In the digital landscape of 2023, a product can come in many forms. Often, products don’t even have to be a physical object — they can also be a virtual service or platform. Regardless of the form they take, these are goods and services that people want, that have a place in improving upon some aspect of life.
There is also endless demand for products and, in response, an entire industry that revolves around generating them. Many people are tasked with the job of product design, helping businesses succeed at giving consumers what they desire.
The world of product design is large and complicated. There are many things product design can entail, so first, let’s break it down to the basics.
What is product design?
Product design refers to the process of creating and developing products that appeal to users. While this may sound simple enough, it is a task that requires lots of attention. The overarching goal of product design is to create something that is perfectly suited for its audience. Successful product design is able to anticipate its audience’s needs and tailor the product with them in mind.
Product design vs UX design
Product design is often conflated with UX (User Experience) design. The two roles get used as synonyms sometimes, but there are still subtle distinctions between the two.
In general, product designers might look at the product in context of the business more holistically, while UX designers will focus on the interactive elements of the product. Product designers are more involved with the overall process that bringing a product to market entails, instead of being focused solely on the design aspect — they care more about the product as a whole. This broader scope to the role is also a factor in the higher average salary of product designers, compared to UX designers.
That said, there are many similarities between the two roles, as they both have a heavy focus on the user. UX-related skills and experience are certainly transferable to product design, as well as the other way around.
The different stages of product design
Product design comes in many different steps. As a product designer, you will likely be engaged in many, if not all, of these.
Uncover the problem
When developing a product, a starting point for product designers is to think thoroughly about the problem that needs to be solved. What is something that consumers care about? This stage of design might include brainstorming within the team, as well as conducting market research and gathering interviews or testimonies to develop a complete understanding of the problem.
With the problem in mind, the next step is to start thinking of solutions. What products can be made to address this problem? What is something consumers will be able to use? These ideas can be diverse and on a grand scale, doing the work to narrow them down later. At this stage, using something like a simple, low-cost wireframe design to draft mockups of the different solutions can help put everything into perspective. From a variety of options, the team can then choose what to move forward with.
After deciding on how to proceed, it’s time to start prototyping the product. Now, the goal is to create a testable product, one that product designers can then use to gather user feedback on. This includes paying attention to different aspects of the product, from the interaction design to the visual aesthetics, and noting how users respond to them.
The final prototype of the product can now be tested. At this stage, it should closely resemble how it will look when it is officially introduced to the market. Before the launch, however, work needs to be done to perfect it. For product designers, this means continuing to gather user information and making sure that the product has been optimized with the user in mind.
What does a product designer do?
Product designers are necessary to help make the final product as marketable as possible. They see the product through its many stages, from inception to testing. The product designer is focused on the user, using their feedback and experiences to inform product development. In some cases, the product designer might include many different roles, from thinking of graphic design and the product’s aesthetic to conducting market research.
Depending on the structure of the team, product designers can have different responsibilities. Some examples include:
- Creating different product concepts to select the best option
- Researching industry trends and user behavior
- Improving upon design concepts with engineers
- Staying up to date on latest product technologies and industry developments
- Turning design concepts into prototypes
- Communicating with engineers and designers develop products
- Researching and gathering customer feedback
- Making adjustments to product based on user experience
Product designers often have a little bit of knowledge about everything that goes into making a product work. While their focus might be on the user, they must also take into account things like engineering and design as they collaborate with the rest of the team responsible for collaborating on the final product. As a result, the responsibilities of product designers can seem a little scattered, as they are constantly navigating the various components to help bring everything together into something that works.
Different teams might also have different expectations for what skills a successful product designer ought to have. Depending on the size and scale of the team, the task of product design may also be broken down into more specific roles. Generally speaking, though, these are some useful skills for a product designer to possess:
- User interface (UI) design
- User experience (UX) design
- Visual design
- User research
While the sheer breadth of these skills may feel intimidating, it’s important to note that for some of these, companies aren’t expecting product designers to have excessive depth of knowledge in.
For example, while having some coding knowledge is useful, product designers don’t need to be able to fully code a piece of software. That’s an entirely different job on its own! This kind of knowledge, though, is useful for effective communication — something that is valuable for a product designer.
How much do product designers make?
According to Indeed, the average base salary for product designers in the United States in 2022 is around $86,000 a year. At companies like Apple and Meta, product designers can make an annual salary of well over $150,000 a year.
For freelance product designers, the rate for jobs on platforms like Upwork typically ranges between $20-$50 per hour.
Who do product designers work with?
Given their wide range of responsibilities, product designers will usually work with a larger team of people to get the job done. Often, product designers will interact with:
- Project managers
- User interface designers
- User experience designers
- Graphic designers
How can I become a product designer?
Whether you’re looking to be hired by a company or get freelance clients, there are plenty of ways to work as a product designer in 2022. Despite the wide array of skills the role might require, product design is a much less exclusive field than it might seem. Here are some steps you can take to become a product designer:
Consider your transferable skills
Starting from scratch in a new career path can be daunting. Chances are, though, that the career path is not entirely new to you. Regardless of what your past experience looks like, there’s a good likelihood that you’ve learned something along the way that can be transferred to the field of product design.
For example, if you’ve ever worked in any job where you have to interact with or think about customers, then you have some experience in the kind of heavy focus on users that product design demands. Even if it may be in a completely different field, the customers are still at the core of the job.
Expand your skills
Of course, having a vague knowledge of how users think isn’t enough to work as a product designer. You need to have specific skills in your toolkit as well. The more skills you have, the more attractive you will be to employers.
Before jumping into job applications and interviews, take some time to brush up on basic skills, especially if you’re a newcomer to the industry. Take a product design course to study up on the general knowledge the role requires. If you really want to expand your skill set, you can also study up on related skills like coding or graphic design. Luckily, in 2022, there are plenty of ways to teach yourself a new skill online!
Build a portfolio
As with many other freelance jobs, a portfolio is a vital asset that will help you gain clients. If you’re new to product design, however, building a relevant portfolio can be a bit challenging. However, it is not impossible.
If you feel that you don’t have enough relevant work experience to compose into a good portfolio, there are also other routes you can take. Some design mentorships and online courses, for example, will give you the opportunity to do work with clients that will help you build a portfolio.
If possible, try to also tailor your portfolio to the kind of work you’re applying for. Like a good resume, your portfolio should demonstrate your relevant experience and prove how you’re the best fit for a job. That means that your portfolio should not only reflect you, but it should ideally also reflect the specifics of the role.
Other design-related careers
Finally, if you want to work in the field of design but don’t think product design is for you, there are plenty of other options. For example, if you’re only interested in the user interface design aspect of the job, then you might consider being, specifically, a UX designer instead. Otherwise, here are some other related careers:
- Graphic designer
- UX researcher
- Product management