Working In Product Design

The job behind finding the job

The fluid nature of the industry means that most people are still figuring out what product design is — even if they already work in the field.

Updated September 08, 2019

As an industry, Design has always managed to produce more questions than answers.

Such is the nature of any field that continually evolves as it collides with the innovations occurring around it at an ever-increasing speed.

What makes Product Design particularly interesting is the fact that it is still finding its shape at this very moment. Not a day goes by without a post like this surfacing:

It’s the quote “shared fundamentals” part of that post that should capture your attention. Walk into an elevator with a group of designers, and you’ll likely hear several opinions about what those “shared fundamentals” are. Regardless of the answers you hear, everyone who speaks up is correct because these are opinions.

Now would be an excellent time to point out that the industry has long been in disagreement about the titles associated with designers. There is no shortage of debate around the topic of designer job titles.

With so little agreement on such essential elements, why would anyone bother to create a course focused on Product Design?

I refer back to the post above for the key. “Specialisms exist on a spectrum, with shared fundamentals.”

That post is one example of an organization attempting to recognize the value of individual specializations while also pointing out that everyone should maintain a core set of fundamentals. It’s the fundamentals that hold teams together and push projects through during the tough moments that can strike any business.

Product design is a craft that increasingly is making room for specialists while pointing out that a healthy supply of generalists is needed to keep operations functioning.

Titles aside, what’s the job?

With all the conversation surrounding titles, the actual job performed by a product designer can get lost in the shuffle.

For this introductory course, I chose to zoom out beyond the daily duties associated with product design so that we could first observe the larger world that this role resides within.

The chapters you’ve covered in this short course address three main areas of concern:

  • Iterative Design
  • Systems Thinking
  • Design Ethics

Products evolve and to be successful in Product Design. You have to understand that the work is continually evolving — even if nothing is changing about the work itself. That’s because products exist in the world with other things, like people! Where these elements combine

These interactions are why we spent time working through the need to think beyond the product you are working on and considering the system that the product will exist within.

When we begin mucking around with systems impacted by our work, ethical consideration is required. For that reason, we spent a significant amount of time looking at big and small ways that product design could potentially go wrong.

With those three issues addressed, now we can discuss the “shared fundamentals” mentioned earlier.

Product Design should always be an attempt to improve a process or service strategically. Perhaps Tatiana Mac said it best...

To “move intentionally and fix things,” we must make rational, ethical decisions as we work. To enable ourselves to make those decisions, we have to perform the research needed to understand both the problem and the people who use our products. Something remarkable happens when you care about helping people — you develop empathy for them. All of this activity occupies an outsized chunk of User Experience (UX) Design.

That says nothing of the aspect of inclusion, a point that Tatiana delivers in this compelling talk.

UX shifts from research-driven activities to begin generating the content, message, and direction our products take. It’s at this point that the line between UX and Visual Design blurs beyond recognition until you look up and you’re running accessibility tests and building out prototypes. Visual Design and Interaction Design will occasionally collide at this point — but only if there is any Visual Design present in your product.

In 2009, it would have been impossible to predict the design landscape in 2019. The same is true today as it’s difficult to conceptualize what form a product might take in the coming years.

Still, you can bet that it will involve the communication of information. Wherever communication is occurring, you can count on there being a significant amount of Conversational Design happening.

Regardless of the interface, everything has to eventually reach the intended users — which is where Frontend Design comes into the picture. Here the question migrates from what type of Designer are you to whether you are a Designer or a Developer?

As fuzzy as these boundaries feel, know that they are even fuzzier in reality. As stated earlier, all of these aspects exist in Product Design when viewed as a spectrum of possible jobs to be done. The jobs you will be asked to execute on will largely depend on the organization where you work. Large organizations will continue to seek out designers with greater specialization in particular areas. While smaller teams will lean primarily on generalists, who are flexible enough to pick up new skills as the need arises.

design-job-spectrum Source: newpragmatic.com

Through it all, you can count on companies of all sizes will create and post ridiculous jobs asking for designers to possess every skill possible. Such posts are a sign that a company has no idea what it needs. In the past, I’ve been quick to judge those postings only to find out that the designers you’d be working with rarely saw the job posting. If you take the time to talk with designers who work at these places, you’ll discover that everyone works at an organization that is dysfunctional on some level.

Knowing this, apply for the jobs that are asking for the moon. Invite the person on the other end of that posting to have a conversation about the problems their organization is facing so you can both discover what they need.

Finding the jobs

As good people exist everywhere, so do good jobs in Product Design.

