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What is product design?

by Małgorzata Maksimowicz

What is product design?

Human-computer interaction, human-centered design, user experience (UX), user interface (UI) design and, among them, product design are more than simply buzzwords. The mouthful of the industry’s terminology, however, can be overwhelming. We are constantly being flooded with a multitude of definitions, names of professions, processes and terms that don’t tell us much. Even the oldest design lions often have problems with an unambiguous definition of what they are doing on a daily basis. This article will clarify what product design is and how we use it at intent.

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Product evolution theory

Just a few decades ago “to design a product" meant simply that: creating a blueprint of a commodity such as a chair, knife or a teapot. With the appearance of computers and the development of information technology, the term “product” went beyond the well-known material world. The emergence of new technology helped setting a course for something that is intangible but still invaluable to users and businesses alike: a digital product.

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From physical to digital

The first (or at least the most popular) reflections on creating digital products and their importance in the human-computer interaction were those shared by Donald Norman. His book “The design of everyday things” resounded throughout the designers’ world, highlighting the importance of the experience that accompanies users while they interact with computers. This phenomenon wasn’t to be ignored, according to Norman. Giving more attention not only to systems’ functions, interface appearance and information architecture but also to users’ feelings, impressions, touchpoints and behavior, effectively contributed to the coinage of terms such as user experience and user experience architect. The latter is how Don Norman called himself and the folks from his design team at Apple back in the 90s.

Soon after, user experience started to be considered an essential element of creating websites, systems and applications. And rightfully so. It helps to design those products in a way that is not only meeting business goals but is also a response to the needs of real users. And as a truism goes: a happy customer is a loyal customer and those, supposedly, generate the most income.

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Two faces of product designers

People who are in charge of designing the best possible solutions at the intersection of businesses and users’ well-being alike started to be called User Experience (UX) designers. Often mistaken for graphic designers or User Interface (UI) designers, UX designers are those who aim at being users’ advocates but also at the same time at bringing value to business that stands behind every product. Even though the work of UX designers is not as obvious and tangible at first sight as UI designers’ work that creates the visual layer of a product or service, they both have significant impact on the success or failure of anything we want to build. UX designer’s role is especially crucial when it comes down to whether or not a product will generate return on investment as well as how functional and usable it will be. As more and more companies notice the important role of UX and its value for the business, they distinguish two types of product designers:

  • UX designers

    • Responsible for understanding business goals, verifying stakeholders’ assumptions regarding target group needs through research (often with the great help of UX researchers).

    • Set success metrics for the project, along with the stakeholders.

    • Coordinate design work during the process.

    • Convert ideas and solutions into defined product features.

    • Work on user flows, system’s logic, information architecture and interactions.

    • Create wireframes that are the functional concept of the product.

  • UI designers

    • Graphic designers specialized in user interfaces, create a graphical layout of the product.

    • Deliver the final designs that will be implemented by the developers.

    • Responsible for the appearance, aesthetics and visual coherence of the product.

    • Prepare a style guide and design systems for developers.

    • Create graphic designs that are the visual layer and a form of the product.

UI and UX designers, through close collaboration, are trying to execute all above with the support of workshops, user testing, research and iterations. Of course, designers’ competences sometimes overlap and there is no strict line between one another. A UI designer can have a great sense of UX and a stellar skill set in prototyping. A UX designer, on the other hand, can have a crush on graphic design or be keen on user testing and meticulous research.

Every professional has their specific preferences and skills that define their role in a given project - and it is always unique. The trick is to adjust the resources and design strategy to the product we want to build, its goals, budget - and time restrictions. To make things even more complicated, we have been recently observing a rising popularity of a new job title, namely Product Designer, that extends the scope of UX designer’s responsibilities as it aims to cover all aspects of one’s experience with the product, including monitoring the product’s life-long position and sentiment on the market. However, as it often happens with theories and definitions, it may be a bit controversial. As you can see, however, a proper design of digital products is an outcome of a team's massive effort, with different but equally important skills, rather than individual performance.

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What is product design?

Throughout the years, the UX design community started to notice that while taking care of users’ experience, we should really be thinking about the whole process of research, designing and launching a product which consists of not just the “design” work, but much more: defining and redefining business goals, market research, user testing, and even communication (copywriting, tone-of-voice) or marketing (branding).

The aforementioned sir Don Norman highlights that the term “user experience” is much broader than we used to think. According to him UX starts with one’s first interaction with a product, its purchase along with the accompanying journey and, finally, the usage and product related impressions. This is why we should see the product design as the result of various disciplines that influence each other.

