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Hey mom, this is what I do as a product designer

What makes the difference between an average designer and a great designer?

When it comes to job titles in the design world, it’s people’s favourite thing to debate on Medium, and I suspect also in general. I think that it’s testament to a really interesting time that we live in: UI/UX design as a career wasn’t even a real option until about 10 years ago, and product design traditionally referred to people in industrial design who designed material products. Fast forward to today, where product designers can also refer to people like me who work in product and tech. So it’s cool that we are actually having these conversations that shape and define a new generation of professionals. Here’s my contribution to that conversation, framed as an explanation to my mom who has always been curious about what I do.

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

Hey mom, you’ve always asked me what I do as my job and it’s always been a challenge to explain it to you. Partly because product design is so many things, and it’s also a set of skills that I do almost intuitively, so it’s difficult to take a step back to clearly explain what I do. I think I managed to do it though, so here goes.

In my time as a product designer, I’ve learnt that people who work in product use a lot of shapes.

There’s the double diamond, there are graphs, there are Venn diagrams, there are so many kinds of flywheels…

So here’s another shape — the product designer triangle. It’s my way of trying to break down a complex job title into simple terms.product design user research uiux design design thinking triangle

The product designer triangle

The first component of being a product designer:

1. User Research

Ask different designers or researchers what research means to them, and you’ll get different answers. To me, user research is simply: finding out the way things are, and why they are so. Anything else is simply a means to that end.

If we want to talk about user research, there are so so many different ways that you can do research. You can do field research, you can do user interviews, you can take a quick poll, you can do an in-depth survey, you can do usability testing… the methods are endless, and there are countless good articles for each method. However, as I mentioned, all of these are just means to the end.

The heart of any research is really this question: do we know this to be true? And honestly, all other research questions stem from that larger question — to what extent do we know this to be true? How many people is this true for? Which group of people is this true for? When did this become true for this group of people? How do we know that this is true? Why is this true for a specific group of people?

“User research is the part where we get closest to our customers’ motivations and behaviours, and get to understand the human condition of a given situation.”

From those sub questions, we can make conclusions on how worthwhile the problem is, we will know how confident we are in what we know to be true, we will know our target market better and what they want, we will know trends, and we will know all the different data points that support what we found out.

As the cliche goes, knowledge is power. Once we know the answers to the questions above, we can be more purposeful and intentional in the decisions that we make. We can become less reactive to situations, and more calculated. We can stay ahead of the game, instead of feeling like we are a few steps behind and playing catch-up with the market and competitors.

The simple explanation: User research is the part where we get closest to our customers’ motivations and behaviours, and get to understand the human condition of a given situation.

2. Design Thinking

My personal belief is that every problem can be framed as a design problem. Social problems, business problems, customer service problems, organisational problems, process problems, even relationship problems can be framed as a design problem where we can apply design thinking to find possible solutions.

The ‘move fast and break things’ approach has been made so popular by Silicon Valley, but sometimes we charge ahead without stopping to think — are we even solving the right problem in the first place?

A big reason why we don’t stop to ask ourselves that can be found in the quote below:

“Most schools, all you learn is solving problems; then you get out in the real world, you feel lost because nobody’s telling you what to solve.” –Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s quote

Having the right problem and being confident that it is the right problem to solve is half the battle won for me. If we work on a problem that is not pressing enough to enough people, then that is time wasted and potential lost in finding the highly coveted product-market fit. If the problem is not a core problem — that is if you solve it, there will be multiple smaller problems that get solved as well — then it’s time wasted too. If the problem we are solving does not have valuable business impact, then it’s the wrong focus as well.

What happens when we have a clear and defined problem? Teams are aligned, there is synergy in the way they work and the way they communicate because they are working towards the same thing.

To keep our efforts focused, we should always ask: how does this idea solve our problem? Asking this question helps us filter out the noise and irrelevant ideas that do not help us move towards our end goal.

Other than finding the right problem to solve, other parts of the design thinking component includes problem framing and re-framing, divergent thinking, converging ideas, forming links and patterns, customer experience strategies, uncovering insights, and the list goes on.

The simple explanation: Design thinking is where we start to draw boundaries around the problem we want to solve and chart out a plan to arrive at possible solutions.

3. UI/UX Design

With our design strategy as a north star, and the research as the brains behind the decisions we make, the magic can start! UI/UX design is the front-line of the product designer’s work. It’s the work we do that people see, feel and experience.

If we get down to the heart of UI/UX, what would it be? UI/UX design is the process of finding the best human-centred solution to a pressing problem. And because it is a process, the job of UI/UX design is never done, always iterating and always improving. This is the part of the triangle where designers get their hands dirty and experiment, test, try, talk to people, and refine. It’s the part of the triangle that’s dynamic and exciting. What that looks like is one day, I could wireframe a few pages with a supporting user flow, another day I could be prototyping and doing some initial usability testing with customers or stakeholders.

“UI/UX design is where the solution happens, where we experiment and iterate on tangible solutions to the problem we want to solve.”

To me, this part of the triangle is the most straightforward part out of the three. If we know that we are solving the right problems, and we have a solid design strategy, we will most definitely get to the right solution if we follow the design process that we know to be tested and true.

The simple explanation: UI/UX design is where the solution happens, where we experiment and iterate on tangible solutions to the problem we want to solve.

So, what makes the difference between an average designer and a great designer?

I believe a great designer asks the right questions to get the right answers at the right time. Experienced product designers have the ability to come up with elegant solutions that place equal importance on what users need and what the business needs. A great designer is able to filter out distractions and has the skills to navigate through a messy problem to identify the heart of the matter. A great designer is not only able to do the above but also clearly communicates design decisions and inspires the right mindset among the people they are working with.

“A great designer asks the right questions to get the right answers at the right time.”

So there you have it! I hope that this explanation gives you insight into what I do at my job every day. Product design is so much more than the things we see on screen alone and even bigger than the user experience itself. Product design is the combination of business, design, strategy, systems thinking, research, data science, content strategy, story-telling and creative thinking. It is an ever-evolving, fascinating profession, and I feel incredibly blessed to be in it.

“Product design is the combination of business, design, strategy, systems thinking, research, data science, content strategy, story-telling and creative thinking.”

For those curious, yes I did send this to my mom. Hi mom! Her response? She appreciated that I did this to help her understand my job. She also wanted to follow me but asked me for help on that. Haha.

Thanks to Caitlin Robinson for some of the inspiration behind the product designer triangle.

Originally posted on Michelle’s Medium page.

Senior Product Designer at MoneySmart, based in Singapore. Also writes on Medium.

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