You can count on any major city from Bangalore to Boston to have dozens of open positions that fall into the Product Design spectrum. To be clear, while there are posts for Product Designers, other titles you might apply for include:

  • UX Designer
  • UI Designer
  • Interaction Designer
  • Motion Designer
  • Researcher
  • Information Architect
  • countless other variations

While the field of Product Design encompasses a lot of different potential job titles, there is no shortage of job sites brimming with potential opportunities for you. Aside from simply using Google or LinkedIn to power your job search, here are a few other job sites to bookmark for your upcoming search:

On most of the sites listed above, you can search by specific location to tailor the results to your general area. However, anything listed above that has ‘Remote’ in the title is a job site dedicated to connecting you with employment opportunities that allow you to work from anywhere.

I’m a big fan of remote work and believe the practice reaps considerable benefits to both employee and employer — but it isn’t for everyone. Furthermore, most employers won’t consider hiring someone into a remote role without prior industry experience.

Could you land a remote job with little prior experience? Sure. I’m positive that it has happened, but the odds are stacked against you when you are just beginning your career.

While remote is a dream scenario for many, having industry experience enhances the likelihood that you might turn that dream into reality.

How much does it pay?

Ultimately, everyone has to eat — yourself included. For that reason, you should never feel uncomfortable talking about or asking how much a job pays.

Compared to other industries, Product Design jobs pay very well.

While the field sets the range, the four key factors below determine the offer that you receive.

Experience is mostly a false qualifier that many employers continue to lean on in job postings. Five years of experience means little because it says nothing about the quality of the individual’s work. Talent and potential can beat the experience requirement, but only if you can appropriately display those attributes to the potential employer.

Range and Specialization represent two sides of the same coin. As discussed earlier in our description of job evolution, design jobs exist on a spectrum. Your ability to show Range on that spectrum could be an attractive quality — if the employer values range. In other instances, depth and specialization are sought, turning Range into an anchor on your ambitions.

For those changing careers, Range is your greatest weapon because it allows you to leverage your past while continuing to grow in new directions. I am a big fan of generalists, but I am pragmatic enough to understand that my view is not universally appreciated.

Location is probably the most straightforward aspect of salary ranges that you’ll see posted online. Yes, many designers make six-figure salaries in San Francisco and New York — but those dramatically inflated numbers reflect the cost of living in those locations.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the impact of location on your potential earnings would be to utilize a salary tool that shows the difference between regions. Many job sites include them, but I prefer the BuiltIn tool that allows you to compare areas while also seeing the range of salaries in a particular city.

design-job-pay Source: builtin.com

While it only covers a handful of cities, it does provide a glimpse into the real cost associated with living in a major tech hub.

The final aspect that impacts how much a Product Design job is the most important one.

Ultimately, you are the final factor that can impact the salary offered for a Product Design position. The manner you carry yourself in an interview matters as much as the work in your portfolio. If you fail to muster the confidence needed to properly value yourself when asked, you can dramatically damage your earning potential.

For this reason, I encourage my students to emphasize research during the interview process. The more you know about the people and companies you’re interviewing with, the more confidence you’ll have. That confidence has a sneaky way of spreading to other aspects — like the way you present yourself to others.

Finally, nothing quite prepares you for an interview like — an interview. We have all had bad interviews before, but you don’t have to have one with a potential employer. Practice interviews are a vital part of successful job search preparation.

If you’ve never been through a practice interview, this video will show you what they are like at New Pragmatic. You need a dedicated mentor to conduct these sessions, but need someone who will push you to perform at your highest level. That’s not always the easiest thing to pull off when practicing with family and friends.

Exercise

I created the Intro to Product Design course to give you a glimpse into the world of Product Design while surfacing the opportunities available to you. Before deciding to go further, it is crucial to stop and think about what it would be like to work in this field.

This activity is very similar to looking for a new home. You might fall in love with the house itself, but what is the neighborhood like and could you stand the neighbors should you decide to move in.

Your assignment in this exercise is to find three job postings in your area that you believe you would find interesting. Answer the following questions associated with each selection:

  • Why do I find this position interesting?
  • What skills or attributes do I possess that would make me an ideal candidate?
  • What listed skills or attributes do I currently lack?

As you work through the prompts above, try to be honest with yourself. Being too positive will set you up for disappointment while being too hard on yourself could squash your confidence before you get started.

Once complete, update your Journal with links to any assets or supporting material for this exercise. Post a link to Journal in the Feedback-Loop channel for review.

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