What Is Product Design In The Digital Age?

To understand Product Design for the modern era of technology, one that’s filled with iOS applications and web applications and the like, we have to go back. Back to when it all began with product design and learn what that meant. Lets go to the 1960’s. This is an era when advertising and marketing were really starting to take off. You could sell an idea, a dream, something that was potentially harmful or unclear. When you think of this type of work, you might attribute this closer to graphic design. Something two dimension that has one intended communication purpose. This sometimes is classified now as communication design. Because it became more widely accepted that the intention of that graphic design was simply to communicate. But then on the other end of the spectrum there was still microwaves, toasters, coffee makers and things like this that needed to be made. And people like Dieter Rams were still looking at this and saying, we can have a better design. If you think about the comparative of these two things. Both serve a purpose but one has a physical purpose to it. A job, function, or need that’s being filled. And there you have the starting point for Product Design.

So how it did it turn into Product Design when we think digital products and not toasters anymore? Well, early in the web, the starting point was very two dimensional. It was simply about communication and not entirely about doing a job or serving a purpose. People were spending less time behind computers and it wasn’t their primary working mode, yet. But then the evolution came. And applications on the internet and on the desktop computer became more so functional than entertainment based. They served an almost three dimension purpose in a digital world. And as everyone began to transition this mode of thinking, an old terminology became reinvented. We brought back Product Design.

Product Designers are often the people who think about ways a human may interface with a computer in a friendly, native way. They are the people who think clearly about use cases for how a physical feeling it attached to a digital portrayal. They are the ones who are putting nice visual aesthetic onto a digital product but they are also the ones making sure its working properly. For instance, a product designer isn’t going to build a broken toaster, paint it black and say its done. It still has to heat the bread and toast it. Or else it fails the fundamental parts of the design process.

Product Designers are used in organizations in a variety of ways today. They are multi-disciplinary elements to a company that often work horizontally between multiple departments, helping to bridge together solutions to complex problems that can be difficult to communicate verbally. They are the ones helping engineers understand requirements better and helping marketing to understand what opportunities might exist in the market with the profound and new solution. They traditional sit on the Product Management part of the organization.

An often seen daily work-life of this unique player may be to prototype, wireframe, think through requirements and display visual representations of the simplest path to highest reward. Wireframes are used to communicate the bones of a project. This is similar to blueprints for a house. The blueprints can be discussed, reviewed and altered without much work. For instance, in our home building scenario, you don’t want to tear down a home and start over. It would increase costs of building that home significantly. And this is how software development organizations use designers. They help to communicate across the executive level in a way that can reduce cost.

When something begins to get prototyped, it means that they are also helping to reduce cost. They are putting together a piece of software in a non-working fashion. Think of this scenario as getting a model of a home made versus having a team of people make a temporary home that they will ultimately tear down later.

The product design definition as state by State School of Design:

The design process is divided into many different phases, which include various form of sketching and prototyping. However, sometimes the idea starts from a problem people may experience, and designing a solution to solve it. It is about establishing a link between the user and the environment, using an object to address a need.

How Erik Eriksson describes Product Design and the Product Designer role:

Product Designers are the caretakers of the foundation upon which the business depends. Discrepancies between what your brand is promising and what your Product delivers are, ultimately, what will cause you to fail. This means that it is of utmost importance that your Product Design team works closely with, and understands the work of, your Marketing team.

I also appreciate how Smashing Magazine describes Product Design:

Product design is the process of identifying a market opportunity, clearly defining the problem, developing a proper solution for that problem and validating the solution with real users.

And as we hone in on our earlier statements in this article, the need to classify product design in the digital space, Wikipedia has a classification of “Digital Product Design” that’s fitting:

Digital product design is an iterative design process to solve a functional problem with a formal solution. A digital product designer identifies a real problem, offers the best possible solution, and launch it to a market that is showing demand for that particular solution. The field is considered a subset of product design. Some digital products have both digital and physical components such as Nike+ and Fitbit, but the term is mainly used for product produced through software engineering. Since digital product design have become a mainstream in creative industry, a digital product designer often times is simply referred to as product designer in job posts.

Muz.li has a nice depiction of the future of this category:

No longer is it reasonable for design leaders to merely advocate for “average” users, emphasizing an arbitrary quality bar that appeals to many but fulfills the needs of only a few. These design leaders know they can’t simply be data-driven, but instead they must be data-informed and make decisions from data that’s paired with empathy and diverse perspectives. They know that data can’t empathize or feel.

Leaders in digital product design are those who are willing to pull on a thread in order to uncover where an experience might fail, cause harm, or otherwise negatively influence real people.

I hope this gives you an idea of the past, present and future of product design as a definition. Its an evolving term as technology advances. As more designers become like product thinkers, like engineers, its beginning to make changes again. In general, the design process will always be the same. A three dimensional outlook on problem solving. A layer of which a human and computer can interact together to interface in a new way. As we become more dependent on technology, and its form molds quickly, this role will be of more and more importance.

author: patrick algrim
About the author

Patrick Algrim is an experienced executive who has spent a number of years in Silicon Valley hiring and coaching some of the world’s most valuable technology teams. Patrick has been a source for Human Resources and career related insights for Forbes, Glassdoor, Entrepreneur, Recruiter.com, SparkHire, and many more.


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