People tend to use the word “design” very loosely when talking about product, but it’s actually quite important to distinguish between the types of design (and their respective designers) when seeking to understand what someone means by the term in any given context, as well as how they apply to the overall product development process.
I tend to divide design into three main types: product, interface, andvisual.
The goal of product design is to generate and prioritize functionality that could potentially deliver value to users in correspondence with the product’s stated purpose, or to modify that stated purpose when no such functionality has sufficient potential.
A product designer spends their time mainly thinking about user flows and experiences, which is to say, how users ought to encounter the product at various points in their lifecycles, what they are enabled to do upon those encounters, and how that enablement provides users with additional value.
Such a design involves the least amount of illustration of the three types, but those in the form of low-resolution diagrams, flow charts, and even rough interfaces can help get the point across about how the functionality should work. Often the output of product design consists of verbal materials, such as outlines and essays that convey how the functionality will suit users’ needs and psychological profiles.
A good product designer is aware that prioritization is key to their work because there isn’t enough time or resources for all promising ideas and the ones with the most promise must be tackled first. And the product designer must continually map this product prioritization to the company’s most pressing business objectives.
The goal of interface design is to translate the conceptual functionality conveyed by the product designer and articulate how the user actually experiences and manages to understand that functionality in the product, on a step-by-step basis.
If the product is a website, the focus is on arranging and defining various elements on each page that provides the user with information and input. If the product is a mobile application, then the medium is screen-by-screen, and if physical, its available materials.
The interface designer is most responsible for making the product as intuitively usable as possible so that the highest percentage of users derive the value promised by it. A good interface designer understands the constraints and opportunities afforded by their medium and plays the very empathetic role of envisioning and studying how people of all targeted backgrounds will learn (or fail to learn) how to use the product. And they’re intent on ensuring that the interface elements come together in a cohesive whole that makes sense to users architecturally, delivering those elements as wireframes or other medium-resolution materials to the visual designer.
The goal of visual design is to ensure that the product conveys a sense of quality and elicits the proper emotional response from its users.
Visual design is the most aesthetic and subjective design type, but it’s also the most immediately recognizable one. While visual designers take their cues from product and interface designers, they are responsible for crafting and delivering an ethos for the product. They spend most of their time making interface elements both attractive and appropriately toned so as to reinforce the purpose and value of the product for users, and a good visual designer knows how to make a product pleasurable without making assets that are overly conspicuous.
A visual designer spends the most time on detail, since they sit closest to the user’s actual experience. And they deliver high-resolution images, animations or other user-ready elements that can be incorporated directly into the product.
These types can be treated as a hierarchy, in the sense that product design mainly informs interface design, and interface design mainly informs visual design. And as such, it’s more important to execute successfully on the product design front than the other two, because decisions (both good and bad) made in that tier will cascade to the others. And it’s hard, if not impossible, to make up for shortcomings in product design with amazing interface or visual design (or, likewise, to make up for poor interface design with a compelling visual design).
However, it’s not desirable nor even theoretically possible to focus exclusively on product design without investing in the other two types. There’s no way to actually manifest your product, let alone in a way that consumers find appealing, without spending a decent amount of time actually thinking through its interface and visual considerations and generating outputs from them. In an extreme yet feasible scenario, you could have barebones interface and visual design paired with solid product design and you might eek out traction in a marketplace, but you’ll be making life a lot more difficult for yourself.
The practical question that startups often face, then, is how much attention to give each of these types of design, especially when their general hierarchy is recognized. Does interface design get 50% of the attention as product design, and does visual get 25% of that? Or do they all get roughly equal treatment, or some other division? The answer basically boils down to how much usability friction users can be expected to tolerate (on the interface front) and how central the notions of quality and emotion are to the product’s value proposition (on the visual front) at any given release point.
