What Is Product Design and Why It Matters

Masha Panchenko

Surely product design is not a new thing for you. We all use this term here and there, but the moment when you consider hiring a product designer, you need to know more. As a SaaS design agency, we know a lot about product design. So let's start from the beginning.

What is Product Design

Product design is the process of developing a usable product that meets customer's needs by defining the users' problems and finding creative solutions for these problems. The term is also used to refer to the result of this process, the design qualities of an existing product.

Where Does It Come from?

Most common views trace product design back to the mid 19th century, when mass production took off. However, there are always people who would say that product design was always there, as long as humans started using tools in prehistoric times.

What is meant by product design nowadays? When we say product design, we typically refer to software products. Yet sometimes it is used to describe material objects, such as furniture, electronics, dishes, or something else. In these cases, the term industrial design is also used. If you see a person with a university degree in Product design, it is likely that the specialization is industrial design.

Now that we know the origins of the term, it is clear that the design approach has way broader applications than just software development. It is not just some trendy concept without proven efficiency.

What Is the Difference between Product and UX Design?

product designer vs ux designer

Product design and UX design are sometimes confused. If you have only one designer working on the product, you probably don’t have to worry about those details. However, if you consider hiring a designer or outsourcing, you will be faced with a wide variety of designer backgrounds, including UX and product and many more.

The is no clear divider between the two, but there are some nuances that you need to understand if you want to know what each of them can contribute to your project.

Similarities

Both UX designers and product designers work on the same kind of projects. Both follow the design thinking process and user-centered approach. Both use the same software tools for analysis, research, prototyping, and testing. The skills required for these positions are similar, which allows professionals to switch from product design to UX and vice versa if they wish.

Differences/Nuances

Remember what was said about product design being a process? Process is the key here. UX designers conduct research and develop products, but their work is finished when the product is done and ready to run. Product designers continue the work after the initial launch, analyzing the performance of the product, fixing the bugs, and improving it in the long-term. We will dive deeper into the design process below.

UX designers tend to focus on improving usability, flow, and accessibility of the product. Product designers keep in mind all of this, as well, but they take a stronger business approach to the product. In the process of product development, they have to think about the brand, market, business goals, evolution of the product in the future, etc. Apart from the visuals, they may also work on marketing, business development, research, etc. It requires a strategic vision and an integrated approach.

If you struggle to decide whether you should hire a UX designer or product designer, here we have explained all the differences. And if you are already considering hiring one, check out these examples of product designer job description.

Product Design Process

You do not really need to learn the design process in detail if you are not a designer, and of course, it takes more than just a few paragraphs to do that. However, by learning the basics you can get a grasp of it to make communication with the designer easier.

Understanding the complexity of the product design process is important for non-designers. When you learn all the principles of design thinking, you start perceiving design mistakes not as failures, but as necessary steps for creating the perfect product. This knowledge also facilitates communication with the designer, as they would appreciate your awareness of their work process at the very beginning when they see your brief.

In this article we cover the very basics. If you are interested in learning more, we have a separate article about product design process.

What Is Design Brief in Product Design

A design brief is not only for explaining what you need from the designer, as you are likely to exchange way more useful information in meetings and emails. Sometimes clients even leave the brief-writing for the designer. It can be an effective tactic, as it gives the client a chance to find out how he or she sees the task. Design brief serves to ensure that you are on the same page and there is no discrepancy in how all of you understand the task. Also, it is a kind of agreement, particularly when the deadlines, budget, and deliverables are stated clearly.

A designer can come up with a great product, but if it turns out that the brief was incorrect, this great product may appear to be useless. Each brief is different depending on the product, needs, and situation, but there are some checkpoints that you should not miss out on.

  • Start with information about the company and the product. Of course, you expect the designer to know something, so include the things that are not so visible, e.g. how you describe the company, what is its vision, etc.
  • Mention the target and explain the problem that the product has to solve. Present the insights from the research, the existing solutions, and their imperfections.
  • It is also a good idea to frame it with key deliverables and a timeline for each of the stages. It is tough to set a deadline for the creative process, but deadlines are known for boosting creativity.
  • Do not say how the problem has to be solved. You are likely to know already what you expect the final product to be, but you should avoid the temptation to include it in the brief. That way you are not leaving space for alternative solutions and limit the result with your own experience and background. That is not what you hire a designer for.

A good rule for a design brief is to be, well, brief. Make sure it is no longer than 3 pages, and if you really want to include all the user interviews you have conducted, you can add them in a link. And remember that the design brief is not carved in stone: it is completely fine to change it in the process, as new findings and testing results appear.

To see what it looks like, see these examples of good design briefs.

