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Lecture 1: What is Product Design?

Andrew Aquino
Feb 26, 2016 · 10 min read

This post is a summarized transcript from Intro to Digital Product Design course hosted by CUAppDev at Cornell University. The course is a 1 credit S/U and runs on Mondays 5:30PM to 6:30PM in Phillips 203.

What is Good Design?

Craigslist is famous for its aesthetic, which seems aged compared to today’s Flat UI and large hero images. But, that brings up the question:

Is Craigslist good design?

Many are quick to say that Craigslist’s design is old and cluttered, and therefore a bad design. However, what metrics can prove that? Craigslist reels in 50 billion page views a month.

Despite what may be intuition, Craigslist works — it actually works well. Most users have little trouble finding specific categories and performing actions like selling and buying.

There is a difference between good user interfaces and good user experience. Craigslist has a dated user interface, but it most importantly has great user experience. This is why Craigslist can be considered good design.

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So, what actually is product design?

Product Design is about problem solving, and product designers seek to improve the experiences of products. And, they do so by using a variety of skills: Animating, Prototyping, Coding, Research, Visual, Interaction Design, Psychology, and Business Strategy (Eric Eriksson).

“ If you look at your Product Designer as someone that makes your solution look presentable, look again. A product designer helps you identify, investigate, and validate the problem, and ultimately craft, design, test and ship the solution.” — Eric Eriksson

Here are four examples to show you just a taste of what product designers do:

Product Designers explore solutions.

The Slack interface you see could be totally different. A designer should never commit to one idea from a client or a manager, but should explore various alternatives to solve a single problem.

Product Designers validate solutions.

Quirky clothing brand, Betabrand, wanted to test a question: Do length of beards affect the click-through rates of advertisements.

They proceeded to test various ads using the same model with beards ranging from short to really large. What did they find? Their analytics found that the ad’s clickthrough rate improved almost double with the largest beard.

Product Designers discover the real issue.

Whether it was for disliking obnoxious political posts, showing disapproval at WorldStar videos, or showing sadness at catastrophes, everyone wanted a dislike button. However, can you imagine being afraid to post content because someone might dislike it? A dislike would have caused more problems than solutions; it would have made Facebook a place more susceptible to negativity.

Designers discovered that the real issue was not the lack of a dislike button, but the idea that not everything in life is likable, hence: Facebook Reactions.

Product Designers do what is essential.

Design is not always minimal. Google added an extra step to the sign-in process. Google did this to remove confusion for users who use multiple accounts and to prepare for new authentication solutions. While the solution arguably makes a simple task more complex, it was within their business constraint and user goals. This solution is not minimal, but rather essential.

What makes good product design?

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This is a paraphrased diagram from Jesse James Garrett, writer of the Elements of User Experience. Image creator is unknown (If anyone knows, please ping me).

Design does not only deal with visual design, but instead deals with several layers that contribute to user experience. These layers of design can be approached through a design process.

From the process, some considerations will include: strategically approaching how one actually addresses a user, scoping what content needs to be presented, and mapping out steps a user takes to achieve a goal.

“But, I just want to make things look good.”

This is a common sentiment. However, these short-sighted goals can harm even the best, most innovative, ideas because…

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A good aesthetic design cannot make up for a bad product. If you ask a designer to just make their product look nice, you’re making a mistake. How do you know if your product is actually solving a problem?

There needs to be some validation to design decisions whether it is made by a designer, a developer, or a product manager. Someone has to think about the overall product from a human-first standpoint.

Process comes from empathy

Empathy is your care for your users. You, as the designer, must want to provide the best experience possible. You do this through a design process that fundamentally teaches you to leave no stone unturned when designing a product. (Jared Erondu)

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Course Overview

What you will learn?

  1. How to identify problems.
  2. How to explore solutions.
  3. & How to validate them.
  4. How to design visually.
  5. How to present designs.

There will be no official syllabus. The course is designed to be fluid depending on the class’ progress.

How will you learn?

Class Structure

This lecture is more traditional, but classes in general may consist of small critiques, tool demonstrations, project walkthroughs, etc.


  1. Come to class: You will are permitted 2 unexcused absences.
  2. Hand in your assignments on time.

Class Project

You pick a problem. You discover a solution. You deliver it as a case study. Example:

  • Each post-assignment contributes to this class project.

You must submit both to the Facebook Group.

  1. Post Assignments: These assignments can vary. They will always be due the Sunday before the next class.
  2. Weekly UI (Optional) : These are a spin-off of DailyUI. The goal of weekly UI is to practice visual design without constraints.
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Nike Cards by Ranjith Alingal

Yes, WeeklyUI’s are optional. However, the only way to improve visual design is to practice.

“It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.” — Ira Glass

Course Tools

Piazza for logistics and questions. Lecture slides will be posted to Piazza as well.

