Product design is a multidisciplinary field with the goal to create unique, beautiful, and holistic experiences for people. Put simply: Product design helps solve the world’s problems.
What is product design?
Product design is the whole product experience. It’s an amorphous phrase, and flavors and processes for product design vary widely. It could mean designing a mobile app, a web app, a website, a dashboard, branding, or all of the above.
An unfortunate misconception is that product design exists to make products look pretty. In reality, it’s a product designer’s responsibility to curate a consistent end-to-end experience for users using research, UX, product strategy, and a visual language consistent with a company’s brand.
What is a digital product?
Before we jump into explaining product design in more depth, we need to take a step back.
The digital age shifted the definition of modern day products. Traditionally, products were the results of craftsmen. After the Industrial Revolution, craftsmen and inventors used the manufacturing process to design, produce, and sell their goods at scale. The discipline of “product design” was born from this movement to deliver beautiful and useful products to people that otherwise may not be able to afford them. Since then, product design has evolved drastically.
In the digital age, the term “product” encompasses both hardware and software. Goods and services are no longer solely physical goods, but experiences that users have in the physical world, on a screen, or a mixture between the two. Ultimately, they aim to solve a pain point in people’s everyday lives.
For example, a notebook has physical design aspects: It can be made of different materials, paper, and bindings. However, the end goal of a physical notebook—the capability it aims to give you—is similar to digital tools such as Google Docs or Microsoft Word. These digital products are made up of different interactions, styles, and code, creating a completely different user experience that solves similar user needs to a physical notebook.
Product design is neither one nor the other; it is a discipline that creates a solution for both.
The building blocks of a digital product designer
Product design encompasses many different fields of digital design into a single practice:
- User research
- Graphic design
- Motion design
- Product analytics
- Business strategy
Strong product designers can have a background in any of these fields but are most valuable if they master the first four. These skills enable you to design beautiful products quickly and with intention.
A product designer is one of the only roles that touches every part of a business: analytics and research, product and engineering, marketing, branding, success, sales, and company leadership. Product design requires a wide breadth of skills, strong design thinking discipline, an understanding of business goals, and a keen sense of product priorities.
A deeper look at product design
Now that you have the right background, let’s jump back into a more thorough description of what product design entails. Product design is a discipline that solves problems fast and holistically. It’s a method of creating, iterating, and testing your solutions to make the user’s experience better.
It’s the product designer’s responsibility to make sure that the user is king—not just visually but across the entire product experience. As Steve Jobs said, “Design is not just what it looks and feels like. Design is how it works.”
With holistic product design, you take a company’s branding and weave its voice, tone, visuals, and values throughout the product. It involves consistent interactions that the user can relate to; at the same time, it uses a design system to make software engineers’ lives easier.
It means taking user research into a company leadership meeting and speaking on behalf of their needs to guide the roadmap.
In short: Product design finds unique solutions for big, hairy problems.
When is product design used?
The short answer is: across the whole product.
A product designer’s loose roadmap to creating products is through what we call “the design process.” IDEO co-founders Tim Brown and David Kelley coined the term “Design Thinking,” which encapsulates three questions:
- What is the problem?
- Who has this problem?
- What are we trying to achieve with our solution?
Product design takes these questions and answers them with a very careful process.
The product design process
Identify the opportunity
Product designers use product analytics, product managers, and design research teams to answer the three questions mentioned above. They may speak with users, potential users, internal teams, or market studies to validate a problem that exists in the world.
They get to know their users’ habits and personas. They ask intentional questions to search for pain points in existing experiences, test products that already exist, and define a problem statement to work towards solving.
This is where the building begins.
The creation process can derive from anywhere depending on the problem you’ve identified: a napkin, a digital wireframe like InVision Freehand, or an entire website.
Rather than solving the problem with one elaborate idea, product design focuses on diverging into many different solutions and testing each one. The importance of this step is to disregard the obvious answer and open up the door to a more innovative solution or a hybrid of multiple solutions.
During this ideation phase, there may be engineering or timing constraints depending on company resources and release timelines. Product designers work closely with product managers to scope and prioritize their time.
Prototype and test
After selecting a few top ideas, product designers prototype and test their solutions using anything from a drawing to a fully-interactive prototype.
They’ll test these ideas with end users, customers, or other stakeholders (product managers, engineers, marketers, CEOs, etc).
The goal is to listen, learn, and distill feedback into actionable takeaways. It will validate or invalidate assumptions and ultimately improve the overall design of the product.
Rinse and repeat
Depending on time and resources, these past three steps will iterate once or 10 times. It’s important for a product designer to prioritize their time during this phase based on timelines, design resources, and business needs.
As the flow and user experience becomes more fleshed out, the product starts to move into a visual design realm. This is where a design system, pattern library, or brand guidelines come in handy. InVision’s Design Systems Handbook is a valuable resource that gives a step-by-step explanation on how to build your own design system and bring products to life around a common visual language. Design systems save designers and developers time and deliver a more holistic user experience of the product, brand, and business.
Product design doesn’t end at a design file hand off.
At this point, designs are given to developers—ideally with a product spec, high-fidelity mockups, a design system, and prototypes.
The designer-to-developer handoff can take many forms, including in-person collaboration, or via a project management tool. At this time, the product design team works with marketing, customer success, sales, and leadership to empower their team with current assets for any stakeholders that may need them.
Bringing it all together
The value of product design is to discover a user experience that is useful, fluid, and well crafted thanks to a thoughtful design process.
Product designers identify a problem, investigate its nuts and bolts, iteratively design, test, validate, and ship that solution into the world.
It is a discipline that creates better products and, ultimately, better lives for the people that use them.
Supercharge your product design workflow
InVision seamlessly connects your entire digital product design workflow—from start to finish. Use Boards to collect and share design inspiration. Sketch out wireframes on the Freehand collaborative canvas. Turn ideas into powerful screen designs with Studio, and bridge the gap between design and development with Inspect. Get creativity and consistency at scale with Design System Manager as your team’s single source of truth. InVision powers your product design process every step of the way.