“Product designers” and design team evolution

(This may or may not end up being part of a series of my reflections as in my role as VP of Global Design at Groupon.)

In Silicon Valley, there’s a new(-ish) design role called “product designer.” I first heard about it at Facebook a few years ago, and since then, many other companies have adopted it (including Groupon, where I work). Product designers are jacks-of-all-trades, expected to deliver interaction design, information architecture, visual design, and even front-end code. From what I can tell, “product designer” emerged for two primary reasons:

  1. Startups don’t have the resources for many employees, and so needed individual designers who could cover a lot of ground
  2. More and more young designers demonstrate these cross-trained skills, and don’t want to be pigeon-holed

The title also suggests a tight relationship with product managers.

With the rise of the product designer, there’s a simultaneous progression and regression in digital experiences. Using Jesse’s 12-year-old diagram (!) as a framework, we’re seeing the top two planes getting tastier and more interesting — look at Path, Square, AirBNB. Luscious full-bleed high-design screens where it’s clear that designers obsessed over every pixel and element of movement. But in that middle plane, digital experiences suffer from a lack of attention to flows, taxonomies, relationships between content areas, etc. (Any attempt to navigate Path turns into a trip down the rabbit hole.)  We’ve forsaken managing complexity in favor of delight in the moment.

Additionally, a challenge seems to occur as design organizations scale, and the product designer (or 2) needs to turn into a product design team. People who are able to deliver effectively across the entire “product designer” set are few and far between, and so if you require all of those boxes to be checked, you’ll be looking for a long time.

So, organizations end up changing requirements, looking more for “T-shaped” people (strong in one thing, able to work well cross-discipline). This leads to an uncomfortable interim where you have these jacks-of-all-trades who feel a sense of ownership of the whole trying to figure out how to collaborate with a designer who is focusing on a part.

This means designers (and the organizations they work for) must embrace a team model of design. I’ve never worked in a context other than that of team design, so I’ve been staggered by the Silicon Valley startup model where team design is considered optional. (I had coffee with a friend from New York today, who said that Silicon Valley is becoming notorious for the ‘design unicorn‘, whereas New York startups are more, well, traditional in their thinking about teams.)

Another interesting aspect to this is productivity. I’ve always sought to hire generalists, because I believe a small team of capable generalists (who each might have different emphases) is stronger and can deliver more than a large team of dedicated specialists. Product designers often work alone, and because they’re expected to do so many things, end up working on projects of limited scope. (I think this contributes to the problem of managing complex user experiences). My supposition is that the small team of generalists can also out-produce an equal number of team-of-one product designers. You get higher quality, because folks who have a functional emphasis (such as visual design or interaction design) can deliver better than those whose priority is developing a broader set of tools. And you get greater output, because their mastery of those areas means they can deliver more quickly. What you give up are the transaction/overhead costs of teamwork, but I don’t think those are as great as the gains.

An essential element to making this all work is leadership. Design teams *will* be less effective than a squad of singular designers if there’s no clear leadership and authority. Someone needs to step up and be accountable, or design teams will flounder. For reasons I’ve never quite understood, design teams can be quite bristly about leadership, but it is essential. Much the same way that there’s one director of a film who makes the final call, there needs to be one leader of a design team who makes decisions and keeps things moving.



3 thoughts on ““Product designers” and design team evolution

  1. As a designer who has a very diverse background and having come to realize I am more of a generalist myself, I have had a lot of trouble finding my place. I have a broad range (UX/UI, interaction, usability, visual, coding, motion graphics, etc) of expertise and I really enjoy working in many areas to create an entire user’s experience (the code stuff maybe not as much though)

    My question for you is, what kind of position and company environment would be best for me?

  2. @Jonathan – Sounds like you need to accentuate your “T-shape”, at least according to Peter here.

    So, pick which skill you are best at, and set it boiling on a high heat. Keep the rest on simmer. Add seasoning and serve it all up to a medium or large-sized company as “Lead X Designer”, where X is your deep skill.

  3. How is product designer really different from user Experience designer, as it’s typically hired into? Seems like they both fill the same need: one headcount, all design. http://boxesandarrows.com/mythic-design/