How to get into product design

If you’ve ever wondered how to get into product design this is for you. The path to product design isn’t always clear cut and straight forward. Many designers have transitioned from other fields, are self taught, or attended universities for industrial design. While some have gone down completely different paths not even mentioned. If you’re someone looking to join the product side, let’s explore.

The title Product Designer is a relatively new convolution. Thanks in part to the natural evolution of design. Onset by the digital revolution. More and more companies look at technology to aid and expand their businesses. These companies rely on talented designers, developers and product managers to construct and orchestrate the processes necessary to create a winning design solution.

As stated prior, many Product Designers did not start out as one. It’s a newer term in this context and encapsulates a broad spectrum of talents, skills and abilities. Much like user experience design, product design focuses on a holistic experience. While UX may be more concerned about specifics of the experience, Product is concerned with it as a whole. 

In this day and age product designers are often individuals who can own the entire process from end-to-end. They work with cross-collaborative teams to come together through the product design process and a series of tasks or methods to produce outputs necessary for delivering a satisfactory product experience.

Now, I want to stop here. You might be wondering what is the difference between a User Experience Designer and a Product Designer? 

Fundamentally as a Product Designer, and dependent upon the organization, the role acts in parts akin to business development. In the sense that product design needs to consider the goals the business wants to achieve, the users that the business caters to, the industry itself and whether or not the product that is being designed fits within the current space. 

One of the reasons why, when asked what product design is, it’s often hard to answer. The roles of a Product Designer are fairly flexible and can change. 

Rewind about six or seven years and this was the case for user experience design. Not too long before product design became a buzzword people weren’t wondering how to get into product design.There was a push for well-rounded, all encompassing T-shaped designers. Highly trained generalists to help shape early teams, processes, products and design culture. Now in this modern age we find ourselves back at that intersection.

The various paths to product design

If you’re wondering how to get into product design then here we go. As a Lead Product Designer who transitioned from a more traditional design and web development background I’ll share some insight on what I think will make for a good approach to getting into product design.

First and foremost to be a good Product Designer you need to be well-rounded. Meaning you need to at least understand business and the language it speaks. You should be curious. Your work is to not only ensure the business goals are met but you have to be an advocate for your users and their needs. It will really help if you’re organized. There are a lot of moving parts to the product design process that require attention. You should also know that you’ll never stop learning so be prepared to build skills, knowledge and community to stay sharp.

Well-rounded outside of design means that it’s not enough to be a great designer and produce jaw dropping visuals or efficient interaction patterns. The world turns on business. Global economies are connecting at scale. The internet and everything it touched has changed and is still changing. When companies embark on a journey to create a product they typically do so with vigor and reason. Knowing that baseline is critical. If business isn’t something you’re interested in at minimum understanding how they think. They’re “users” too.

Which leads me into curiosity. 

You’ll need to be curious as a lot of your work will be figuring out people and how they operate within the context of your space. You’ll need to understand how they interact with your products and the things they want to achieve with them. If they want to achieve anything at all. This knowledge will inform your decisions and help you shape the vision for the product. It will act as a foundation.

Hence the reasoning for being organized. The product design process can be fast paced and involved. Depending upon the size and scope of the project it may be important for you as a designer, either just starting out or in the field for a while to be organized. There will be multiple people, places and things to care after. It takes personal management skills to keep yourself ahead of the game in this regard. 

Your own tasks and deliverables are just a small part of them. Large organizations with baked-in processes make it easy to understand whose responsibility is what while high-growth or startup phase companies vary. To succeed, be sure to “cover your ass”.

Sounds cool? 

Then continue by looking at your current landscape and identify where you are. Is this a career switch? Are you transitioning from another design field? Is this entirely new? Are you just curious? If so, what are your current strengths, weaknesses, abilities and opportunities? Identify your baseline. See what resonates and fill in the gaps.

You’re going to be learning all the time. Get comfortable with conducting your own personal research. Which might be hard considering you’re curious about how to get into product design and probably don’t know what you don’t know yet. That’s okay. 

Pro-tip, no one does. We’re all figuring it out as we go. 

Which is one of the cool things I like about a lot of the teams I’ve worked with. Everyone has a helping hand. But going back to the topic, personal assessment and continued education are the first steps. In order to get to where you’re going you’ll want to see where you’re at.

If you’re just curious, transitioning from another industry or new to the field your path may be entirely different from say, someone in the industry already or just out of university. Those two angles have more direct shots at getting a spot on a product design team. Typically you’re either propositioning your boss or a hiring manager. The other paths or anyone without a hand outreached will need to do a little sorting on their own. 

For that I can help.

Once you know who you are, the skills and gaps you might have as well as your reasoning for getting into product design you’ll really want to have an intimate knowledge of the product design process, how product sits within an organization, some of the methods used to manage projects and ways teams measure the success of the product designs. Which sounds like a daunting list but it’s not that bad.

Some helpful books, courses and programs

Now we’re at it. The meat and potatoes of this post. I’m someone that firmly believes knowledge is the key to opening all doors. Arsene Wegner says language but that’s probably one in the same. Therefore if you’re still serious about your inquisition, how to get into product design then it’s probably more important I give you some nuggets.

Reading is fundamental.

A child of the 80’s that line was pumped into my brain day in and day out. Thank you whoever decided that child literacy on those child literacy campaigns broadcasted across national television. It’s because of you I have no problem reading three to four books at once and run one book club while partake in another. They were right. Reading is fundamental. Probably the best tool for your arsenal. The more you read, the more informed you’ll be. The more informed you are, the more conviction you’ll have in your decisions. So read.

Not an exhaustive list but, here’s a list of my favorite books that have helped me in my career.

I’m not someone who shys away from online learning. Or any type of structured learning to be honest. If there is a chance to learn something from someone that already knows what it is I’m looking to learn for a reasonable price, if any at all, then count me in. A mentor told me it’s not always best to get your information from one source. WHich makes a lot of sense in a few ways but really resonates as if you gather enough information from varying places you can cross-examine what makes the most sense to you.

I’ve had a lot of luck with courses from some of these online academies or programs.

Additionally it would be helpful to learn about product development methods, the types of deliverables and responsibilities of product designers as well as their role in the triad. Some books on the product design process:

Conclusion

There are multiple paths one can take in order to get into product design. If you found yourself here wondering how to get into product design then I hope I was able to help clear up any uncertainty and provide insight on next steps. A career as a Product Designer can be very rewarding. Sometimes stressful but that’s any job. To think that the work you do everyday can significantly impact and benefit the lives of others in such profound ways always amazed me. 

Once in the door there are more paths that you can explore. In another article I’ll take a look at the difference between an individual contributor and a manager on a product design team.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.