Our lives are increasingly seen through the window of a small glass screen. Not surprisingly the people who shape our intention as we look through that window, product designers, are in great demand. As more apps and sites appear daily there is a huge gap in the need for experienced product designers than what the design industry can organically produce.
With this ‘product designer gap’ in mind I set up a panel discussion on September 20th 2017 to explore the topic as part of the AIGA’s Design//Work panel discussion series titled Getting Into Product Design. The panelists were Hillary Lindeman (Product Designer/Google), Deny Khoung (Founder/Whitespace), Faith Bolliger (Sr. Director of Product Design/SoFi), Loredana Crisan (Product Design Manager/Facebook Messenger), all moderated by the wonderful Amy Stellhorn (Founder/Big Monocle).
What is product design?
Previously product design referred to physical objects being created in a factory somewhere for mass sale in a brick and mortar store. It came with a great deal of legacy knowledge about the materials used (steel, plastic etc) and/or anthropometric aspects of how the object fits the human shape and lifestyle.
However when it comes to the digital experience that weaves it’s way through our average day product design is used to shape our access to services such as finding out what the weather will be like tomorrow to finding a parking space in a built up city. Neither app creates the real world ‘product’ but merely offers the ability to know or book said analog experience.
With shorter attention spans than ever and tens of thousands of apps available there becomes a kind of app war for each category as they disrupt the previous, more analog version of a similar service or create an entirely new service that never existed before. With this highly competitive explosion of apps, product designers are being used to deliver a service to a user with the least amount of visual and mental friction in order for the business to survive and be profitable. Fingers mean funds.
As Deny put it “It’s a great time to be product designer, especially in San Francisco ((where the talk was held)). For example you could work on Facebook Messenger like Loredana and touch 1.3 billion people’s lives. You have a chance to work on something that big or a rocket ship that may become that big one day.”
What’s so different about product design?
With product design you’re not creating something finite like you are in other forms of design but rather it is something that needs interaction on the user’s part. Gone are the days when you could expect a reader of something analog to work their way through long instructions. The information was presented from front to back, top to bottom, left to right.
Now users pull information from multiple data sources onto a page that exists purely in that moment. That information needs a framework imposed over it as users want to asses the data quickly and choose a course of action with just a click. As a result buttons on every page should be similar so that the user isn’t frustrated by spending extra brainpower working out which is the right button. Rather, they should be spending the time working out which is the right content or course of action they want to take.
This means the overall structure a product is presented in is almost as important as the product itself. This can create a great many pages/screens and options. In the process this obviously creates a whole different set of axioms in which to operate: “Design thinking for product design is about designing a system that is the foundation you are building on” says Faith “for example the component library must be consistent. As a result there ends up being lots of arguments about whether something is MVP (Minimum Viable Product) or not”.
The other key aspect of product design is fact that it is never finished. Like a living organism a product and how it’s users’ interact with it changes over time. Faith went on to say “I heard designers shouldn’t be attached to their work. I disagree. The better and harder skill is to know when to walk away from your work with grace. You have to pivot with feedback or if you learn something new in a usability study. Essentially you have to fail gracefully.”
What hard and soft skills do product designers need?
As with most jobs there are hard and soft skills needed to thrive in a product design job. For the software part of the hard skills needed Hillary had this to say “At Google every designer uses Sketch for wireframes and user journey flows to have that high fidelity. We also use Principle to prototype and an internal prototype tool similar to Origami.”
When looking at potential candidates to join their existing product design teams Hillary had this to say about the soft skills needed: “Storytelling i.e. how you communicate beyond the screens. How do you put it in a larger perspective. The key is to articulate the problem and it’s context in order to to sell your idea.”
Hillary also added: “You need to be able to collaborate and communicate well with cross functional teams as you will work with product managers, developers and research teams. You need to develop good and strong relationships. People who are good at those skills create good workflow.”
Meanwhile Loredana added this about prospective candidates: “We need to see intentionality – that each choice is intentionally made. That they ((the candidates)) understand all the possibilities and the intent of projects. We also need to see self awareness of where they are in their career, can they move beyond this point and have the drive to get there.”
