Product Design Skills

In plain English

I was in a job interview the other day. Near the end it dawned on me that I’ve never been in a job interview. 34 years old and a designer for almost 13 years. Not one job interview.

My college placed me into my first “official” job. Then I was self-employed. Then a client’s company was acquired and convinced me to join. Nobody has ever needed to interview me.

There’s a first time for everything, I guess.

So there I was, sitting in my first interview, nodding and smiling while talking about experience design. Then, out of nowhere, the interviewer used the phrase “look and feel” as a way to measure the results of experience design.

Whoa! Hold on. That doesn’t sound right. Are we talking about the same thing?

After a few minutes of trying to unpack what each of us meant, it was clear we had wildly different definitions of experience design — enough to make me incompatible to their team. I can’t really say that either one of us was right or wrong, only that we had adopted several perspectives and bundled them under the term experience design in surprisingly different ways.

Ugh. Words are hard.

They’re even harder when we have conflicting definitions for them. That’s why I think it’s a good idea to take a step back and define a few common terms that get thrown around in product design, and what kind of paid professional is best equipped to address them.

In short, I’d like to get specific about the fundamental skills involved in product design, a few brief examples of the type of work that can be done for each skill, and how they’re mapped to common product design roles.

The fundamental skills

It’s unreasonable to expect an individual to be strong in all the skills of product design — that’s what a team is for. Also, you don’t need the word designer in your title to participate in any of these skills. As long as you have some kind of coverage for each skill, no matter where it comes from, you should be in good shape.

Fundamental skills of product design

How people relate to your product

How something looks and feels can mean a lot to a customer or potential customer. First impressions are a big deal. The second, third, and millionth impressions are also a big deal. This is where you can make someone feel good about what they’re doing, or are considering doing in the future.

Are you inviting, or intimidating? Are you encouraging, or pressuring? How you present yourself visually (aesthetic) and how you respond or entertain dialog (personality) can be the difference between simply getting the job done, and being enjoyable to work with.

Aesthetic

Aesthetics is everything people can look at and potentially draw a conclusion. Does it look sloppy, hip, fun, generic, professional? This is probably the most subjective part of designing a product.

What does “professional” look like aesthetically? It’s hard to say. Although there are many ways to tackle this problem and remove, little by little, much of the subjectivity. You may never get all the way to objective, but you can always get closer.

To flesh out what “professional” might mean for your product, choose a few concepts and their opposites to place on spectrum. Calm to lively, clean to gritty, subtle to flashy. Once you have a few relevant spectrums ask everyone on the team where they think the product currently lies on each spectrum. Then, ask them where they think it should be on each spectrum. The space between each person’s answers and the space between different people’s answers can surface a lot of potential confusion about the visual design of your product and where it needs to go next.

A spectrum chart is a tool that can reveal a lot about the aesthetic desires and expectations of your team. There are many, many more tools. A designer with aesthetic skills should have an overflowing toolbox to help them not only make the product look good, but also surface and expose the reasons why it looks the way that it looks.

Personality

Personality is all of the ways your product can respond to a person in a way that engenders humanity. A good shortcut is to think about how Harley Davidson plays the part of an outlaw. Once the outlaw theme is chosen, it’s easy to compare everything your product says and does to that imaginary character.

What would an outlaw say in this situation? What would an outlaw do?

As you get better and better at playing the part of an outlaw, it will be easier and easier for people to identify who you are and what makes you special.

Some blowhards might call this a “brand”. ☺

Don’t know where to start? You can dig into Jungian archetypes on Wikipedia, read The Hero and the Outlaw and take a lot of notes, or explore the differences of your favorite characters in Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or any other team oriented story — they’re all based on groups of specific archetypes. Frodo Baggins is the Innocent and Peregrin Took is the Jester. Hans Solo is the Outlaw and Yoda is the Sage.

Which archetype or character best suits your product? Why?

Finding an archetype isn’t really the point, it’s just a tool to help you find an interesting place to start. The real goal is to eventually document all the things that makes you, you. Then you can have a discussion about the personality of your product armed with unbiased, goal-oriented reasons.