Facebook Group for your post-assignments, peer/facilitator feedback, and extra resources. We decided to use Facebook Group because sharing your work in public is important.

Medium for lecture transcripts will be in a Medium collection.

Extended Resources

Office Hours are Wednesday 11:00–12:00PM, Wednesday 1:30PM-2:30PM, Friday 10:00PM-11:00PM

1-on-1s will be scheduled to talk to you about progress

Lunches will be Mondays 12:00 to 1:00PM. These are for anything: feedback, advice, etc.

What you need (Choose one or more of the following)

  • Photoshop (20$/month for Adobe CC)
  • Illustrator (20$/month for Adobe CC)
  • Sketch (40$ for student discount)
  • Other design programs that you can use.

What is in it for you?

Experience You will leave with a comprehensive product case study, familiarity with design tools. But, you will also be able to communicate product decisions with product managers, designers, clients, and other stakeholders more easily.

Product Design Thinking can translate anywhere beyond digital products. For example, product design can be as physical as the layout of the keyboard or as policy-related as organizing a classroom. Overall, this framework can help you validate any decisions you have to make.

What is in it for us?

I’m sure you have heard people say: “I learned everything I know from the workplace.” and “I don’t use anything I learned from school”. While the argument is that an education’s purpose is for maximum exposure instead of applied skills, we begged to differ in regards to design.

Cornell is not meeting the demand for design opportunities. That is because education lags behind industry. It will probably be a while until you see a complete course on iOS development, content marketing, front-end frameworks, etc.

As a result, there are students who are pushed into fields because specific passions cannot be fulfilled formally with credit hours. For us, there are designers who end up pursuing other majors because the “Product Designer” is unknown to them. This was the problem.

Therefore, our solution was to fill an important gap in something that we are passionate about: design.

What is in it for everyone?

The following is an adaption of Intro to Product Design by Stephanie Engle, who framed an excellent argument for understanding product design.

The lack of user-centered design of products affect people everyday; it leads to frustration and confusion to smaller and larger degrees.

However, at its worse design can kill. (Stephanie Engle).

“Jenny had died of toxicity and dehydration. All because her very seasoned nurses were preoccupied trying to figure out this interface.” — Jonathan Shariat

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Jonathan Shariat, Author of Tragic Design.

Despite the bad, design has an opportunity to spark innovation. Thinking like a designer, you can contribute in telling stories not only about how we exist, but also how we ought to exist.

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Mercedes-Benz designing a potentially social experience with the incoming self-driving cars.
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“But Nicole and Andrew — you aren’t teachers.”

And you’re right. We aren’t teachers. We don’t know what we’re doing. However, this course is an opportunity for all to learn something new. One a side note: anyone regardless of status has a right to share knowledge and experiences. SkillShare and Berkeley’s DeCal program are both real life examples that serve the greater good. Do not think of us as teachers, but instead as facilitators or content curators.

With that being said, we designed our classroom with the same framework you will learn in class. We identified several approaches, tested them for feedback, and solidified our best solution for having you learn product design.

In fact, several industry professionals from a16z Gen.D Mentorship program, BuzzFeed Product Design, and Facebook Product Design helped us in some shape or form to create this classroom and impart what they wished they learned about product design earlier.

Here are some people who helped us out creating this first lecture
Jared Erondu, Stephanie Engle, Cap Watkins, Allison Chefec, Tom Harman, Lindsey Maratta, and Sabrina Majeed.

To even facilitate this learning experience even more, we have an anonymous feedback form


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How to register

Instructions on how to register are on the Facebook Group and the Piazza.


All assignments are to be submitted in the Facebook group under the respective post.

Post-Assignment 1: Identifying Problems

When _____ , I want to _____ , so I can _____ .

Problems can be thought about in the structure above, adapted from Clay Christensen’s Jobs framework (Inspired by design team at Intercom). This will motivate you to identify shortcomings within your daily experience that you normally would not ever notice.

Eg) When taking a group photo, I want to take it on one phone, so I can avoid taking the same photo on multiple phones.

WeeklyUI: Mobile Sign Up Page (Optional)

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Left: Michał Ptaszyński,

Extended Resources

What we learned


We gauged interest from more than 100 signups scaling from various colleges.

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Initial survey completed by 80 people.


We found that Facebook groups provide a unique interactive experience in addition to the class. Visualizing a product design centered community in place in which no one thought it existed, is rewarding not only to us, but to individual members.

We use this to provide tools that immerse themselves into a design culture, share extended resources on new developments with design.

Weekly UI’s as optional assignments

WeeklyUI’s were more popular than we expected. People are very receptive to critique and feedback. We also find it easier to identify common visual design with our students.

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We are still growing

Please if you have any suggestions, thoughts or critiques, please message me or Nicole or fill out our anonymous feedback form.

Final Thoughts

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Intro to Digital Product Design

This course holds transcripts and extended materials for a…

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