When you need UX design and when you need product design.
You need product design more.
Your UX designers do a sterling job. It’s not easy to design simple, usable products that anybody can just fire up and start using without a single instruction. In the old days, things came with instruction manuals. Brilliant UX designers have freed us from that tyranny by making instructions redundant. Just think about that for a second.
The thing is, UX designers are sometimes too concerned with the thing itself and it’s users. I’ll get back to that in a second. For those of us that design products, familiarity is the first step to useability. Take a phone app, for example. Give me the comforting burger menu at the top corner. Give me the standard navigation. Give me page numbers, a navigation bar and for the love of God, a back button. Please. You know you’ve felt the rage when an ‘innovative’ update to your banking app screws with the formula. This approach is hard coded into UX for a reason, and I’m all for it. When it works, you don’t even notice these things, you just browse, work or enjoy yourself.
The UX designer’s focus on usability is also a shortcoming though. To advocate for the customer and create user-centred design work is a full time job. Top quality UX designers are rare and special because they have to do so many difficult things extremely well. This inevitably leaves other elements of product design to other people, and very often, this is where the product designer comes in. The product usually has to be competitive and innovative, and with brand-new products, those attributes are sometimes baked in at the start. In most other cases, you’ll be looking for designers that can take a vague concept and turn it into a valuable product. You also need a creative team member who is trying to meet a business goal with the product; creating a decent ROI and making it fit with the brand.
Your product designer should be figuring out why the heck anyone would even care about your product, how to make it valuable, and how to make it work properly. Your UX designer should be making that product as usable as possible.
Now for a brief digression into the world of product design. The term comes from industrial design, and if you’re working with SuperUltra, you’ll be doing product design with industrial designers. We pair them with UX designers (likely with an information design background) and the combination is solid gold. I like to tell clients that if you haven’t worked with product designers that have experienced major engineering failure, walk away. When industrial designers sign off a product, it goes to hard tooling. Every mistake is repeated millions of times. The experience is instructive.
The hard lessons of industrial design make product designers extremely serious about the process. It’s the only way to create innovative products that will work properly and still be competitive when they launch in two years time. It also makes them serious about ROI and technical feasibility because creating unprofitable or unworkable products are good ways to wreck your reputation. They are the main way to wreck your reputation as a product designer.
All of this translates into digital products. You want to be designing innovative products that are conceptually strong, technically feasible and have the right ROI when they launch in many moons from now. Otherwise your devs, your business or your sales team will slowly start to hate you. Customer hate will follow.
So to sum up; product designers focus on creating the best product and UX designers focus on making that product the best it can be. A match made in heaven if you get it right.
By Tasos Calantzis