Why It Pays to Switch to Product Design
Five reasons this might be your next career move
I haven’t always been a product designer. And most product designers I know haven’t always been one either. The path is a bit unorthodox, the role isn’t always clear, and the short answer to your aunt at Thanksgiving when she asks what you do is somewhere between “evil genius” and “computer person,” depending on which aunt you’re talking to.
But there are so many reasons why switching to product design is a worthwhile decision. Here are my top five:
1. It’s a role where your diverse skillset matters
I heard a recruiter tell a designer buddy that no one wants a “jack of all trades, master of none” and designers have to pick one thing and specialize if they ever want to get a job. But who wants to be really good at pressing one button for the rest of their lives?
A great product designer functions as a combo of UI, UX, and marketer. The best UI designer I know has an artist’s love for pixels, color, shadows, depth. He cares deeply about the way things look and move, but he designs screens not flows. The best UX designer I know is admirably process-driven, research-oriented, and an edge-case expert, but she isn’t really aesthetically minded and probably doesn’t know the difference between Android and iOS design patterns. And the best marketer has the long-term vision, advertising skills, and great communication.
A product designer’s ability to flow between these roles is what makes the job. Jumping between the diverse skills of UX, UI, and thinking about overall product goals is necessary and valuable to building a great product.
2. It *literally* pays
Product designers make 20% more than UI and UX designers on average. According to Bonsai, freelance product designers make approximately $20,000 more per year than UX/UI designers with the same level of experience.
Why is this? Product designers must understand the big picture in order to know which details are important and which are not. They use skills in UX and UI to make the business grow, while considering the entire experience from start to finish. They are the helm of a little ship, and their decisions directly affect the business. That’s definitely worth more cash.
3. It’s a place where curiosity is finally rewarded
Isn’t it amazing? You are not supposed to know all the answers. A good product designer is a lifelong learner and getting curious about the who, what, where, when, and why is part of the job description. (PHEW)
Like a modern-day Sherlock, you get to explore corners of human behavior and figure out how to make something people actually want. Why did they try to click on that? How long does someone really exercise before giving up? Why do social plans fall through when invitations are too big? There’s also an incredible humility in the best product designers I know — they are there to explore with you, just one or two steps ahead, yet equally eager to learn and ask questions.
When I joined my first startup as a cofounder of a loyalty program mobile app, I didn’t know anything about loyalty programs, small businesses, or even mobile design. I guess this didn’t scare my cofounders because they didn’t know much about those things either. I was, however, curious and wanted to learn about all of it, so my real world education began with a ton of questions and almost no answers. The best we could do was ask, build, and learn. One year later, we were acquired by Google, and my education continued.
4. You get to be in a role that directly impacts people and businesses
As a product designer, your research-driven approach and user-focused process keeps you close to the action with a lot of influence on the core product. Unlike a strictly UI or UX designer, the decisions you make affect the whole course of the product, not just one visual part or one interaction.
Over the last year, I’ve been a designer on a project called ReadScripture, an app that encourages people to read the Bible everyday. Last time I checked, we had more than 40,000 users averaging 10 minutes per day in the app. It’s great to encourage one friend or even yourself to read the Bible for 10 minutes a day, but it’s also great to encourage 40,000 people to read the Bible for 10 minutes a day. The impact you can have as a product designer is monumental, and the potential to positively change someone’s behavior is incredible.
5. There will always be work for you to do
Product design isn’t going anywhere. The skills you learn as a product designer are applicable to everything from banking to brochures to baby food. You learn how to deeply understand a problem space, how to communicate through design, how to systematically get feedback from real users, how to work across disciplines, how to make the best next-step decision, and how to repeat the process over and over again as needed. Even companies you wouldn’t expect to value design benefit from design thinking, like two 100-year old Fortune 500 companies that I recently worked with. From sexy startups to huge established companies, good product design is here to stay.