This article focuses on becoming a product designer—particularly for software applications. But keep in mind the field of product design is vast and crosses many disciplines from construction to art. This is one of the most interesting and fastest-growing careers globally for many people. With technology getting more complex, the need for simple, intuitive design is bigger than ever.
Let’s dive into product design, where technology and logic meet art and creativity.
Do you use technology every day? The answer to this question is most likely yes. More people in Africa possess a cell phone than have access to clean piped water in today’s world. And technology is not just your cellphone or computer. It’s your coffee maker, alarm clock, car, etc. So how did these things come into existence? Well, someone had to design them. From the button on your TV to the virtual “like” button on your favorite social media platform, someone designed it to be there.
What Does a Product Designer Do?
A product designer, sometimes used interchangeably with a user experience designer, is someone responsible for translating the business goals and user needs of a product into a user experience that is functional and intuitive. It’s a bit like a balancing act in which the product designer works with both stakeholders and users to understand how to develop a particular product. Product designers also work closely with product managers for specs and features.
Product designers play as big a role in the final stages of the product development process as they do in the initial stages. Once designed, the product is tested, and feedback is given to reduce friction points. Therefore, the product designer’s job is to help find solutions to reduce these issues through continual testing and iteration. This position is considered the intersection where art meets tech and can be a satisfying job (on top of being well-paid).
Therefore, to be a product designer, you must be both a thinker and a doer. Being a product designer is thinking high level and putting yourself in both your user’s and your business’ shoes to design products that provide an excellent user experience. Brainstorming sessions and user/stakeholder interviews are only some of the high-level things you will be doing.
However, as a product designer, you will need to get your hands dirty by building mockups, prototypes, user journeys, and personas. For this, you are required to know how to use certain kinds of software like Balsamiq, Sketch, and Adobe XD for mockups, Invision or Figma for prototypes, Lucidcharts for workflows and user journeys, and Monday or Asana for task management. In this article, we mainly focus on software product designers. However, suppose you were to be a product designer in something physical. In that case, you might also be building a prototype using a 3D printer and having to research things like textures and materials.
Product designers have multiple names or job descriptions, including user experience, information architect, user interface, and interaction designer.
Product Designer Degree and Education
Though product design has technically existed since our beloved cave ancestors (Homo Erectus) rubbed two sticks to create fire, the title itself, especially as it pertains to software, is a relatively new field of study.
Therefore, universities have only recently been adding product design for software applications as a major, and even then, the titles vary. For instance, if you’re looking at a product design undergraduate program, it’s best to use terms like User Experience/User Interface or Interactive Design. As for Master’s programs, titles such as Human Interaction Design or Human-Computer Design are also a good place to start. However, if you didn’t study any of this in college, do not fret.
The individuals who tend to get into these roles are often ones who have either studied engineering or graphic design. Thankfully, due to increasing demand, there are many routes one can take to become a product designer. Like with coding and other tech jobs, people can now attend intensive bootcamps or get certifications. These bootcamps provide career guidance and placement, with many promising job placements within 90 days. However, the average placement time tends to be between 3-6 months realistically. Alternatively, you can even go the self-taught route and learn the trade skills yourself though depending on your background, that can be a long and painstaking process.
The things you will need to become a successful product designer are the following:
- Education – It could be from a traditional university, a bootcamp, or a certification
- Experience – Ideally from a previous job or project
- A portfolio to showcase your work
- Knowledge using the tools of the trade (Photoshop, Sketch, Adobe XD, Invision, etc.)
- Some experience or knowledge in tech, i.e., coding
- Ability to conduct extensive research and take into account user feedback
- Design Thinking & Creative Problem Solving – This is the #1 skill required to become a successful product designer
- Work closely with various departments to better understand needs and establish objectives
- Customer Empathy
- Effective Storytelling to be able to communicate your ideas successfully
- Knowing when to say “no” – A very underrated skill for creating a successful MVP
- Be a team player since you have to collaborate with everyone from product managers and coders to users and digital marketers.
Since a good place to start is education, let’s look at some product design majors and some product design bootcamps & certifications. Keep in mind product design is a relatively new field within the realm of tech. Therefore, many universities offer “Industrial Design,” for both B.A. and Master’s, which pertains mainly to the design of physical things, especially in architecture. So if you’re interested in only becoming a product designer for web and software applications, it’s best to use the terms previously mentioned.
A friendly reminder: Pursuing a major in a related field like web design, graphic design, or industrial design can still give you a leg up. If you already possess any of these degrees, a certification or a bootcamp in the field could suffice.
Product Designer Career Paths
Product design is one of the highest-paid positions in the tech industry, so if coding is not for you, this may be the job of your dreams. The term product designer can sometimes be used interchangeably with a few other titles that have similar but not always identical functions. Some of these positions are more granular and focus on only one part of product design, such as Information Architecture, while others are broader, like UX/UI design.
Average Product Designer Salaries According to Job Title
- Product Designer: $105,448
- User Experience Designer: $90,951
- Information Architect: $98,320
- Product Development: $71,613
- User Interface Designer: $88,434
- Interactive Designer: $80,595
Average Salaries in Different US Cities
These are the average product designer salaries, according to Hired.
- Seattle: $156,433
- SF Bay Area: $152,737
- Minneapolis/St. Paul: $141,666
- New York: $135,720
- Boston: $133,385
- Los Angeles: $130,581
- Washington D.C.: $128,500
- Denver: $128,421
- Austin: $127,062
- Atlanta: 126,250
There you have it, a taste of the world of product design.
If you’re one of those left & right-brained (though this has been disproven) people, this career might be for you. Challenging, exciting, creative, and at the forefront of technology. The demand for good product designers who can turn complex machines into easy-to-use products has never been higher. It’s a truly fulfilling profession that gives you a chance to build a future the way you envision it. And now you have the roadmap for how to do it.