The Designer’s Bias
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The Most Abused Word in Product Design

Product. That’s the single most abused word in Product Design.

Products are things that are manufactured for sale, and must be purchasable. The buyer will likely have access to it after they’ve paid for it. 

It’s that simple, and that complicated for today's designers. The word Product has become a portmanteau for the following: Physical products, Internet-connected things, consumable packaged goods, software applications, digital services and platforms, real-world services and experiences, and anything else that can be made and sold which won’t fit into the previous categories.

Applying design to a broader range of things we use in the world—that’s often good for both customers and businesses. However, that’s not so good for those who have decided on a whim to update their title on LinkedIn to read Product Designer. It's also not so good for hiring managers who want job titles to have Product in it. We are seeing this play out in weird job titles and job descriptions, probably written by people who don’t realize they’re compounding the issue: 

  • Visual Design/Product Design Manager (actually UI Design in Scrum/Agile)
  • Senior Product Designer-Visual (also UI Design)
  • UX Product Designer (pure UX/UI Design)
  • Head of Product Design & Development (Industrial Design and Physical Product Development)

And I just looked at the first scroll of a set of job listings.

It’s appropriate to say that your company makes products, and that you have a VP of Product, and that thing that you sell isn’t an old-fashioned manufactured physical product. The writer of an article I read yesterday in the New Yorker went so far as to call an LED product a “product-as-service” because the word Product didn’t really do justice to something that you would lease. (That was thoughtful.) 

So, here's my advice. Be cautious about saying that if you’re working on anything that can be sold, you’re automagically a Product Designer. Because if you say you’re doing Product Design, you’d better nail the basics. A Product Designer should be adept at identifying customer problems (“jobs”), as well as formulating and testing product assumptions and hypotheses around what solutions will help people achieve those jobs. Whenever possible, this should be happening through well-constructed experiments.

When I see work from a Product Designer and they are not doing the above things—or worse, they are not even aware that these are things that Product Designers are supposed to do—we are creating a new set of problems for design organizations, and a new set of demands that design education needs to snap to attention and fulfill. Product Design may require tools and skills that aren't always emphasized in Industrial Design or Graphic Design or UX Design or Interaction Design or Service Design or any of the other flavors that are in the Skittles grab bag of design education. Since the word Product has been so heavily diluted, a Product Designer may need to exercise skills drawn from any of those disciplines depending on the kinds of customer problems they are trying to solve—plus Product Design basics.

It’s unlikely that we can stop this Product Big Bang. But what we can do is be more precise about what we expect from designers, and designers can be more thoughtful about how they want to represent their skills when working on products.

So, what’s the second most abused word in Product Design?


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