Just like aesthetics, it’s not about the having the “right” answer. It’s about surfacing and exposing the reasons why you’re making the decisions you’re making. A designer with good personality skills should not only be able to make the product more likable, but also surface and expose the reasons why it acts the way it acts.

How people use your product

Interface design, interaction design, and experience design bring a hot mess of jargon to designing products. Before attempting to explain the differences between these types of design, here’s a dysfunctional story that tends to play out in product teams.

As a team, we mistakenly assume that everyone understands what’s going on. It feels good to talk about interface, interaction, and experience design as related, but different skills. Although we never explicitly say what the differences are. Maybe we’re scared of offending each other by asking to define something as seemingly basic as interface design.

Sure... That seems nice.

Although, when it’s time to get to work, they often blend into each other so much it’s hard to tell where one ends and another begins.

Wait… What?

By the time you realize how everyone is defining these skills, it’s too late to untangle the mess. Too many promises have been made. Too many people are relying on too many things.

The work you thought was going to happen isn’t happening.

This sucks. It can destroy the moral of the team. Especially the designers.

So… To draw some hard lines for these skills, I like to think of them as scopes of work. How big is the problem you’re trying to solve?

Interface

If a problem or opportunity can be resolved within a single interface, then you’re doing interface work.

Even if you notice similar patterns on different pages, and choose to consolidate how they’re designed, you’re still doing interface design. An interface designer can have a huge influence on the entire product as design patterns are identified and adopted. Although, they are still typically single interface problems.

Interaction

When a problem or opportunity takes a few steps to solve, then you’re getting into interaction work.

Each interface needs to be designed with the past in mind. Where did they come from? They also need to be designed with the future in mind. Where are they going next? So with each interface being designed, there are potentially multiple interfaces influencing and constraining the design.

Experience

When a problem or opportunity requires several completed objectives to be resolved, then you’re getting into experience design.

For example, a person using your product might ask:

How are my social media efforts contributing to my business?

To accomplish this, they might have to:

  • Publish an article on a content management system
  • Publish a few comments on various social media properties linking to the published article
  • Build a traffic report for your article from social media properties
  • Build a lead conversion report for the published article

What makes this intangible, possibly inspiring the jargon of “experience” design, is that there may not be anywhere in the product that specifically asks or answers that larger question. It could be a question entirely in the person’s mind, and answered through an aggregate of efforts within your product. Possibly, even with the help of other products.

Ideally, you would root out these bigger problems and opportunities. Then design specifically to resolve them within your product. Although, that might end up becoming a completely different product.

What people need from your product

What your audience needs to be productive and what your company needs to be profitable are completely different problems. You can make exactly what your audience needs and still fail miserably if you can’t do it in way that can support the costs of the company.

It sounds obvious. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to do.

Most companies fail.

Audience context

You might think someone is going to a movie theatre for a bit of entertainment, when it’s really an excuse to avoid doing their chores. Figuring out why someone is using your product is tricky. A lot trickier than you might think.

A great Jobs-to-be-done tool is a forces diagram. What are the forces encouraging someone to change their behavior? What are the forces preventing someone from changing their behavior?

Jobs-to-be-done forces diagram

To use buying a couch as an example, maybe the person had a desire for a more comfortable couch (the pull). Although, since they didn’t use it much, comfort wasn’t a strong enough influence to buy. Going to the store and transporting the couch on a Saturday, typically a day to relax (the habit), might be enough to delay the purchase. Also, if the couch is a different size, they might be worried about how to arrange the room once they get it (the anxiety). These forces continue to prevent the purchase. Eventually a family member comes to visit (the push) and makes the trip to the store and rearranging the room worth the effort.

In this example, making the couch easier to transport (free delivery?) or easier to imagine in the room (same size as their current couch?) could have sped up the purchase by several months.

Investing in making the couch more comfortable would have been a waste of time. Unfortunately, that would probably be the assumption of most couch designers — to make it more comfortable. An easy mistake when comfort is the primary stated desire of the customers.

