What Is Product Design?

In our mission to make you the best possible Product Manager, we’re taking you through some of the most fundamental, but often most misunderstood and overlooked aspects of the product world. Today’s topic; What Is Product Design?

In a nutshell, product design encompasses the process of creating a product, from understanding the problem to creating a solution.

Product design really is the unsung hero of the product world. No one notices if you do it really well, but everyone notices if you don’t! Instinctively, we all know what bad design looks like. Which mean your customers know what bad design looks like.

Even if you’re not a Product Designer, knowing more about good product design will make you a better Product Manager.

Here we’ll go over the history of Product Design, the fundamental elements of good UX, and a who’s who of the design team.

A Brief History of Product Design

Product design used to be relegated to the world of physical products. It started out as ‘industrial design’ which was the commonly used term before mass-production became the most common way to get products to market.

Now, we can use it to describe both hardware and software design. The person who created the device you’re reading this on? A product designer. Whoever created your favorite video streaming app? A product designer. The team who made your email inbox interface? Product designers…you get the idea.

While no company has ever gone out of their way to build ugly products, when consumer tech really started taking off in the late-eighties/mid-nineties, what mattered most was that the technology worked. Who cares if it only comes in beige? Saying that, the nineties was an era that produced notable events that would shape the world for generations to come. And that includes the product world.

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Apple’s Product Design Revolution

Google’s Director of UX, Abigail Hart Gray, points to the iMac as an example of a big company first discovering the importance of aesthetics.

As Abigail says, “not having design thinking involved early on meant the engineer would hand over to the designer and essentially say, ‘pretty it up’ with no room for them to ask questions and recommend changes.”

When the first Macintosh came out in the 70s, it wasn’t the prettiest thing ever. It came only in that specific shade of sandy grey with chunky brown plastic keys. People loved working on their Macintosh, but they didn’t particularly love looking at it.

When the iMac G3 came out in 1998, in the shade dubbed Bondi-blue after the waters at Bondi beach, people fell in love. Then-VP of Industrial Design, Jony Ive, asked himself “What computer would The Jetsons have had?” As the first computer Apple were designing for the internet era, Ive wanted ‘the future’ to be reflected in design.

middle school website GIF by Sarah Schmidt

So Apple took a retro-futuristic design inspired by the tech of The Jetsons, vintage computer terminals, and the bright colors of 1960’s Olivetti typewriters. What they came up with certainly stood out in a market full of corporate beige.

From there, product experts have been striving for the best product design, bringing together a number of criteria and components. With so many of the same product in the marketplace (hundreds of smartphones, fitness trackers, streaming services, etc) good product design is the key to standing out.

The UX Honeycomb

Product design professionals generally regard The UX Honeycomb by Peter Morville as the classic diagram for the seven essential aspects of UX. It has certainly been argued over, but for beginners it’s a great introduction to the best product design components.

The UX Honeycomb for product design
  • Useful: A product which fills a need, solves a problem, or serves a purpose. It doesn’t have to be useful for every person on the planet, but it needs to serve a target audience.
  • Usable: Similar, but not the same as useful. Usable reflects how easy it is to navigate your product. If your product takes half an hour to solve a ten-minute problem, it is not usable.
  • Findable: This focuses on the information architecture of your product. A new user needs to be able to find what they want with relative ease. Findable products have intuitive navigational structures.
  • Credible: Particularly important in today’s privacy-obsessed world. You need to build a product which deserves the trust of your customers. By designing around patterns they recognize, their experience retains an air of familiarity and strengthens your relationship with them. Avoiding dark patterns and only partnering with trustworthy third-parties is a good start.
  • Accessible: Around 19% of Americans use accessibility tools to surf the web. That’s an enormous chunk of the market your product is missing out on if it can’t be made accessible to them. A good Product Manager is also a good person, and wants their products to be available to whoever needs them. Accessibility is also a legal requirement in many countries.
  • Desirable: Branding and storytelling will play a big part here, but it’s also about the overall quality of your product. Is your hardware made from quality materials? Does your app look great, but keep crashing? Is your homepage intuitive, or old-fashioned?
  • Valuable: The best product design doesn’t just check all of these boxes. Your product still needs a USP, something which goes the extra mile, delights customers, and slays the competition.

Good Product Design vs Bad Product Design

Good Product Design: The ‘New’ iMac

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Let’s circle back to our friends at Apple. Because let’s face it, Apple product design is good product design!

(Want a Product Management job at Apple? Here’s the guide you need!)

The design for the iMac as we know it today came out in 2009. And the last 11 years have seen remarkably few changes. The switch to aluminium and glass over plastic created a modern, yet timeless feel. The materials also speak directly to the environmentally-conscious.

In a world that constantly changes, and constantly wants what’s new, having a desktop computer stand the test of time for 11 years is pretty remarkable! While there are rumors circulating that we’re due to get a serious redesign, no one is throwing out their iMac Pros just yet.

