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What is product design in today’s modern age?

I’ve been asked on more than one occasion what it is that I do for work. You’d think that would be an easy question to answer. Especially since I’ve been a designer in some capacity for the last 15 years. But, it’s not that easy. Not because I don’t know how or want to. It’s that the title product designer is convoluted and the aspect of product design doesn’t always resonate. Leading to the question, “what is product design?”

Crucial Conversations is a book that I’ve read several times in order to improve my ability to connect and communicate with others in and out of a business setting. Probably one of the more important books in my quest for personal growth and betterment. It hasn’t prepared me however for the conversation regarding product design. 

When I get asked “what is product design” I try to read the room and find the easiest examples to explain that I don’t just play with computers all day but work through a scientific method to understand users and business needs. I try to explain that product design is a discipline that evolved out of the industrial age. When things were made by hand and mass production processes were being implemented, the assembly line was being born and industrial designers were hired to help make physical products. 

That explanation doesn’t always echo with people. Not because they can’t fully grasp the concept but because there’s so much to it. 

For a long time designers were called upon to use their knowledge of the entire product design process. They helped to create beautiful, functional and even tasty products. Products like the VW Beetle, anglepoise lamp, Coca-Cola bottle, ballpoint pen, bendy straw and Oreo cookie.

In the 80s, the Bay Area became known for its innovation, research and human studies. 

These studies were at the intersection of computer and behavioral sciences. The term human-computer interaction was coined. With technology evolving, product design emerged from the physical plane. At the forefront of this evolution was digital product design.

New considerations and constraints emerged. Designers like Don Norman became cognizant of this. The practice of user experience design was beginning to take shape. It was also when designer Tim Brown was making his name and design thinking was largely derived.

The dot-com bubble helped significantly with the push for digital product design as it opened up an entirely new world. A world only imagined in sci-fi movies and novels. Fast forward 20 years to present day and digital products not only remain but some businesses are created entirely around them. Which is why it’s so hard to explain at times.

So then, what is product design exactly?

At its core product design is a term that describes the holistic experience associated with the interaction between users and a company’s product or services. It’s a collection of processes and steps organized in such a way that allows companies to understand how people use and perceive their products. It’s the constant analysis, collection of feedback and iteration on ideas and concepts.

But, with the way the world has changed, product design is a scientific process driven by curiosity, constant learning and empathy. 

Companies pay top dollar and work hard to understand their users. Many of them realize that in order to grow they need to consistently provide value. Researchers have spent significant amounts of time understanding human behavior and cognition as a way to even further this understanding. People like Nyr Eyal have written books explaining this even further. 

There’s a whole world dedicated to the understanding of people in the context of consumption.

That’s because the internet has made the barrier to entry for a lot of industries extremely low. Therefore competition is at an all time high. It’s not enough for an organization to rely on it’s brand name or market dominance. People have choices and they’re making them. 

In order to create products that stick, cross-collaborative teams follow a product design process to gain empathy for their users’ needs, pain points, motivations and desires. They work together to validate ideas and shape a minimum viable solution, proof of concept or prototype. 

Traditionally teams follow the waterfall way of thinking where deliverables are handed off after each phase before the next is started. This process has evolved and other approaches like Agile or Lean were created. Whichever method, it’s important to consider the entire product development life cycle.

That life cycle consists of brainstorming product ideas, identifying opportunities and validating product market fit. It’s also a time to understand your users and competition. From that gained knowledge teams can plan feature ideas, create prototypes and work towards developing high quality, tested and vetted solutions while also coordinating with marketing to prepare for product launches and releases.

I mean it still is the creation of products, only with a little more consideration.

Therefore, when asked, “what is product design?” It’s hard to answer without giving full context. To me product design is a discipline that works to identify opportunities, clearly define problems and create solutions. It’s a way for businesses to develop products that help users achieve their goals and meet their needs. It’s a way for businesses to play a bigger part in how their products and services impact the world. It’s a holistic, end to end approach to the full experience. 

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