Sometimes the leverage you’re looking for isn’t in a convenient or intuitive place. Investigative skills are essential to build the necessary audience context. This is probably the most important “soft” skill of a product designer.

Business context

Until you create a product that can support itself financially, you’re not really designing a product. You’re tinkering. Asking someone to exchange something, like their time or money, for access to your product is when tinkering becomes designing.

Getting that exchange of value to work for both parties requires constant attention. Every action you take will change the context of the exchange. Opening up new opportunities and creating new weaknesses. Forever requiring you to adapt and revise.

Fortunately, there are only four primary points of leverage:

  • Increasing the value of the product to the customer
  • Increasing the time someone will remain a customer
  • Decreasing the cost of maintaining the product
  • Decreasing the cost of attracting people to the product

For example, imagine you’ve built a product people find extremely useful and will typically pay for over a long period of time once they’re comfortable. Then assume it’s a relatively cheap product to maintain. Under these circumstances there’s a good chance you’ll make a lot of money from anyone that becomes a customer. Unfortunately, it’s hard to convince people to try it and has become expensive to attract new customers. In this situation, rethinking parts of the product to be more self-explanatory will help people more easily see it’s value and be more likely to give it a try.

Customer acquisition cost (CAC)

As your product gets easier for people to understand and try, different problems and opportunities will show up. Maybe once an area of your product is easy enough to use and gains wider adoption, it’s clear to you customers that a feature is missing and they become frustrated enough to consider an alternative product. Now the amount of time people will remain a customer begins to slip. The dance never ends.

Product people with business skills know that at any given time one point of leverage will give a disproportionate return for their effort. Knowing which one, by how much, and for how long, will make the difference between rolling in money or closing up shop.

Some common product design roles

To put all these skills into perspective, here are some common product design related roles and how their skills apply. Not every novice starts from the same place or grows through experience into the same skills. Consider these useful stereotypes to discard after learning more about the individuals you are working with or considering hiring.

A novice “interface designer”

Can quickly make things look good, but might not be able to explain why. The look and feel of the their designs tend to be driven more by their tastes and inspirations than a strong product personality. They can efficiently solve problems from screen to screen, although might not grasp how to design for larger objectives. They’re typically reliant on their company or team leadership for strategic decisions about what to design.

Novice “interface designer”

An experienced “interface designer”

As an interface designer gets more and more productive, they tend to start developing opinions about the personality of the product and the needs of the user. Methods to evaluate those opinions are critical to their continued growth (using the product, user testing, user research, etc.).

Experienced “interface designer”

A novice “product manager”

Can quickly identify problems and opportunities for their business, but may not have a strong grasp of what the audience needs to be successful. They have a good sense of what their audience is doing outside their product to satisfy higher order goals, but can’t design the interfaces or interactions to satisfy those goals. Excellent communication skills are required to translate their external awareness into something their team can design.

Novice “product manager”

An experienced “product manager”

As a product manager gets more effective, they lean heavily into learning what will make their audience more successful. Along they way, they also tend to develop a sense of how the product should treat their audience.

Experienced “product manager”

A novice “experience designer”

Typically has some kind of HCI (human-computer interaction) background that makes them talented researchers and observers of human activity. They can quickly figure out what people are trying to do. Although, they may not be able to create interesting or appealing interfaces or interactions. They’re also reliant on guidance for what is beneficial to the business.

Novice “experience designer”

An experienced “experience designer”

As an experience designer gains experience (I really hate this jargon) they get significantly better at identifying and framing up more discreet flows that contribute to larger goals. They also start seeing patterns in how the product should respond to the audience.

Experienced “experience designer” (I’m sorry)

What do you think?

It’s odd that a job interview ended up being the first time I’ve ever attempted to explain the guts of my job. But now that I’ve been through a few more interviews, each one as clumsy as the first, I thought it might help to clear a few of these things up.

Of course, if you think I’m missing anything or you disagree, please leave a comment. Hearing other points of view is the best part of my job. ☺


Thank you Rian, Christine, Josh, Sam, and Beth for the awesome feedback.