Inside Product Development Teams - The Difference Between UX Design and Product Design

Inside Product Development Teams: The Difference Between UX Design and Product Design

Today, I’m here to bust some myths and clear up some confusion. In technology, there are several types of designers who hold many different skill sets. Each of them are brilliant and add immense value to development teams. However…. dun dun dun…. These designers aren’t actually the same. *gasp* Read on to learn the difference between UX design and product design!

Inside Product Development Teams - The Difference Between UX Design and Product Design

It’s no secret that technology companies today are on the hunt for great designers. It’s also no secret that companies today have realized that once product-market fit is achieved, a well-designed product experience will lead to success. In fact, the idea of design-led companies and organizations has been brewing and growing for the last decade or so.

But, you know what’s funny? Most people in the tech industry don’t know the difference between various types of designers that are out there….What does a  user experience (UX) designer do? Isn’t that the same thing as a product designer? Why aren’t you in UX and user interface (UI)I? What about interaction design? Oof!

These design professions are so difficult to define is because of their nebulous nature; the roles and responsibilities of each designer often bleed into one another. For simplicity’s sake today, I’m going to focus on digital product design (UX and Product Design) in the tech industry. If you’re a designer looking for a job or an employer looking to hire (or anyone in between), this guide will help clear things up.

When thinking about product design and development, there are two main types of designers that you’ll see out there: UX designers and product designers. UX designers are considered the user advocates in the room. Their job is to cultivate deep empathy for their end-users and use that empathy into guide product solutions (often through sketches or wireframes). Product designers (sometimes known as UI designers), on the other hand, take the product strategy and bring it to life. These designers decide on how the product will look and feel. Using research analysis and brand understanding, product designers ensure all the product details fit nicely together. Jennifer Aldrich best describes this in a simple (and famous) drawing that she posted on her blog about 3 years ago:

Illustration by Jennifer Aldrich on UserExperienceRocks.
Illustration by Jennifer Aldrich on UserExperienceRocks.

Taking this analogy further, the UX designer working on this project would:

  • Study and understand the user’s feels, tasks and environment
  • Conduct several conversations with the bicycle’s potential user
  • Uncover and define the user’s needs and desires
  • Translate these findings and any new ideas to the product designer

Next the product designer steps in to:

  • Use guidance from user interviews and findings to bring into a cohesive design
  • Focus on things like the feel of the bike’s leather seat, the size of the pedals, the finish on the handlebars and the colors of the spokes
  • Make sure he or she is keeping the final product (the big picture) in mind as well, while paying attention to the products smallest details

There are times when the product and the UX designer may take a prototype of the bicycle to test with their user in order to make sure they are on the right track. When these two chunks of the design process are working in-sync, the final product starts to become a great solution for the user.

Oh yeah, designers don’t do this alone.

Along with UX designers and product designers, a product development team consists of roles such as a product manager, engineer, and quality assurance engineer.

A product manager who oversees the development process would:

  • Initiate a kick-off the bike development project with the designers
  • Outline specifications of size, use, or purpose of the bike
  • Collaborate with the UX designer to get unanswered questions answered
  • Collaborate with the both designers and engineers to come up with a sketch

Next, enter the engineer to:

  • Advise on feasibility of features and sheds light on any opportunity costs
  • Applies the technical capabilities to bring the design into a reality through coding or computer-aided design
  • Check in with the team periodically to make sure development is on track

Finally the quality assurance engineer (QA) comes in and would:

  • Test out the product for any bugs or problems.
  • Try to break the product: ride the bike on dangerous terrain, for long rides, or even misuse the bike to see if the product would fail or have an error
  • Give the green light for the product launch

The product is now ready for the world! This entire process is possible because of the key players who bring specific expertise to the table. This team enables designers to bring their ideas into reality. Without these talented people, my designs would just be a mere daydream!

Ok back to designer chat. There is definitely overlap between the UX designer’s and product designer’s responsibilities, you’ll find some unicorns out there who can do it all! It just depends on the designer’s position and their company’s needs for the product. To keep it all organized and straight in my mind, I’ve resorted to drawing this diagram whenever people ask me the difference between my job and my colleague’s job (he’s a product designer):

At the end of the day, it is up to the designer to do their research and figure out which line of work they want to be in. I’m the last person that’s going to tell any creative person they are boxed into a specific design role. I’ve also known several people who have flip-flopped from one digital design role to another.

At the same time, designers should know where on the UX/Product Design spectrum they are in order to know where they want to be. Employers with a solid understanding of design professionals can smell a poser in an instant – trust me, you don’t want to find yourself in that position. So? Get up, get educated and master the skills you need to be a fabulous designer. Your future self will thank you for it!


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