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Becoming a product designer: what you should know and be able to do

Karina Daukaeva
Jan 7, 2017 · 7 min read

I’m a product designer. Not so long ago, people would label me as a unicorn. Mainly because I did UX design, visual design, front-end development, worked directly with business strategist and would manage product roadmap. I picked up those skills over the last decade, partially because I had to (hello, startup life!), but mainly because my design skills weren’t enough for a successful product. Now that I’ve also been heavily teaching at RED Academy in the last 18 months, I started getting a lot of questions about how to become a product designer. So here are my thoughts, with few examples, and I surely hope this helps!

Understanding of business strategy and KPIs

Every great product starts with “the why”. This is your starting point - to make sure you know why this product should exist. A lot of businesses know what the product is going to be or how it’s going to be used, meanwhile its why is what will connect with the users on an emotional level. Simon Sinek has a great book called “Start with Why”, which I recommend to any entrepreneur who wants to make a meaningful product, be a great leader and care about its market positioning. As a designer, this allows you to see the big picture.

This aside, at the very least, every product designer needs to know exactly what the KPIs are for the product. What’s the core use of the product? How does it generate revenue/grow user base? What are conversion points? It’s important to understand how users get acquired, so you can design for engagement and retention. So how do you figure this out? There is an obvious qualitative component to UX design — we survey and interview users, analyze their behaviour, conduct usability tests, etc. However, quantitative data is as important and you need to know how to analyze it. There are a whole bunch of tools that can help you do it and you should be familiar with them.

Analytical tools

Google Analytics

Every product designer needs to know their way around at least Google Analytics. It’s a fantastic free tool that can give you quantitative data on your user demographics, acquisition channels, where they click and where they drop off, what they are searching for, etc. I can go on forever about this. Google offers free courses, so I would suggest investing some time into learning it.

Mixpanel

Mixpanel isn’t free and requires setting up custom hooks for users’ actions, so you will need to work with a developer to set it up. However, what it does offer is an in-depth view into exactly how your customers are using the product. Specific tools like cohort analysis will help you track performance of the changes you are making to the product and even its marketing pages on a quantitative level.

Understanding of development

Personally I believe that every good product designer should at least be able to write HTML and CSS. This helps in not only creating interactive prototypes, but also gives you an appreciation for what it’s going to take to make your designs come to reality. This understanding will definitely make an impact on your design decisions and help you communicate with developers once product goes to development stage.

Ideally, as a product designer, you know how to use command line, familiar with Github and are able to make and push changes — your ability to make minor design and content changes can save an enormous amount of time for you and developer.

Think optimization

Designing and launching a product is half the journey — just because it’s out there, doesn’t mean your job is done. If anything, for a product designer it’s only just the beginning.

Once it’s launched, it’s paramount to watch its performance — what’s working? What’s not working? What features are people using most and how is their journey through the product? Are there any surprising use cases? This is where those analytical tools come in handy that can help you not only analyze quantitative data, but also engage with the users and get their qualitative feedback.

What it boils down to is your ability to measure product success. Whether it’s generated revenue, daily active users or some other KPIs, you need to be able to identify how well the product is doing and be able to optimize and improve performance.

Communication

Your design is only as good as your ability to communicate it. As a product designer, you will have to work with engineers so getting them on board your designs and explaining why you made certain decisions is absolutely crucial. Moreover, when technical constraints arise (and they most certainly will), you will need to work together and find a solution that doesn’t compromise experience of the end user. Here are some tools I found helpful when working with developers:

Stage 1. Pre-design communication

Whiteboarding! Seriously, sometimes it’s as simple as sketching ideas on a whiteboard with your engineering team in the room and getting their initial feedback and seeing if there are any red flags. If your engineers are remote, then get on Google Hangouts and walk them through your initial research findings and explain what’s important to the users. Talk about features you are going to need and, once again, see if there are any red flags. You’ll be surprised at how fine of a line it is between “sure, this will only take couple of hours” to “we need 5 years and a team of 20 engineers to get this done”. Something like that:

Stage 2. Creating a prototype developers can actually use.

The more interactive your prototype is, the easier it will be for the developers to build it. Invision is the easiest tool to learn, but it doesn’t offer that many interaction options. If you end up using it, make sure to illustrate exactly how interactions will work — most likely you are going to end up creating a whole bunch of static images that will mimic that interaction.

To animate your designs and show complex interactions, you can use this awesome plugin. However, for more simple stuff, you can use Invision’s timed function. Here is an example of how I’ve used it before:

To achieve this result of a pulsating heart, I created two static images and set both of them on timed function, linking to each other:

This is a bit of a hack, but hey, it works and can save you loads of time.

Other awesome prototyping tools:

Stage 3. Design handoff.

Now, this is where things have a tendency to break down the most. Not everything can be explained via visuals, so you are going to have to use other means of communication to fill in the gaps. Long gone are the days where we had to deliver 50-page design spec documents (my god, was that painful!!), and it’s much easier for everybody to keep things in one place. So, if your prototype is in Invision, then you can utilize their comments function to add more details or have conversations with multiple developers if you come across any issues:

Not every developer is familiar with design tools (though I strongly believe that they should know their way around Sketch & Photoshop), so here are useful tools that come to rescue that allow developers to know exactly what hex code to use without you having to specify those in your comments. Personally, I’m grateful to Invision for finally releasing Inspect, since this allows me to use the same tool for entire design process. However, there is also Zeplin that works equally well.

UI, Branding & Content Writing

I left this part until the end, because these skills are almost implied when it comes to product design. While it’s great that we are finally creating UX research — specific jobs, when it comes to product design, good visual designs skills are a must. Bonus if you can write and preserve product’s tone and voice (though good companies will most certainly have content writers who can establish content guidelines).

As a wrap up I want to say that every product is different. And every company is different. And this landscape is definitely going to change in this coming year. What’s important is that these skills are transferable, useful and will make you a far better designer.

As always, comments & feedback is much appreciated! Share your view in the comments or contact me directly via Twitter.

Karina Daukaeva

Design. Data. Culture.

Karina Daukaeva

Written by

UX / UI / Product / E-commerce / MVT Testing / Culture transformation / Coaching. Currently UX Director at autoTrader.ca. Co-founder of Hyperminds.io.

Karina Daukaeva

My name is Karina Daukaeva, I specialize and write about three areas: design, data, culture. The common denominator is transformation; under my guidance businesses become user-centric, design teams transform to be data-driven, and the teams I lead evolve their underlying culture.

Karina Daukaeva

Written by

UX / UI / Product / E-commerce / MVT Testing / Culture transformation / Coaching. Currently UX Director at autoTrader.ca. Co-founder of Hyperminds.io.

Karina Daukaeva

My name is Karina Daukaeva, I specialize and write about three areas: design, data, culture. The common denominator is transformation; under my guidance businesses become user-centric, design teams transform to be data-driven, and the teams I lead evolve their underlying culture.

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