Dylan Smith

The product design create-a-player

My friend, a Senior UX Designer by title, asked a funny question today:

What do you think a product designer is? We changed a job vacancy’s title from “UX designer” to “product designer” and now we’re getting a bunch of UI designers.

I know titles can mean different things to different people, but design’s job title problem always felt abstract. Strangers on Twitter confuse these things, not me and my friend. It had never occurred to me that we might not be on the same page.

I’m a Senior Product Designer (by title). My understanding has long been that a product designer is something of a generalist across at least UX and visual design. That is, they are talented at both figuring out how something should work as well as how it should look and feel. Usually — or perhaps preferably — they offer additional coverage elsewhere on the design skill spectrum, like user research or frontend code. The closest synonyms from recent years‘ title trends might be “UX/UI designer” or “interaction designer.”

My friend’s understanding was that product design is more akin to UX design, rebranded for modern, agile, in-house teams. They probably know a thing or two about visual design but that’d be an afterthought or bonus rather than a core skill. They might build things out using the design system but wouldn’t build the design system itself. In his definition, a product designer is more focussed on how the thing works than how it looks.

I agree with that last bit, but not because of any UX/product job title confusion. I simply believe that any product-focussed designer needs to be more focussed on how things work. However, to me, product design as a function makes or can make pure UI design as a function obsolete.

It’s a bit like squares and rectangles: all product designers are UI designers but not all UI designers are product designers. And the same for UX. I see UX and UI as specialisms to product design’s generalism.

It was around this point when my friend dealt a blow to my imposter syndrome:

You think you have the full skillset of a senior UXer and a senior UI designer?

Hmm. Well, no. In fact, I don’t think I’d say I have either of those full skillsets, though I still feel deserving of my title and position. My title doesn’t mean “I’m worth a senior of each,” it means “I’m a senior who can do both.”

The best analogy I can think of is a video game create-a-player, where you get a certain amount of points to allocate across categories when building out your character. A senior-level product designer has more available points (because they‘ve amassed more skills, experience, or both) but they might be allocated in different areas than their junior or mid-level counterparts. And it‘s that points allocation that gets really interesting to think about.

Let‘s consider some oversimplified categories and examples. Let‘s say that a junior designer, in these examples, has 50 points, a mid-level has 75, and a senior has 100.

If Junior UI Designer A has all 50 points in the UI category, and Senior Product Designer B has 50 points in UI and 50 points in UX, are they really a senior designer or are they someone with junior-level skills in two categories?

Consider Mid-level Product Designer C who has 50 in UI and 25 in UX, or Senior Product Designer D with 10 in user research, 40 in UX, 40 in UI, and 10 in code. There are probably infinite combinations of strengths and all possible combinations — that is, the job applicants being considered — need to be evaluated against a team’s needs, existing skillsets, structure, and budget.

Do you agree with this interpretation of the “product design” job title? If you‘re a designer, how do you think your points are allocated? Is this model all wrong?

Send me an email or tweet and let me know what you think.

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