Design Thinking

“Human-centered design thinking—especially when it includes research based on direct observation—will capture unexpected insights and produce innovation that more precisely reflects what consumers want.”
Tim Brown, Design Thinking (Harvard Business Review)

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation. The roots of this concept go back to the creative industry of the 1950s, but it has evolved since then and is now applied to a wide range of issues, not always design-related.

The basic principles of design thinking, according to Tim Brown, are the following:

  • Empathy. To focus the solution around people’s problems, we have to understand them well first. Design thinking departs from the research of the problems of people and is not finished until the product is tested on them and thus proves to have solved the initial problem.
  • Optimism. To find a good solution, you need to believe that there is one.
  • Integrative thinking. To come up with an innovative solution, sometimes we need to go beyond regular rational thinking to have a different perspective.
  • Experimentalism. Willingness to try something new when nobody knows if it would work is not as common as it sounds, and it is even more treasured when you consider that you have to be ready for many experiments.
  • Collaboration. It is proven that crowdsourcing problem solution brings up great innovative ideas from people with the background lying in a different field than the problem itself. The design thinking process is more productive when it involves a diverse group of collaborators.

If you want to see how design thinking is applied in real cases, check out our list of examples of design thinking.

Stages of Product Design

So, what does a product designer do? If you ask five product designers about the stages of their work, they all would give different answers. How do you know which one is correct? Actually, it can change depending on the product, task, team, etc. In general, the process is based on design thinking and has 6 stages (other approaches may name 3, or 10, or even more). Don’t let the numeration fool you, the order is not that simple and may include various iterations.

  1. Research. Empathizing with the user, understanding his or her needs, problems, feelings, models of behavior. For a product designer, this stage would also include market research, as they need to know if there are other products that address the same problem and why they are not enough.
  2. Defining the problem and product vision. The research provides the basis for analysis and making a statement of the problem. Without the problem statement and the vision of the product, the whole process may get chaotic.
  3. Ideation. Thinking of the possible solutions to the problem. This stage may include brainstorming, sketching, wireframing.
  4. Design. So, the design is a stage of the design process? Yes, and it is not as meaningless as it seems at first. When you look at it closer, you realize that actual design is just one part of a larger product design process. At this stage, it all starts with prototypes.
  5. Testing and Validation. Each assumption, idea, and prototype has to be tested, preferably with real users. In case the solution is not validated after testing, the process returns to the previous stages.
  6. Launch and post-launch. Well, the process does not have a clear end. After the launch comes one more important stage that includes further testing, collecting data, analysis, defining new problems, finding solutions…
Design thinking: Empathize-Define (the problem)-Ideate (generate ideas)-Prototype-Test
Image credit: maqe.com

This is a rather simplified list of general elements of the product design process. We have a complete guide on how to create a successful product.

Business Value of Product Design

The value of good design is as obvious to some people as it is completely unclear to others. And, as you know, the obvious things are the hardest to explain rationally. Luckily, there are researches that bring substantial arguments to the importance of design in business value. McKinsey followed 300 companies in different countries and industries for 5 years to find out how design approaches correlated with financial success.

They measured the McKinsey Design Index (MDI) that reflects the strength of design in companies. The graphs presented in the research demonstrate that companies with higher MDI have the percentage of annual growth twice higher compared to the average.

Annual growth graph: Top-quartile McKinsey Design index performers - up to 10%. Industry benchmarks - 3-6%
Image credit: McKinsey

The same research shows that the companies that truly stand out tend to have better financial performance than the competitors. If design helps big established companies to stand out, it means it is even more important for emerging businesses that have to thrive to attract and retain users.

Best Product Design Examples

  • Uber. An app that combined two things that already existed: a system of taxi ordering through operators and a market of self-employed taxi drivers on the streets.
  • Airbnb. A product that changed the whole tourism industry by connecting short time renters with their clients directly.
  • Highlighter marker. This beautiful and simple product brought as simple as a genius solution to the need to highlight parts of texts, making it fast and easy to notice, just by broadening the tip and using bright colors.
orange highlighter marker
Image credit: jakob5200 / pixabay.com

So, basically, most of the popular things that are simple but genius, easy to use, and, consequently, have success on the market are the products of applied design thinking. Once you know the design thinking principle, you understand that it stands behind so many things that we use daily.

If you want more, check out these lists of great design examples:

Best SaaS Websites

Human-Centered Design Examples

3 Things You Have to Know about Product Design

If there are just 3 things you will remember from this article, let it be the following:

  • Product design is a complex process that includes a variety of tasks, ranging from research to prototyping and testing.
  • Product design is human-centered (as all the good things are), but involves more consideration of the needs of the business and market situation.
  • Product design is never-ending (or almost so). You cannot say it is a clearly defined set of steps. Everyone follows the structure they consider the most suitable and efficient, but the process may include an unexpected number of iterations that are crucial for understanding the problem and finding the best solution to it.

If you want to learn more about product development, check out our guide to building a product roadmap.


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