What is Product Design?

Recently we took a decision at Redgate to move all of the UX Designers in our Product Division over to the title of ‘Product Designer’. This change was both to explicitly recognise the strategic aspects of the role (designing the value set of the product and the experience that follows, not just the interface), and to better position our design roles in a crowded and often misaligned job market.

An initial experiment

At the end of April, we went live with a revised job description for a ‘Product Designer’ that would replace our then live User Experience Designer advert. We were looking to initially run this as an experiment to see:

  • Whether this resonated better with the designer job market
  • If it would attract a new, potential pool of candidates as a result
  • If it would improve the fit of candidates applying for design roles in Product

Whilst we didn’t see any immediate, noticeable uplift in the pipeline, we were able to hire two strong candidates who we felt were a better fit for the revised job description. This supported our assumptions that:

  1. We could find more suitable candidates, who were a better fit for our definition of the design role if we positioned the role as ‘Product Design’ and aligned with the industry.
  2. We could find more suitable candidates, who were a better fit for our definition of the design role if we explicitly set a broader, more strategic definition of the responsibilities.

It’s clear that that the market is still in a state of flux, and there can be very different definitions and expectations of design roles from one industry to another. However, we felt our revised definition gave us a clearer understanding of what to expect from successful candidates, and seemed to align well with how other product companies are making this distinction.

Why do we need to change?

Taking a step back for a minute, it’s important to understand a little about the key triggers for change. Why have we seen the need for the role to evolve, and, as a result, why have we now decided to update the description and job title?

1. Need for better market alignment and positioning of our design roles

As above, the current job market for design roles is quite fragmented, and we’ve seen this over the last couple of years with a proliferation of candidates working in what they would describe as UX/UI roles who unfortunately weren’t a good fit for Redgate. Typically these folks come from industries where the focus (and therefore the perceived value of design) was more about creating the outputs of design (artefacts) rather than applying design tools to solve problems (outcomes). We believe that ‘Product Design’ is a more fitting description of design at Redgate and better aligns with a market of designers who see themselves first and foremost as problem-solvers and product-thinkers.

2. Opportunity to help the business find and articulate new, valuable opportunities

I’ve written previously about the value of research in helping teams make great product decisions, but this goes well beyond unblocking the teams with momentary tactical decisions (how best should we implement this workflow?). There’s a growing expectation that designers should be more instrumental in using generative research methods and Design Thinking to help discover and validate new product opportunities (should we pursue opportunity x over opportunity y?). Designers should act as the custodians of users’ needs, and they’re well placed to help Product Managers identify gaps between those needs (new, unmet, or underserved) and our current portfolio of products.

3. Design has a big role to play in bridging product strategy and product design

Like many of the big product companies (Facebook, Google, Spotify, Atlassian etc.), we now recognise the role of ‘Product Designer’ as a more fitting representation of someone who works on the design of digital products. At many of these companies, the scope of Product Design is not just to design the products’ interface and shape the resulting experience, but also to work further up the Product Market Fit Pyramid (see illustration) and play an invaluable role in connecting customers’ underserved needs to the corresponding value set of the product (AKA its value proposition). Again, a designer with product experience will recognise this as a critical part of the design process and pivotal to defining what features to include or remove.

4. Honeycomb and democratisation of design execution shift the relative value of design

In a future where systems like Honeycomb (our design system) and our Design Playbook commoditise some of the more detailed, day-to-day design decisions, we can plausibly see a shift in the perceived value of design from ‘I need help with how to design this control’ to ‘I need help with understanding what is going to add most value for our customers’. While there will always be a need to guide and direct implementation (a strategy is only ever as good as our ability to execute), we believe design can be better utilised to serve some of the bigger growth opportunities for Redgate over the coming years.

So what’s changing…or not?

Traditionally, the role of design at Redgate has been more commonly associated with design execution; that is, designing the workflows, interactions and detailed visual assets that we test, iterate and ship to customers. This is more often than not what people think about when asked to describe the role of design.

Thinking about all aspects of the desired product experience is still a big part of the role of a Product Designer at Redgate. We continue to recognise that the quality and simplicity of the workflows we design and interfaces we create is core to the role of design, and something that differentiates us from many of our competitors.

However, we also recognise the value of broader research and Design Thinking as a means to discover and explore new opportunities and ideas. Where we see the tools of design, combined with a collaborative and creative mindset, helping the business to envisage and validate new propositions, services and experiences.

With that in mind, we’re setting the expectation with some of our designers that a percentage of their time will be spent each quarter working closely with Product Managers, conducting more generative research, developing key artefacts for analysis and evaluating prospective opportunities. This will see the Product Manager remain ultimately responsible for the product strategy, but over time we expect the designers to have increasing input.

This assumes (as above) that there are both strategic (why) and tactical (how) responsibilities associated with the role of design, where the job of the designer should be both to help the team decide what to build next (right problems) and how best to execute (right solutions). Or in other words, moving routinely between a 1000ft to a 10ft view of any given problem, pushing Design beyond execution and optimisation and into finding new value!

Designing for the future

To be clear, the goal here is not for everyone to be a research or strategy specialist, nor is it to turn our designers into Product Owners. We’ll continue to hire for problem-solving, creativity and craft foremost, however, we also want to develop our design capability to support the future needs of the company.

As described above, a great Product Designer should always have one foot in the ‘what now’ and the other in the ‘what next’. To support this approach, we have to be more intentional about the skills we hire for and how we develop and grow future iterations of our design capability.

However, we’ll also still need to recognise that the career paths of some designers may better align with execution and craft, whilst others are looking to grow through impact and influence, requiring a broader set of research skills and the ability to think and operate more strategically. We believe there’s a need for both, and for those who have the desire and ambition, we want to support and nurture their development along these ‘design as craft’ and ‘design as strategy’ tracks.

If you’d like to learn more about our approach to to design, please do get in touch, or if you are looking for a new opportunity, take a look at the Product Designer job description on our careers pages.