Why you should think twice about taking that “Product Designer” role, by Ross Fretten

I would usually start an article like this by establishing a base, common knowledge between you and I; in this case by defining product design. It’s the point of this article though, that the discipline of product design lacks clear definition, so I’m going to skip that part and instead dive straight into what the Product Designer role can be, what it should be, what it shouldn’t be and what you — as a junior or mid-weight designer (be that visual, user experience, interaction or similar) need to be careful of.

The many worlds interpretation

When you’re looking at a Product Design role, be that at an agency, a startup or wherever else, if you pay attention during the interview process and ask the right questions about the role and what it means at that company, you’ll probably notice everybody has a different answer, even sometimes two people at the same company.

This is a result of “Product Design” being a largely ambiguous, umbrella term to cover a host of disciplines from visual design, user experience, interaction design and in some places even front-end code. I suspect this has come out of the necessity of start-ups to hybridise roles, asking one person to wear multiple hats in an effort to keep headcount and therefore costs low and to a point this is sensible, pragmatic thinking but is also something to be very careful of as a junior or mid-weight designer looking at a Product Designer role. It’s incredibly important to get the answers you need in order to understand what you’re committing to not just in terms of deliverables and outputs but your future as a practitioner.

Getting the answers you need

My advice is not to be shy about asking fundamental questions such as “can you define Product Design as you see it?” and “would you say your product design team are more executional or strategic?” and never shy away from asking “what do you guys see as the difference between product design and user experience design?”. An alarming amount of the time, your interviewer won’t be able to answer many or any of those questions convincingly.

Companies not understanding the roles they’re recruiting for is, of course, nothing new — just ask any user experience designer- but my point is that these questions will often lead to discussions that will provide you with some clarity around an otherwise vague job title that’s more often than not accompanied by an equally vague job spec.

Where are you on the spectrum?

Ultimately what you’re trying to ascertain is where on the spectrum between executional (visual design, interaction design, front-end code etc.) and strategic (service design, experience design, research etc.) does “Product Design” sit at that particular company and whether or not that correlates to where you see yourself, your passion and how you want to develop your skills. More often than not, at least in my observations, the generalist title of “Product Designer” means “visual design but you should know a little about usability and interaction design too” but “Product Designer” sounds far sexier whilst allowing start-ups to think they have more facets of the design process covered. Unfortunately this allows companies to remain ignorant whilst encouraging visual designers to profess to be experts in what they are not and to demand a higher, user experience-esque salary too.

In truth, even before the nomenclature of Product Design became trendy, there was an exponential issue in the industry of visual designers trying to pass as user experience designers and getting away with it. The Product Designer role has only exacerbated this by providing a veil of ambiguity behind which these practitioners can obscure and obfuscate their abilities. Simultaneously, it only serves to make it harder for young designers to focus their thinking in an effort to develop a deeper, more meaningful understanding of a specific facet of the design process as they’re often expected to flip-flop across many roles, wearing many different hats. This may be useful for a short period if you’re undecided which area you’d like to specialise in as it gives you free reign to explore, but I think more often than not it just creates a sense of confusion and a lack of direction.

Generalists versus specialists

So why am I happy to (sometimes) call myself a Product Designer and why am I happy to hire designers into a Product Designer role? Well it’s an accessible and easy term to brand yourself with. People just know what a “Product Designer” does, even if their understanding lacks nuance. As a result, it’s easy in a company to bring everybody up to a base level of understanding about what the department does — much easier than if some of the team were called user experience architects (which in my experience immediately causes people to glaze over) and others visual designers. Also, having a general title means that team can be made up of a diverse set of practitioners — some generalists and others specialists in various areas- whilst retaining a sense of unity.

A mix of generalists and specialists is important, especially at a smaller company where agility and flexibility are critical as one sprint might be particularly visual design heavy and the next user experience design heavy with no visual design requirement. Having generalists means the team can easily adapt to the workload, which would be difficult with a team of specialists. Specialists, on the other hand provide a level of expertise that generalists can rarely achieve so typically provide more robust and innovative solutions but aren’t great at being team players in a workstream of flux, often because they don’t have the broad base skills to be.

What I think is key is having a team lead/director who understands where each team member sits on the executional to strategic spectrum and where each member wants to be in one year and three years — whether that be developing familiarity with what would traditionally be called user experience methodology, art direction, interaction design or whatever else.

This is so important because there is an expectation of practitioners when they reach senior or lead level to have a T or M shaped skill-set. By that, I mean you have this umbrella set of reasonably developed skills and then you have one or two areas of expertise where you strive to have a deeply intense understanding. For example, you may be an expert in user experience design and your broad, light skills might be front end code, visual design and motion graphics. Pairing off generalists and specialists can be a good way of providing balance in a team and helping each develop their T and/or M shaped skill-set — the generalist will take a deeper understanding of the specialists’ expertise and the specialist will be able to experience thinking outside of his or her areas of focus by sitting and working closely with a generalist, which is always a good thing.

What you don’t want to do is spend three to five years at a company only to come out with a very loose umbrella skill-set and no areas of expertise. This would make you less valuable to a future employer and likely feel less fulfilled as a human.

So should you take it?

If you’re considering taking a role as a product designer, I urge you to consider the following;

It isn’t a role, it’s a term to describe myriad roles. Ask the right questions, work out which role or roles the company is actually interviewing for and be clear in your own head what you want to be doing in that role before you even go in for the first interview. Do you want to work as a generalist so that you can gather a base understanding of a broad cross section of the design process and hopefully discover a passion that you can turn into an area of expertise, or do you already have a specific passion you wish to develop but are equally excited by the idea of exposing yourself to new parts of the design process? Either way, is what you want actually being offered as part of this role? If the company only want generalists and your long term plan is to be a master of user experience, then it’s probably not the job for you. What are the learning opportunities in the role? Will you be buddied up with somebody from a different background, whether that’s a generalist with a specialist or two specialists with different perspectives and experiences? How will your performance be reviewed and is there a budget for you to get books and attend conferences? What about a 20% clause stating you have one day a week for personal development and passion projects so that you have room to develop your expertise and be curious?

When you’re young and fresh, the product of you is incredibly maleable to both your environment and the influential people in your life so I implore you to write your own, ideal job spec before you attend any interviews. Have a rough idea of what you want to achieve in your first year and where you want to be in three years. Then when you go to your interviews tick those boxes on your own spec, ask the interviewer as many questions as they ask you and when you come out of an interview or interviews with enough of those boxes on your ideal job spec ticked off, you might have just found the Product Design role that’s right for you.

If you found this helpful please do share with other designers. If you’d like any advice or have any questions you think I might be able to help with please feel free to ask.

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