Demystifying design
5 min read

The role of a product designer

By
Louise Hill
September 17, 2023
Share this post
Mobile phone with an app showing temperature and air quality. In the background are a laptop and a large apple screen showing app designs.

Overview

TLDR: A digital product designer works on, or conceptualises new, digital products. These digital products are typically mobile apps, websites, web apps, interactive screens and software. Many digital product designers also design experiences within virtual reality, augmented reality and other digital media. Digital product designers shape how a digital product looks, works and feels.

What do digital product designers do?

The work of a digital product designer can span the entire lifecycle of a digital product. This can include:

  • market and customer research, concept sketches, prototypes
  • live early versions of a product
  • optimising and improving a product and its features
  • pivoting the product to new opportunity areas

Collaborative working

Of course, this work cannot be done in a vacuum.An effective digital product needs to be:

  • viable (is there a business case for it?) feasible (can it actually be built?)
  • desirable (do people want to use it, can people use it?)
  • accessible (can people use it?)
  • measurable (how can it be improved over time?)

Often collaborating with a product manager and developer (also known as a product trio), and sometimes with a dedicated user researcher—a digital product designer may conduct customer/service user research to understand and prioritise what problems the digital product needs to solve. This can include activities like observing customers or service users during their day-to-day lives, sending out surveys for them to fill out, having in-depth interviews with customers or service users, or reading market research reports and reviewing competitor designs. Involving other stakeholders or team members in this process can help speed up sharing a common understanding of what customers need and further streamline decision making.

4 circles interlocking with the words viability, measurability, feasibility, accessibility and desirability inside them.
The foundations of robust digital product designs: viability; feasibility; desirability; accessibility; measurability

A digital product designer is a pragmatist. They need to ensure designs can be built. They work with representatives across areas of viability, feasibility, desirability, accessibility and measurability and harness their expertise (e.g. marketers, fellow designers, product managers, sales representatives, developers, founders, technical architects, data scientists, etc.).

A digital product designer’s role is typically to help create a common understanding of what to build and why, through showing visual artefacts like mockups, wireframes and prototypes and getting feedback from a wide range of product stakeholders, iterating on designs as they go.If the digital product designer can clearly articulate their design choices and back them up with research findings, technical considerations, stakeholder inputs and business metrics, a more aligned team and a better-performing product will likely result.

The digital product designer will often be required to test out designs, or run data experiments with their product trio with customers or service users. Again, having the whole team involved (developers, product managers) can increase mutual understanding of the problem space and why certain decisions have been made along the way, further reducing implementation time.Once designs are given the go-ahead, the digital product designer will create production-ready designs and often work closely with developers to ensure they are implemented as desired. They will also tend to document the decisions made along the way so all the rich learnings are maintained and added to as time goes by.

Is a product designer a UX designer, or a UI designer?

Well, yes and also no. There are a rich array of specialist design roles in the digital product space:

A user experience (UX) designer

Covers the feelings people have when using a digital product or service. UX designers help digital product users achieve their goals, as well as hit business requirements, through signposting and displaying information to them effectively.

A user interface (UI) designer

Covers the visual aspects of an interface, the handover process to developers and reviewing what they build to make sure it matches up. UI designers are heavily informed by UX and user research.

A user researcher

Covers deep-diving into markets, discovering what people need from a product or service, what their goals and desires are and how the product or service can be improved to align with these better.

An interaction designer

Covers the ways a customer or service user interacts with elements within a digital product, these designers often have a high level of expertise in animation and motion.

A service designer

Covers the entire service. Often digital products contain non-digital elements, including things like phone calls with customer service, employees tracking down items in warehouses, or customers receiving items in the post. A service designer looks at all of these processes holistically and finds ways to improve the entire experience of interacting with the service provided.

A content designer

Covers creating, managing and improving digital content within digital products and use usability data, user testing and accessibility testing to improve how that content is received and understood.

A UX writer

Covers language used specifically to improve the user experience. They help guide the product’s users through using intuitive, accessible copy on items like buttons, error messages, menu options and other system components.

5 arrows linking with the words strategy, research, definition, iteration and execution inside. On the left underneath is: Project Management and on the right underneath is: Development. Below is an arrow spanning: design research (left), interaction design (middle) and visual design (right).
A product designer is a generalist, based on a great diagram by Paul DeVay.

Design generalist

All of the design roles above (there are even more! Shout out to design system designers, motion designers, growth designers, the list goes on…) can be entirely owned by specialist designers (and typically are in larger companies where the workload demands it). A digital product designer predominantly covers UX, UI, interaction design and user research, and often has additional skills that sit within other design disciplines.

A digital product designer is necessarily a generalist because of the breadth of work they cover. Digital product designers should aim to have a good level of understanding of all the specialist design roles and responsibilities and know when to call on different experts as needed. Digital product designers also need to have a good grasp of business, strategic and technological product requirements (this is often referred to as product thinking).

Of course, digital product designers don’t need to know everything—it’s unlikely they will be covering the entire product design process from day one of their careers. We love this article on digital product designer career growth by Aaron James— it helps junior product designers assess where they are in their journey and where they can develop next.

How can I help you with digital product design?

You may have a brand new digital product you want to bring to market, or an existing digital product you want to improve.I can understand your requirements and goals; conduct customer or end user research to help you decide what to build; work on concepts for you and present these designs to you or different stakeholders within your organisation; test out designs with your customers or service users; create production-ready designs and work with your developers (or our development partners) to get them out into the market; help advise on building out your product teams; slot into your existing teams (scrum, cross-functional, agile—we’ve worked in all types of digital product team shapes), or work externally to your teams.