Are You a Real Product Designer?

The ignored, unglamorous, & difficult fundamentals.


Do You Personally Talk to Users?

Nothing will improve your designs more than talking to real people about their problems and watching them use your product.

Talking to users is a simple thing — but it’s arguably the most important design skill you can practice. Not pixels. Not code. Talking to humans.

You might have a UX researcher who is better at this, but why put a layer of abstraction between you and the people you’re trying to empathize with?

Product designers talk to their users. Mastery of product design is mastery of understanding people and learning why they do what they do.

Do You Write Microcopy?

The words you put on a screen could be the most important design decisions you make.

Have you ever heard of a microcopy change causing a tenfold jump in a key metric? You should have, because it happens every day. Microcopy is the tool of choice for designers who want to make meaningful improvements to their products and metrics.

Not layouts. Not icons. Simple words.

Outsourcing writing is the same as outsourcing the product design itself. Using “lorem ipsum” postpones the product design itself.

Product designers write microcopy. Mastery of product design is mastery of interface affordances — which is mastery of in-app communication. That is mastery of microcopy.

Do You Code? Or Work With Devs on Production Code?

A huge number of product-design decisions are made in-code.

Exposing edge cases. Exposing error and empty states. Designing around performance issues and technical constraints. Fine-tuning with live data. Testing on real devices.

All of these usually involve hundreds of tiny decisions that greatly impact the final experience.

Any designer can make a pretty mock-up, add some annotations, save as a PDF, and send to a developer. Handing-off, at this stage, is handing-off part of the product design itself.

Product designers work with code and/or developers. Mastery of product design is mastery of the intersection between design ideas and real-world technical implementation.

Do You Measure Metrics?

Pick an important number. Theorize about how to affect it. Design and code your theories. Measure the results. Repeat. This is product design.

Metrics serve to focus design projects and thinking. For any given product, you should know:

Which numbers matter most? What is the meaningful vs. vanity expression of these numbers? Which ones are leading vs. lagging? What is the best tool for capturing and manipulating these figures? What are the trends?

Any designer can ship a feature and assume they did a great job.

Ignoring metrics is ignoring accountability for your designs, the goals of your product, and the success of your users.

Product designers measure metrics. Mastery of product design is mastery of metrics — and affecting them via your design decisions.

Does Your Portfolio Show Interaction?

You’re designing interaction. Your portfolio should show interaction.

Not a 3D mock-up. Not an After Effects rendering. A live app/site, a video, or even a gif.

Any designer can make a pretty, static mock-up and put it on a webpage.

It’s hard to do everything listed above. It’s hard to actually ship something that delivers an elegant, meaningful and complete experience.

Product designers’ portfolios show interaction. Mastery of product design is mastery of the entire process — problem through production. Your portfolio should stand as proof that you’ve done it all.

Putting It Together

You need to talk to people, so you can understand which words to put into the interface, so you can code up the right thing, so you can affect the right metrics, so your portfolio is full of meaningful interaction.

These are the fundamentals of product design.


Why I Wrote This

I’m a product designer. I’ve personally been discovering where I’m strong and where I’m weak — and striving to become better at these fundamentals. I do all of the above. I’m weakest on the code part.

I’ve also been interviewing many product designers. You would be amazed how many competent, senior, successful candidates are missing one or several of these skills.

Sure, I know there’s more to product design than this, but these are the often-ignored, unglamorous, and difficult basics that truly make products successful.

Can you ignore these skills and still be a real product designer?

Sure — but I think it’s best to focus on the fundamentals.


Shout-out to James Clear for inspiration related to fundamentals.

Shout-out to United Visual Artists for being amazing.