Product Design, Unicorns, & the Full Stack Designer

December 7, 2017 Jenn Dodd


At its heart, product design is problem solving that covers the full stack of design. It starts by asking the existential and big picture questions, listening to everything and distilling it, and then diving down into the details of a solution: the microinteractions, pixels, and semi-colons; all framed within the context of a digital product.

You might be thinking “Uh, thanks for the buzz words, but what IS product design and what does a product designer actually do?” And to that I say: your expectations of a TLDR are very high. Read on!

Concerning unicorns

When I grew up, I wanted to be a unicorn. Actually, I wanted to be a paleontologist and spend my days talking about dinosaurs, but that didn’t happen. At least not the paleontologist part. I heard about unicorns and thought “Not a bad backup plan.”

The term is being used less and less now, but originally a unicorn referred to a designer who could code. It fit. I fit. I learned (and fell in love) with code because I wanted to build the images I was creating. I also wanted in on those nerdy developer jokes. Something still wasn’t working, though—that thing that wasn’t working was the product we were building.

It turns out that code love just isn’t enough build a great product; product design requires much, much more than that.

Each phase of product design is fluid and overlaps the other phases. The result is a big picture that looks a lot more cohesive than a horse with a horn stuck to its face. So, I’m pretty over trying to be a unicorn. It’s fine, really, because I’m scared of horses anyway.

The full design stack

Development has the concept of a “full stack” developer (a developer who can handle both backend and frontend development) and now design has a very similar concept.

Product designers are generalists working along the full stack of a product.

Tech moves fast but users and markets move even faster. The role of ‘Product Designer’ came about because designers needed bigger toolkits to keep up. This breed of designer is a hybrid with each designer in it evolving and adapting from another area of design (interiors and graphic design in my case).

From whatever design ooze these designers originated from, their skill-sets have broadened to cover the following areas:

Domain modeling

This goes hand in hand with user research, but covers the entire domain. ‘Domain’ in this case refers to the environment, industry, competitors, and language that the product exists (or will exist) in. Any designer needs these skills, but this is an especially important skill if the designer is freelancing or consulting. Understanding the lay of the land is just as important as understanding the user.

User research

This happens at the same time as domain modeling. The main activities done here are creating user research scripts, conducting the interviews, running workshops with stakeholders, and synthesizing all those conversations. It produces heaps and heaps of data — and product designers love data. This step is incredibly important, but also incredibly undervalued. It’s exciting to dive in and get started, but without a solid understanding of the problem and the users, the risk of building an unwanted and/or unusable product grows exponentially.

UX/UI design

Now that there is all of this data, the product designer begins framing it into possible solutions. Using personas (or Jobs To Be Done) as a guide, user flows and UI wireframes begin being generated. As soon as a hypothesis or assumption is created, it gets validated through user testing. This is the heart of product design. Domain modeling and user research stretch out into one arm, and visual design, animation, and front end development stretch out on another. Without a strong UX core, a successful product can’t be built.

Visual design & branding

Visual design and branding play an integral role to product design. If the UX is done right, this usually will be what the user will notice most. Unfortunately, it’s often what stakeholders will value most. It’s the product designer’s job to make sure that the visual design doesn’t take precedence over the UX of the product. A beautiful product that a user can’t use is a waste of everyone’s time and money.

Business strategy

Speaking of money… While the business isn’t (ever!) THE user, it’s likely the thing that has the vision and is paying for all this work. The business’ needs and goals need to be considered and supported by the end product. The designer takes these wants and needs (sometimes referred to as business requirements… *shudders*) and validates the crap out of them. They should never be taken at face value or accepted as “mandatory”.

The goal for the product designer is to create alignment between business and user goals. Working with the business to set solid goals and KPIs, create strategies and roadmaps, and keep the bigger vision in mind is an important part of creating a successful product.

Animations & transitions

This is the really fun stuff and where a lot of user delight (or frustration) can be elicited. While not as important for web UIs, thoughtful animations and transitions are super important for mobile where the user is literally touching your product. These responses to touch should feel as positive and natural as a great handshake. There is plenty of room for surprise and play, but over-the-top animations and cheesy transitions can quickly become cumbersome and annoying to the user. A little goes a long way — the product designer knows where that line is and never crosses it.

Code & development

Ah, the horn of the unicorn. While I do think designers working with developers is a necessary step of the process, I don’t think all designers should code. There are many ways to prototype and validate ideas — code is just another tool. What’s really important is being able to communicate those ideas to developers. A designer who can understand the technical complexity (and possibility) of design decisions and prioritize, compromise, or push back appropriately is worth their weight in gold. Technical literacy is a WAY more valuable skill than being able to write some CSS.

So, unicorn?

As you can see, product design covers A LOT.

Is it possible for a designer to have ALL of those skills? Aka: “Oh my god… Are unicorns real?!”

The answer is no. Only at Hogwarts. Everyone knows that, so don’t be crazy.

A good product designer will have some skills in most areas of the stack. Usually they will have a deeper interest in a particular area and master those skills.

A great product designer can identify the areas they are strong in and, conversely, weak in. For the weaker areas they will seek advice and support, sometimes helping build a team to make sure all the gaps are covered.

In the end, it’s pretty simple; a product designer is a full stack designer.

Jenn is a product designer @pivotallabs in NYC who owns way too many Sharpies and drinks way too many Schweppes. Also, she writes about product design every Wednesday.

Thanks to oxygenna for the tool icons!

Product Design, Unicorns, & the Full Stack Designer was originally published in Built to Adapt on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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