you mature as a designer, your speed of execution should also increase. You should be able to go from 0 to a final concept(s) within a day. While these types of expectations may not be the usual norm day to day, this should be a standard you should strive for.
When the scope of your projects increases from working on features to working on things that cover multiple surface areas planning becomes more important. At senior levels you’re expected to properly set expectations for the scope of the work and meet those expectations.
Quality is a murky term that could mean different things to different people and often times quality is negotiable depending on where you are in the product process.
Having said all that, quality doesn’t always have to be a compromise. Even in projects that call for MVPs, there’s always room to think more holistically and propose future versions. Thinking of quality this way can help you deliver good work in the short term while building a path towards the north star.
Some of your interviews, especially behavioral and cross-functional ones will touch on these traits. However it’s in your best interest to not just keep these traits in mind when interviewing—but actively develop them so that they become second nature in your work. How well do you display these traits today? What are some key aspects of these traits that you can grown in?
Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success is an excellent read about what it means to have a growth mindset compared to a fixed mindset. This concept has been popularized in the media and may seem like old news, however I sincerely recommend the book as the rich stores make it come to life. Alternatively you can also check out her TED Talk, The Power of believing that you can improve.