Bad Product Design: Chasing Products

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Your product might not be that bad. In fact, it might actually be pretty good. But if you’ve designed it just to match what a competitor is doing, I’ve got some bad news. You’ve made a chasing product.

When Steve Jobs first unveiled the iPod, all of Seattle could practically hear the teams at Microsoft rushing to catch up. Raise your hand if you own a Zune…

The former leader of Microsoft’s home entertainment and mobile business, Robbie Bach, spoke to Business Insider in 2012 about why the Zune flopped.

What it all came down to was who got to market first.

“The portable music market is gone and it was already leaving when we started. We just weren’t brave enough, honestly, and we ended up chasing Apple with a product that actually wasn’t a bad product, but it was still a chasing product, and there wasn’t a reason for somebody to say, oh, I have to go out and get that thing.”

-Robbie Bach

Before you say that Zune didn’t have a USP compared to the iPod, it actually did. In 2006, Zune’s ability to wirelessly send a song from one device to another was way ahead of its time. But unfortunately, Apple’s incomparable storytelling ability had won over the market.

When thinking about your product design, try to avoid creating something that only exists to compete with another company. Unless you have genuine reason to believe you can do it better! Strive to create something that’s authentically yours.

Good Product Design: The QWERTY Keyboard

qwerty GIF by Jackson Gibbs

Does something that we can trace back to 1873 count as good product design as we know it today? Yes, absolutely! Attributed to American inventor Christopher Latham Sholes, the QWERTY keyboard was designed to stop typewriter keys jamming together. When commonly used pairings such as ‘ST’ were pressed in quick succession, the metal arms would slam into each other, slowing down the typist.

After going through several design iterations, the Remington Standard Typewriter Company became a commercial success, and 146 years later…here we are still using QWERTY keyboards.

The lesson here is that design isn’t just about aesthetics, it’s about how people use your product. You need to think about your user flows and use data-driven design to ensure success in the marketplace.

Jobs in Product Design

Like job titles in the product world, product design jobs are not so easy to define. It’s important to remember that each company handles product design slightly differently, and job titles may vary.

Product Manager vs Product Designer

When we look at the Product Designer job description, we might see a lot of overlap with the PM role, depending on the company. Generally, a Product Manager owns more of the product vision. They define the problem, have a deep understanding of their users, work with stakeholders, and own the roadmap.

A Product Designer has more of an artistic flair. They take the problem defined by the PM, and create research-driven design concepts which will solve the problem. They collaborate with engineers to ensure that what’s being built matches the criteria of the UX honeycomb.

Meet the Team

UX Designer: They may also be called Interaction Designer, Information Architect, Experience Designers. Wireframes are their bread and butter. They’re focused on information hierarchy, flows, interactivity, and they’re helping you map that out.

Visual Designer: A Visual Designer helps your product design team make your product look like yours, and nobody else’s. With so many digital designs taking a clean, minimalist look, it’s very easy to accidentally (or not) design a carbon copy of your competitor…just with your logo. That’s not what you want! Your visual designer works with the aesthetics of your product.

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Content Partner: Admittedly, Content Partners can be difficult to fit into the budget! But words matter, and you need a Copywriter to make sure the language of your product sounds natural. This is especially important for global products. Companies like Spotify, Google, and Apple, all need people who can translate and create content for each territory.

Researcher: The people who tell you the what, why, and how to make sure your product is successful. Good design has to be data driven. Your researchers will be able to tell you what works, what people like, and what users respond to. Using that information to collaborate with the rest of the product team will lead to some winning product design!

Design for Product Managers

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As a Product Manager, you’ll be working very closely with product designers, and the design of your product must absolutely be at the forefront of your mind.

Does this mean you need to be able to design a user interface, or create user flows, or pick out the perfect color scheme? No.

When we asked Innovatemap’s Principal Product Partner, Anna Eaglin, how Product Managers can form a strong relationship with designers, she said; “tell them the what, not the how.” You can give your product design team all the information and tools they need to complete a task, but don’t tell them how to do it. Ask for feedback and create a collaborative atmosphere. If your design team feels like you’re open to hearing their opinions, you’ll be more informed and more likely to make the best product design decisions.

Although you don’t have to be a designer to be a Product Manager you can bring in design thinking. You’re the person guiding the development of your product, and you’re the person who can make design a priority.

Here are some resources to get you started:

If you prefer getting your information right from the source, here’s Google’s Director of UX, speaking at #ProductCon San Francisco on ‘A User Guide to Product Design.’

Product Design Interview Questions

For a company which is heavily invested in design thinking, you might be asked some product design interview questions. Even for a Product Manager role!

You won’t be asked to create a prototype on the spot, but you should prepare some answers to question like:

  1. How should a good design process start?
  2. What comes first, product or style?
  3. Tell us about a time when you simplified a complex situation or problem. What made you seek out a simpler approach?
  4. You start working on a new desktop/mobile/web app. What are your first steps?
  5. How do you keep up with the latest design trends?

Have some thoughts on Product Design? Or do you have lots of questions? Join our communities for product people on Slack, or Facebook.

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