How to talk like a Product Designer

Talking like a designer to the Fitstar team during a five day design sprint

As of today, I’ve individually taught 24 students Product Design
It’s been a diverse group…

  • 77% are minorities
  • 71% are new to doing Product Design

… but one thing they all have in common is wanting to learn how to fit in.

Why is it that even though I’m doing Product Design work, I don’t feel like a designer?

Some of that is just time.

It takes time to feel like you’re part of a community. It takes time to decipher a community’s rituals, understand their heroes and history. But, there are some shortcuts to understanding and participating in a community.

Because doing Product Design work is sometimes talking, “talking the talk” is part of walking the walk.

It’s helpful to speak the language to fit in and do great Product Design.

Memorizing buzzwords can only take you so far and “imposter syndrome” can strike at any time. There are three ways that I encourage my students to actively grow in their ability and confidence to communicate as a designer.

Some have used these experiences to leverage a better job, others just love how much more confident they feel in their current role. Most of them find that “talking the talk” helps them grow as a designer, design leader, mentor, and student.

Practice Critique

If you want to talk like a designer, start by listening to other designers.

Giving and receiving constructive criticism is the best training ground for talking the talk. The more feedback you get, the more you can absorb the language of people who are better at design than you are.

You shouldn’t absorb every designer’s talk.

For example, I once worked with a designer at Google who would talk trash about other designers, not ask for help from his team, and get mad when his Product Manager wouldn’t approve his work.

I also worked with a designer who spoke clearly and with humility, and always had an explanation for why his design solution was the best possible path based on the research from the team. Both of them are designers, and both of them talked like designers.

In this case, acting like a hard-headed (but talented) designer will not make you a better designer. One of the qualities of a great designer is humility. So, my advice is spend time with designers that you want to be like. Even at Google there were a lot of designer I didn’t want to be like, so finding the right people isn’t always easy. If you’re at a smaller company, it may mean finding a product manager or an engineer with a knack for design to get feedback from. Try to be be in the room, absorb the conversation, and emulate the best design thinkers on your team.

There are a lot of great resources on how to give a good critique, but one thing that’s always stood out to me is how a great designer sets the context for what type of feedback they are looking for.

For example, when presenting work you should explain the goal, the context and what type of feedback you’re looking for. Are you looking for usability or usefulness feedback?.

  • Usefulness is higher-level feedback to see if you solved the problem
  • Usability is detailed feedback on UI and layout

You might say…

I’m looking mostly for feedback on the “usefulness” of these ideas. Do you think this idea will be useful for our users? Do you think it solves their business problems well? Second priority is usability feedback. Speak aloud and tell me anything that’s on your mind when you look at these.

Experienced designers clearly articulate how the thing they designed fits into the bigger picture, and know what kind of feedback they’re looking for.

Extend your design-talk confidence by finding people you look up to, asking for critique from them, and practicing yourself by critiquing others.

Memorize design vocabulary

Like any language, there’s a set of vocabulary words that are helpful to know.

One of my students had great design chops and worked hard to understand the big picture, but she kept referring to various elements and views in her projects as “the slidey thing over there” and “the little box that pops up.” 😂

When she got an interview at Facebook, they told her there would be an app critique challenge. 😳 Agh! She didn’t feel confident going into that interview because she didn’t know the name for many UI elements. For example, that “little triangle that opens up more options” ? It’s actually called a “disclosure indicator” also called a “chevron.”

iOS UI elements to memorize

In this case, there’s no shortcut to just sitting down and memorizing facts, so that’s exactly what she did. Going page by page through Google’s Material Design Guidelines and Apple’s User Interface Guidelines, she filled in the vocabulary holes for herself through notes and sketches. She went back to her old projects and practiced explaining the different elements with her newly learned terms. She also brushed up on general design terms, like hierarchy, padding, contrast, etc.

BTW — I’m happy to report that she aced her design critique interview, and went to the final round for a Product Design job at Facebook 🍻

Understand the Why

While vocabulary is important, you’re just a talking head without a solid understanding of the why. The why sets you apart from other designers.

Why are you following that particular process, and why did you produce that deliverable instead of a different one?

Knowing how to make a prototype isn’t enough.

You have to understand what they’re good for, how to use them, and how they fit into the bigger picture of your design challenge. Without that, you’re just following orders, and unfortunately there aren’t strict orders for design. It’s an iterative process that needs to constantly adapt. This is why a big part of my product design class focuses on the real-life context surrounding your deliverables. If I’m encouraging my students to get out and talk to real users (which is uncomfortable and hard) they know their efforts will translate into writing fantastic user stories, which succinctly capture the user’s problem, which dovetail beautifully into sketching solutions for those eloquently stated problems. Each step guides their direct next step in the design process. Their portfolio and presentations of their work is 10x stronger because they aren’t blindly following a process, but confidently taking the next step they know is necessary.

Also, if you understand the why, conversations with non-designers will be MUCH easier. Think about your boss or project manager or client. They don’t spend all day tossing around design terms and deliberating the best experience for a particular view of an app. The better you are at drawing them into your story in plain language, the better they’ll be able to give you the greenlight to keep going.

I got to where I am today by doing the three things I just told you.

  1. Practicing critique
  2. Memorizing design vocabulary
  3. Understanding the why

But here’s a secret — as an experienced designer, I don’t explicitly try to talk like a designer anymore.

I try to talk like a normal person that can clearly and confidently explain why I did the things I did, and be open to the input of other people that are smarter than me. To get there takes time and practice, but these three steps should set you on your way. If you start there, I think you’ll find yourself confidently filling the role of product designer sooner than you thought.


Xander facilitates a 30-day online Product Design apprenticeship based on the Google Ventures process at http://www.productdesignpro.com. Before that he was a designer on Inbox by Gmail at Google.