Yes, design can solve everything. But should it?

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In my recent work, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a product designer. Of course, I have to provide Wikipedia’s definition first:

Product design as a verb is to create a new product to be sold by a business to its customers. A very broad concept, it is essentially the efficient and effective generation and development of ideas through a process that leads to new products.

In today’s design world, product designer is understood to be someone who works as a designer (yes keeping it vague purposefully) between product management and development. A couple years ago, we might have called this same position an “UX Designer” or User Experience Designer. But the question I was asking myself here is: what has really changed? Are we attaching different titles to the same responsibilities? Or did our capabilities and skill sets actually change?

In my limited experience, it seems like a product designer is someone who functions as the interaction designer, visual designer, prototyper, and user researcher on a team. The role is broad to be the catch-all for everything design. Sometimes there are multiple product designers with their own niche (T shaped personality), but usually it’s a role that allows someone to wear different (all) hats. As someone that works on a very lean team, I assume that role for my team. I’m constantly making decisions about everything from UI colors to support manuals to onboard users. This takes a lot of a designer. Obviously, it’s a great challenge, but what is the boundary of this role?

On the other side of this discussion is a very clearly defined role. Let’s take Visual Designer as an example. This is someone who refines the interaction design to create the correct aesthetic of the product. They are responsible for very clear deliverables and deliver based on a timeline. They can fulfill their role (collaboratively) and not necessarily encroach on someone else’s responsibilities. Usually there are multiple people with this KIND of role on a team: a separate visual designer, separate interaction designer, separate user researcher, etc. And as we know from history, greater numbers lead to specialization. Specialization in most cases is linked with greater efficiency and productivity. So with that said, what do we do with these “product designer generalists”?

Jon Kolko has written about the designer becoming the product owner as well as the designer becoming the product manager, which fits into the concept of a product designer very well. My own product manager has expressed an idea of a “product pod”: a product manager, designer, development leader, and the customer / product owner, being the most productive unit for a product / project. These people shape the vision and where it’s going, serving as the nucleus for the organism we call a product. While this sounds great in theory, when do we ask for help? 3-4 people cannot carry the burden of a whole product. Not only is there the possibility of burning out the individuals, but also of product / project risk that what you’re trying to do is not completed or severely delayed. This is where I believe a company has to step in and recognize the value of the “product pod” and support it. If the company cannot recognize that the “pod” needs something integral to their success (also there is a large assumption here that the pod is cohesive and intelligent), the product / project will fail. Without the resources to tackle what they need, it will be hard to be able to show added value to the customer and continue building. A combination of generalists and specific roles (or producers) seems necessary here.

So the question comes down to: will companies hire product designers / generalists that could shepherd the product and the vision AND different kinds of designers in their niche to execute? This is part of the reason why I believe agencies and consultancies will never go away. While ideally we would have designers “on the bench” in-house to do things as they come up, we end up just outsourcing design work for specific instances and employing our in-house designers for projects that require a specific skill and quick execution. This also applies to contract freelancers.

While there is a general belief that the number of agencies will decrease, they are merely getting acquired and becoming a part of larger institutions (Adaptive Path, Fjord, to name a few). Here it becomes crucial that we think about our own design team organization, especially with design systems and scalability. As a product designer taking the model of a solitary contributor, I’ve started creating “mini design systems” that apply for my product but also pull in elements from the larger design system. This is my personal grassroots method to govern my own creations as well as communicate my product language externally and document process for future designers. This is one of many methods I’m experimenting with in my toolkit as a product designer. But what are useful methods for product designers in the transition from project to product?

As the role of a product designer evolves in the next couple years, we might figure out the answers to these questions quite easily (probably not but hey one can hope). There are always growing pains to figuring out (and possibly carving out) a new space in design.

The opinions expressed in this post are my own and  do not reflect the views of my employer.

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