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Catch them all: the definition struggle

As pointed out earlier, designers are not the only ones that shall be attributed to the creation of new products. So, what exactly is product design then?

The definition on Wikipedia tells us that there is no one consensually accepted definition of product design that sufficiently reflects the topic’s breadth. Therefore, we need to consider two separate, but still interdependent, meanings of the term. One defines product design as an artifact and the other refers to product design as a process related to this artifact.

  • Product design as a noun

    the set of properties of an artifact, consisting of the discrete properties of the form (i.e., the aesthetics of the tangible good or service) and the function (i.e. its capabilities) together with the holistic properties of the integrated form and function.

  • Product design as a process:

    the set of strategic and tactical activities, from idea generation to commercialization, used to create a product design. In a systematic approach, product designers conceptualize and evaluate ideas, turning them into tangible inventions and products. The product designer's role is to combine art, science, and technology to create new products that people can use.

Even though the adjective “tangible” is not quite what responds to our digital world, we can agree that it covers the idea of creating a product. While going deeper to find a bit more exact definition, we can find out the following:

  • Digital product design is an iterative design process used to solve a functional problem with a formal solution. A digital product designer identifies an existing problem, offers the best possible solution, and launches it to a market that demonstrates demand for the particular solution.

Or, quoting Interaction Design Foundation:

  • Product design is the process designers use to blend user needs with business goals to help brands make consistently successful products. Product designers work to optimize the user experience in the solutions they make for their users — and help their brands by making products sustainable for longer-term business needs.

Although product design is considered a superior term to digital product design, it’s nowadays used as a synonym in the creative industry. It describes a process of designing and creating fully digital products such as apps and websites or products that have both digital and physical components, like electronic devices with complementary applications (IoT or Internet of Things).

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Product design as a process

One of the most popular design process models is, so called, Double Diamond. It consists of the following stages:

  • Discover - a step into the depths of research and exploration, understanding the business, its target group and its needs.

  • Define - gathering all the information and setting concrete strategy, goals and priorities we want to follow in the project. Looking for the compromise between business objectives and users’ needs.

  • Develop - creating a concept, or in other words, designing a solution in a form of sketches, wireframes and graphic layouts, prototypes.

  • Deliver - testing and implementing selected solutions that went through a number of  iterations in previous stages.

As hopefully proven above, designing in itself is crucial, but would lose most of its impact without all the other elements. The presented model is an idealistic and theoretical example of the design process, which can evolve depending on the situation. However, if you want to know our approach to the product design process, contact us - we will be happy to talk to you!

During the product design process, designers have to consider not only steps before and after the development stage where they give a product its form and function, but they also have to take into account other important factors:

  • Target group needs, users’ behaviors and limitations - How will people use the product? Do they have any mobility or health problems? How do they interact with the product in their daily lives? (i.e. projects in the health industry, for elderly people, kids, etc.)

  • Business model and its goals- Is our solution coherent with the business goal? Will it generate income? How will it do so?

  • Technical possibilities- Are we able to implement it? What technology are we using? Do we have enough resources experienced in this field?

  • Legal restrictions- Is our solution fulfilling the legal requirements? Does the legal department accept it? (e.g. banking or fin-tech related restrictions)

  • PR & Marketing- Does it fit our brand and the tonality of our corporate voice? Are we communicating our value proposition in the understandable way?

  • And finally: limited timeline and budget.

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How we understand product design

At intent, we believe that product design is a process in which the essential ingredients are the holistic approach and close collaboration of all teams engaged in the project. Starting with a great plan and setting business goals fueled by in-depth research to prove our clients’ assumptions then followed by meticulous design with continuous testing and finishing with a reliable, state-of-the-art implementation. Last but not least, the most essential part of product design: creating effective and handcrafted solutions for real problems of the target audience.

At the same time, we don’t want to be pleased with the status quo and pick just one correct definition of the products we make. Although in love with digital, we aim to break the limit between material and digital and find new turning points and ideas at that very intersection.

Have we caught your interest? Check out how we cooperated on the design sprint with Goodify!

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We can’t create a building only with the floor plans, can we? The same is true for the product design. It is a process that includes hard work of designers and experts in other disciplines as well.

The digital design industry is constantly evolving. Thus, new technological solutions and roles are appearing every day, which means no ultimate definition is given once and for all. As the ancient philosopher once said: panta rhei, everything flows. We’re sure this suits product design and designer definitions as well, but at least one thing should be stable in all of this: the holistic approach while creating a successful product that respects the end-user and brings value for the business.

Want to know more about UX? Check out our latest article about the advantages of UX research and in fact, when you should do it. 


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