You’d be hard pressed to find a startup founder who wouldn’t jump at the chance to be the world’s next Uber, Netflix, or Airbnb. Design-driven companies like these are disrupting long-standing incumbent businesses and industries, even creating industries all their own.
They’re not doing it through a single-minded focus on development, either.
Instead, we see the product designer emerging as a critical player in product development for these disruptive, industry-rocking companies.
By focusing on customer needs, companies like the ones I listed are seeing explosive success. Airbnb was named Inc.’s Company of the Year for 2014; valued at $51 billion. Uber tied Facebook’s record for a private, venture-backed startup thanks to its expansion to more than 300 cities in five years.Netflix consistently expands its user base, now at more than 75 million. All these companies experienced success thanks, in part, to their emphasis on designing optimal customer experiences.
For the companies disrupting the market today, design is no longer just a “stage” in the business process — it is the language of business.
As more organizations embrace the power and necessity of good design, the evolving role of the product designer has emerged as a crucial one for companies defined by a fundamental shift in the user experience.
Today’s product designers are often UI/UX designers that apply their deep knowledge of the user experience across all aspects of the design process. By adding in “soft” skills like business strategy, technical prowess and marketing insights, they offer a broader, holistic view of design.
They know Sketch or Photoshop might be the tool designers use to solve problems, but it’s not where they create value. And they recognize that design is about creating a human experience above all else. As Airbnb’s Katie Dill says, “All problems are human problems.”
A talented product designer’s contributions will pay dividends across your organization. Here’s how:
They ask “why.”
You have a problem — somewhere, with something (don’t we all?).
Unlike designers who dash to their design platforms, or a developer who jumps into the code, the skilled product designer stops to ask “why” first.
Product designers know the value of curiosity before action. Implementing a new feature shouldn’t happen just because the customer wants it, because often, the customer doesn’t exactly know what they want.
That’s why product designers conduct research and analysis, asking thoughtful questions to gain deeper insight. They’ll sketch out a solution — whether that’s a wireframe, prototype, or just pen to paper — and validate it before “designing” anything.
Good product designers also aren’t shy to share early and iterate collaboratively. They know investing too much time or emotion up front is the enemy of creativity.
Knowledge is power. No one knows this better than the product designer.
By gathering knowledge, product designers arm themselves with deep insight. Thus, they’re confident in their actions because they know they’ve looked at every angle, and have come to a solution only after completing the necessary research.
Braden Kowitz of Google Ventures puts it perfectly: “Understanding how design directly impacts your user makes you powerful. That power makes you dangerous to incumbents.”
They’re the original brand ambassador.
Product designers craft the products your business and brand depend on. When the promise doesn’t match the product, customers feel deceived.
Product designers have an intimate knowledge of the product, making them your best tool for creating meaningful marketing. They know how the customer interacts with your product because they’ve done the research. In that way, they have insight your marketing team can use to craft pitch-perfect sales messaging.
In shaping pieces from all kinds of different design contributors, the product designer doesn’t just see the forest for the trees — they see it all, and this is their most valuable trait.
They recognize that while some problems require a focus on one type of design, most solutions are born from an objective understanding of all pieces of the design puzzle. Good UX design won’t matter if the visuals fall flat, and visuals and graphics that dazzle won’t mean a thing if the user is confused about where to go next.
Soren Petersen, a design science author and researcher, says design-centric organizations apply design thinking to its leadership, structure, culture, and processes to fuel innovation across the board. In this way, design is the language of business, not just a department.
Product designers understand the value of a wide lens view, and that’s why they are fit for leadership. The thoughtful way a product designer approaches challenges — by gathering research and creating iterative prototypes — paves the way for effective, relevant design that customers will connect to.
If you’re looking for your next design leader, look no further than an experienced product designer.