If you are distributing a product (perhaps a business tool) to people who will likely find value from even a poor user interface and don’t care much about how their tools look and feel, then you probably don’t have to spend as much time on interface and visuals. But if your product (perhaps a game) needs to sway inexperienced and skeptical new users that it’ll dependably provide them with emotional satisfaction, then you may want to make a thorough investment in all three design types. The consideration, therefore, is ultimately a marketing one.
So: I am a Product Designer, and I am very happy having that role in thiscompany.
I am not strictly a UX Designer, as I do not do research, personas, card sorting or what else you might see in a workshop title at a UX conference.
Well, I also do that, given how our users’ experience is always at the heart of what I do, but most of the methodology mentioned above is the work of our Product Manager. He does the user research with real users, as the early phase Opbeat finds itself in leaves out constructing elaborate personas just yet. We might as well just talk to real users and show them what we think they will like, instead of wonder about what a persona might like. (Or, well, we kinda also do that when we think up new features—otherwise it would be kinda hard to go anywhere with the product. It is just that we have not constructed a set persona that we reference. We look at ideas we have had before, new ways to do what we already see people do in some way, and what we believe people could find useful when they use Opbeat.)
I do not do visual design. Well, I also do that, since I make something people look at with their eyes. But it is more a work of piecing together screenshots of Opbeat running in the browser with added CSS hacks in the Inspector, sprinkled with slices of images, and a dash of vector graphics created in Sketch, and then showing it to users, watching their reaction and listening to their feedback. Only then is it either polished in Photoshop, or (preferably, but not always) implemented right away.
“What about wireframes and information architecture?” you might think. Wireframes and information architecture are embedded in the visuals I create and we show to users. I do not create a full hierarchy of how all pages link to each other, but when we put something on the screen you can click on, we need to know where it leads. That is the beauty of working on a product that already has a hierarchy of pages; you know when you replace them, when you add to them, and where your new piece fits in.
It might sound a little haphazard to just (if you see it from a negative point of view, which I do not) wing it like this, but we are at an early stage with our product, trying to put a lot of things in front of users and get as much feedback as possible. At this point, we do not have time to sit around and sweat over the small details of everything; but that does not mean we do not think about what we put out there—quite the contrary. It is exactlybecause we put so much in front of users at an early stage that we are able to only improve the product with the features and polish we—and our users—find absolutely essential.
This process is the truest form of agile product development I have ever seen. Not because we have scrum masters and estimations, but because we are freakin’ fast.
It also lends itself well to my working style, having been at an agency for two years where some days at 9 o’clock, I would not have a clue about what I would work on that day. It prepares you for taking on tasks that might seem huge, and weirdly complicated, but at the end of the day are distilled to an essence of purpose.
Working like that builds confidence in what you produce, is what I am trying to say, and that is a very useful skill to feel you possess, when you are building a product you do not quite know the scope and possible impact of yet.
I know what I think the impact of the product is, and that is what we are working on proving every day.
I spent the last three months in San Francisco, where I took part in Tradecraft, a personal incubator for startup professionals. For 90 days from 9 am till 9 pm I was digging into UX. That meant almost no personal life whatsoever. What is more, for all that time I was 6000 miles away from my girlfriend.
A week ago I finally returned home to Lithuania and saw my girlfriend Guoda. No more skype talks! We took a little vacation and spent some time together. Though, I discovered that I just can’t live without UX and sticky notes anymore. So we decided to run a little workshop.
Write Down All Your Wishes
Earlier, my sister told how she did a one-hundred-wish exercise. The exercise is simple: sit and write down at least 100 wishes. At first, it looks super easy, until you come to 30-40 wishes and think that there is nothing more you desire. That inspired the idea for our workshop.
The first step was to write down all our wishes separately. So we sat down, took a bunch of sticky notes each and kept on writing. It took few hours to write down 50-60 wishes until we ran out of imagination.
Then we took each others sticky notes and read them through. Discovering each other’s wishes and desires was the best part!