How To Make the Best Choice: Product Design vs. UX Design
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How To Make the Best Choice: Product Design vs. UX Design

Product design is often mixed up with UX design. Learn the similarities and differences so you know who to hire (or which position to apply for).

As demand for online consumer attention increases and, in turn, consumers become more demanding of their digital products, it’s only natural the usability field would expand to match the need. That expansion has resulted in various specialization areas within the digital design process industry. 

While this evolution is great for builders and consumers of digital products, the number and variety of roles within the user experience space can be confusing. In this article, you’ll learn the similarities and differences between two key roles: product designers and UX designers. We’ll go over why the distinction is important and when you should hire for each role.

What Is Usability?

The term usability is often tossed about to describe any and every aspect of user experience. In fact, usability is just one piece of the UX puzzle, used in combination with interaction design, user interface (UI) design (also called visual design), UX researchers, and more. These specializations, each requiring unique talents and skills, come together to produce a final product that delights its end-users and keeps them coming back for more.

While the intricacies of UI/UX design are of little interest to those enjoying these delightful digital experiences, companies building digital products and individuals building a career in the design industry need to understand the key differences between the roles — especially the roles of product designer and UX designer.

Product Design vs. UX Design

While similar in many ways, a product designer is more strategic, viewing the product as it compares to the competition and where it should be in the future. A UX designer focuses primarily on improving the current state of a product and operates more tactically and internally.

It’s important to know there is an overlap between many specializations within the digital design field. This occurs naturally because each role is so closely related and in some situations, one person might wear multiple hats. Not every company can hire for each role, requiring staff to be adept at multiple roles within the space.

The image below shows a visual representation of the skill specialization in various user experience roles, with the higher specialized roles deeper in the center. The two roles with the broadest knowledge, and the least amount of specialization, are the product designer and the UX designer. 

Product design vs UX design: Usability roles diagram

Similarities Between Product Design and UX Design

Let’s start with common ground. Both product and UX designers strive to build delightful, user-friendly products that accomplish the end-users’ goals. Equally important to both roles are:

  • Ease of use and workflow
  • Intuitive placement of workflow artifacts like buttons, menus, and icons
  • Building in natural opportunities for user feedback loops, upgrades, and add-ons
  • Appropriate levels of customization to personalize the workspace for the optimal user experience

Product designers and UX designers have many of the same goals. So, where do the differences lie?

Differences Between Product Design and UX Design

The primary difference between product design and UX design is in their perspective. A product designer is more strategic while a UX designer is more tactical. So what does that mean in the real world?

What a Product Designer Does

A product designer is working toward longer-term business goals. By considering the entire market, a product designer makes decisions today to set up the product to meet tomorrow’s business objectives. How will the product development roadmap help them stay competitive? Are there opportunities to lead innovation in their space? What can their product do better to beat the competition? And, where is the product falling short?

While the product designer won’t execute market research tasks or UX research activities, they are very interested in the results. Research and testing discoveries help determine product development’s next steps and possibly offer new ideas for features or even new products.

Finally, product designers factor in cost and time-to-market in their design thinking process. Weighing the cost and benefits of specific product design solutions is how product designers decide what to move forward with, which UX/UI design elements to put in the parking lot, and which design concepts will be eliminated. Because executing UX/UI deliverables is a secondary role for the product designer, they have the objectivity needed to make these tough decisions.

If this sounds like a product manager role, that’s understandable. Some would assert that a product manager and a product designer are essentially the same roles. While there are arguments for both sides of that debate, the two roles share many similar responsibilities. 

When looking for someone to bring a product to new markets, innovate for future end-user needs, and meet or exceed the competition, look for a product designer.

As a job seeker, if your skills and professional preferences lean toward the big-picture view, positioning your product within entire industries or markets, and leaving the details to others, a product design role is better for you.

What a UX Designer Does

The UX designer is also invested in the product outcome. They are equally committed to product success but are more focused on the immediate needs than a future state. User experience designers have a pulse on industry trends and their competitive landscape; however, it’s not their primary responsibility. UX designers use their awareness of these external influences to make UX/UI decisions today that allow them to easily incorporate product design changes in the future. 

While product designers are deeply involved, UX designers drive the execution of UX deliverables. 

They are experts in: 

  • Building wireframes with FIGMA or Sketch
  • Prototyping with InVision, Sketch or Axure
  • Completing user research
  • Assessing and meeting end-users’ immediate needs
  • Using design tools like Adobe products

Rather than looking outward toward the competition or forward toward the future, UX designers are excellent at problem-solving for today.

UX designers excel in bringing UI design, information architecture, sitemaps, and wireframing artifacts together as a holistic experience for the user. While they do have a broad skill set, UX designers usually have advanced or expert skills in at least a few specializations. 

When looking for someone to execute the visual design, information architecture, and workflows of an existing product roadmap, look for a UX designer. 

As a job seeker, if you have broad interests and enjoy building prototypes, have visual design skills, or have a knack for laying out workflows for product functionality, a UX designer role is right for you. If you prefer more focus, choose a specialized role such as a UI designer or a UX developer focused on building wireframes or using the latest prototyping tools.

Why the Differences Are Important

The differences between product designers and UX designers are important in looking for a job or hiring for your company. The job title and corresponding job description need to align with the need or professional goal. 

A mismatch between job title and job function leads to dissatisfaction for both the employee and the company. A product designer may not have the appropriate skill set required for a UX designer position and vice versa. 

For employers, the cost of acquiring and onboarding new employees alone should warrant more consideration for which role will best meet the company’s needs. Take the time up front to confirm a potential new hire’s skills and aspirations match the job function. Be clear about the day-to-day responsibilities and make sure they align with the job posting. 

Either way, both interviewers and interviewees need to ask specific questions about strategy versus execution to check for skill set and position compatibility before extending or accepting an offer.

Product Design vs. UX Design: Similar but Different

If you’re a company building products intended to delight end-users, knowing the spectrum of UX skills and roles is critical to the success of your product and your UX team. This understanding ensures you get the correct employees hired to meet the needs of the team. It also helps you have more productive conversations when hiring an agency, like December Labs, to assist your product team.

For budding UX professionals, take the time to investigate the different areas of specialization within UX/UI design to determine where your skills fit the best. When applying for positions, be aware that different companies use different job titles for various skills, and ask questions. 

Design process as a vocation is primed for an exciting future for both end-users and UX professionals. Taking the time to understand and appreciate all the user experience design roles ensures even more delightful product builds in the future.

Ready to rocket-fuel your product? If you want to outsource your UX design needs, we’ve got you covered. Our staff at December Labs has the skills and experience to work with all stakeholders on every aspect of your product. Check out all of our services, including design thinking, UX and UI design, web and app development, AI, and computer vision and connect with us today to talk about your design needs.

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