What Does a Product Designer Do, Anyway?

I’ve recently been following a few discussions over at Branch about product design. They’ve been interesting, you should go check them out.

It seems like there are many ideas as to what a product designer (and/or product manager as I feel there can/should be a lot of overlap) is and does. There are a lot of articles out there describing these jobs and what goes into them. And don’t get me started on the job descriptions; they’re often confusing as hell. I do get where some of the confusion lies, but when I think about it on a day-to-day basis and look back at my career it doesn’t all that complicated.

So, I was thinking, maybe it’d be interesting to sit down and detail what it is I do as a product designer. I’ve been doing product design for years and while my role has changed a bit over time, I thought I’d have a pretty good handle on the day-to-day.

Half-Elf Fighter/Cleric/Magic-user 10/8/8 #

Turns out it was harder than I’d expected it’d be. So here’s the deal: while I’m no unicorn, it turns out my work covers a pretty wide range of disciplines and job functions. My guess is that this is the same for many other product designers. I was able to pin it down, kind of, but it took a little while.

Anyway, after a week or so of analyzing and recording my daily work, and going over previous jobs and projects, I came up with the following; all percentages rough and rounded for easy reading:

(It should be noted that I’m not including “admin” time. We’re I to do that meetings, mentoring, management, HR/IT stuff and email would take a hefty chunk away, so I’m taking those off the table.)

But, wait. You said product DESIGNER. #

It might be interesting to some that so much of my time is spent doing things other than “design”, but it’s necessary to do them for my design work to be successful. I often say my job is part designer, part productivity guru, part lawyer and part investigator. And there is some truth to that.

As well, there are many modifying factors (size and make up of your team, where the product is in its lifecycle, etc.) that can change this up day-to-day. Overall and over time though, it’s probably pretty representative of what I do.

Also, I consider myself—first and formost—a designer. So there.

Roll a saving throw vs. scope creep. You’ll need a 20. #

I also thought about the skills I use on a daily basis. For the most part, the skills that are most important to my work are soft skills: communication (writing specifically), listening, learning, time-management, being easy to work with, etc.

As far as the hard skills, I think there is a wide range of skills you could employ to be successful. Some product designers are focused on design, others on tech and coding with many falling somewhere in the middle. My advice to people get into product design is to be “t-shaped”: skilled in a few areas, knowledgeable in many.

One thing you must have is an ability to learn, adapt and see the bigger picture. For example, you don’t have to be the best visual designer, but you can’t ignore visual design as an important part of your product. Same could be said for code, or infrastructure, or marketing. You need to engage on many levels with many subjects.

A product designer acts as a bridge of sorts. We connect customers to products and experiences. Management to engineering. Design to code. Business requirements to user needs. A great product designer will sit in the middle and be somewhat invisible, it matters less to which side you actually lean. If I’m doing a good job, for example, no one will notice I’m there. It’s essential to be able to get comfortable, on some level, with a lot of different kinds of work. This is a challenge at times, but can also be very rewarding if you look at it right.

So, what do you think? Are you a product designer? Maybe a product manager with a different background? How does your daily work break out? It’s a harder question to answer than you might think. Head on over to Branch and let’s talk about it.


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