What is product design workflow like?
Since the scope of a product design project is so large and involves many other teams such as Engineering, User Research, Marketing/Sales etc the average week of a product designer involves a lot of meetings. These could be stand-ups or follow the Agile method so that ideas can be whiteboarded or designs presented in a quick and efficient manner. In between those meetings a product designer may only get sporadic slots of 30-60 minutes to read emails or do actual design work. As a result it’s hard to carve out enough time to do a deep dive into a problem. As a result product design teams like structure.
To expand on this point Loredana described the average week of the team she manages at Facebook Messenger:
Monday: we come together as a design team.
Tuesday: we have 4 hours of crits, one hour per team. We look for things like patterns, interface guidelines and general design.
Wednesday: we all work from home so we work on the feedback.
Thursday: we get feedback from our internal partners.
Friday: we have our team meeting and all come together.
With this structure the deep dive may come after hours as different options need to be explored based on the different sets of feedback. Ideas and designs change often along the way. And of course since these products are never “finished” like in other fields of design. “You get a lot more attached to your work when you try a lot of different things but there’s very little legacy that a product designer leaves behind” Loredana continued. “You have to get attached to outcomes because that’s what you create.”
Titles, salaries and hours
About titles, Loredana had this to say “At a start-up you can make up any title you want but in a bigger company ‘product designer’ could include someone who prototypes, someone who does visual design etc. You could be very senior but still have the title ‘product designer’.”
Deny said that the salary for a product designer could be anywhere from $85,000 to $140,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area which includes Silicon Valley. Deny felt that further down the Peninsula (towards Silicon Valley) the salaries were lower – probably because of the high cost of living in San Francisco. He feels that communication/visual designers would probably get 20% less than product designers.
Deny also says that, in a trend that is counter to the way things were 10 years ago, in-house teams now get paid more than agency teams. It used to be that designers in agencies worked long hours, often due to disorganization and often on pitches the night before (due to the disorganization). These agency designers were paid more in an effort to keep them happy. Now in an in-house design job you are often expected to still be available when not in the office. The scale of operations, not a client, is the main drive for these internal deadlines. Just remember, if you change a button here or there on Facebook Messenger and 1.3 billion people may click it tomorrow.
How to get noticed as a product designer?
And what if you are a fledgling product designer? How do you get a fully fledged product design job? What should go in your portfolio? Where should you be showing it?
About the work itself, Deny had this very poignant piece of advice: “It’s a continuum getting the right kind of work in your portfolio. Firstly, nothing beats a real job. Then comes a non profit work. Then there’s something like a Hackathon and finally a passion project.” On the same point, Faith added “You can also deconstruct stuff in your own time. I interview a lot of designers who have passion projects in their portfolio.”
Then, with regards getting your work seen by the right people, Amy Stellhorn, the evening’s moderator, had this to say: “Go to the watering holes i.e. where people are already going.” ((I have noticed that when I put anything on Dribbble many people see it within an hour or two)). Hillary pointed out that she got found by Google because of all the work she posted on her Dribbble page. Hillary also added: “You can find someone that you respect and just email them. I did that and was amazed at the people who responded with help.”
Loredana summed up much of the panel’s feelings with on this topic with “Put yourself in a situation that creates work for you as that shows what you can do. To do this you could be at a start-up as they need generalists”
This major field of design is only going to expand further or mutate into something even more advanced and engaging in the future. Condensing what the panelists said, the way to thrive in product design involves striving for greatness while working with non designers as you all work towards a common outcome (not goal). Wow, that’s a mouthful. Sounds easy, right?
But what of the future of product design?
About this Deny is quite bullish: “As older companies remodel themselves as tech companies they want to be more relevant through how their product is designed and there are still many problems to solve out there through product design.” It’s not just here to stay but product design will probably be the bridge to lead us into the future by delivering newer ways to do things we can’t even predict now.
Appendix: webpage for the event: http://aigasf.org/event/d-w-getting-into-product-design/