Adjust Your Scope: Moving From UX to Product Design
With the continued evolution of design patterns and development frameworks, usability and UI seem to have become more commoditized. The scope of UX work has responded by moving even farther into the realm of strategy and research and our industry being what it is, any change should be celebrated with a shuffling of job titles and an eruption of buzzwords. I’m not the only person noticing this trend.
These days I’m a Product Designer (sometimes when I’m feeling fancy I use Service Designer and strut around a bit). The work is a natural progression from what I did before but it took a lot of learning and experimentation to get to the point where I’m confident about the value I can provide. What follows are a few nuggets I’ve found along the way that I hope will prove useful.
Strategy vs. Tactics
As a UX designer, your focus is more squarely on tactical thinking, whereas a product designer should have one foot firmly planted in strategy. I find these roles can be tricky to tell apart, but I define strategy as what we want to do, and tactics as how we’ll do it. Elon Musk famously posted his Secret Tesla Master Plan 10 years ago:
- Build sports car
- Use that money to build an affordable car
- Use that money to build an even more affordable car
- While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options
That my friends is a strategy. It clearly tells us what we’re going to do and what our priorities are. We need people to buy our sports car, but what tactics should we use to make that happen? How about a kick-ass show room, crazy 0-60 specs , rich corinthian leather, and dozens more. As a product designer you’ll need to be able to contribute to both parts of this equation. Which brings us to…
A Product Strategy Articulates a Business Strategy
If you ever work at a company and the business strategy consists of “make lots of money” then you’re probably there for a good time, not a long time. An actual business strategy like the one above needs to be supported by subordinate strategies in sales, marketing and product. Yup, strategies within strategies! For example your product strategy could be to offer a better experience than an incumbent, or to diversify into adjacent markets, or to convert your product into a platform. As a product designer you should be contributing strongly to the this approach and it should aim to achieve the goals of the business.
Features Are Not the Unit of Value
Many jobs for product designers (and product managers but I’m not getting into that debate) include being hands-on with the backlog and prioritizing features. “What features are we building and in what order? We should be delivering at least one feature per sprint! Our competitor has this feature so we need it asap!”
Obviously I’m not against the concept of features, but it’s bad juju to be making decisions based on short term gains or what’s shiny and new without weighing it against increases in product complexity and achieving established goals. John Cutler has a great in-depth write-up about this here.
Research Doesn’t (Just) Go at the Beginning
Coming from agency work the flow usually went something like discovery, roughly concurrent design, implementation and testing, then profit! In the best cases we would continue to work with the client to expand the offering, but in many cases once an agency ($$$) was done making something then internal teams ($) would take over the care and feeding of it. This means that most of the research would happen up front.
These days I try to set up feedback loops in addition to the initial research efforts so there can be a continuous stream of data to work with. I would even suggest that it’s a good idea to go a bit lighter on the initial research in most situations in favour of getting product into the hands of users faster and being able to work with direct feedback. Obviously this is not a new idea, but coming from an agency background, it was challenging to embrace.
The Promised Land
My work has changed a lot since those early days. The mix of design work, collaboration, strategy, and team building is more diverse, but ultimately a lot more rewarding. If you’ve had a similar journey from UX, I’d love to hear any insights you’ve had along the way. One thing I do know without a doubt is that in this discipline you’re always learning, always growing and always experimenting. And that’s kind of what’s great about it.