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Applied UX Strategy, Part 2: The Product Designer

February 2, 2015

In Part 1 of my series on UX strategy, I defined a mature design approach for the modern world. There are three levels of UX maturity:

  • operational—Designers are just implementers. They work on assigned tasks and create design deliverables.
  • tactical—Designers are an integral part of a product team. They deeply integrate design into other product development tasks and processes.
  • strategic—Designers are visionaries or product strategists—perhaps even product managers. They influence and make strategic decisions on how to evolve a product.

Each level of UX maturity has its own challenges, goals, and limitations. These change as an organization matures. We need strong UX leaders with the clear vision and passion that are necessary to drive change and realize their goals, ensuring that their company’s design culture can grow rather than falling into decline because of real-world limitations. However, UX maturity is impossible without great product designers and a strong UX design team—a great leader alone is not enough. In this article, I’ll describe the role of product designers and how they pursue UX strategy.

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The Need for Speed Amidst Complexity

Most complex design problems reside at the junction of roles, specializations, or systems. You can’t create a perfect mockup of a news magazine without improving the editorial workflow and content management system (CMS). Without taking a systems approach, you’ll never get perfect content or a perfect design. You can’t create a modern Web site design if a site is bloated with glaring banner ads. Avoiding this bloat requires negotiations with sales managers and advertisers—who sell ads far in advance that bring in lots of money. You can’t make any serious changes to a complex product without working with all stakeholders—especially when their interests are in conflict.

You may encounter such situations in any mid-sized or large company, and things get even more complicated as organizations grow. Effective UX designers and researchers can’t just stay in their comfortable professional niches and work only on user interfaces. They must understand what happens in all disciplines throughout the product development cycle—and insist on changes if something is blocking their creating and launching great designs. This is the reality in both more and less mature product companies.

Problems like these have always existed, but they haven’t halted the rapid pace of evolution and progress in technology. The speed to market for modern products is getting faster every year. Product designers must work in agile and Lean development environments. Competition is getting more and more fierce. Every product niche is packed with competitors, so product teams must push the tempo of their work to get their products to market quickly.

However, speed is not the only problem that product designers must deal with. The scope of knowledge that every UX professional must have is really crazy. More and more technological, design, and business factors are becoming critical to design today, and the complexity of design problems is increasing. Some time back, it was enough just to fix Jakob Nielsen’s top ten design mistakes to be better than the competition. Today, most companies have already achieved the basic level of UX hygiene, so we need to explore more nuanced issues such as user engagement, cross-channel experiences, service design, or deep analytics of user-behavior data.

The broad scope of a product designer’s required knowledge has led to increased specialization on product teams—to ensure a decent level of competency in all specialties. But the market’s need for speed is critical, and we must ship products as fast as possible in this highly competitive environment. This is possible only when a product team’s work is well orchestrated and its pace is brisk. The best way to ensure effectiveness is to keep product teams small.

To keep product teams dynamic, we need to get rid of unnecessary and over-specialized roles and avoid redundancy in skills. Either a UX designer, a product manager, or a visual designer could create wireframes. A front-end or back-end developer or a skilled UX designer could work on HTML and CSS code. While hiring specialists in every role might result in higher-quality outcomes, specialization comes with costs such as the following:

  • Communication slows down and details are lost. More people must attend every meeting and participate in each discussion to keep the team on track and ensure that everybody understands where the product is going and has the same vision.
  • Production cycles are longer. There are more phases during product development and, as a result, projects take longer to complete.
  • Responsibility for product decisions is fuzzy. Everyone works on a small, isolated piece of the product. What happens next is a function of who’s next in the production cycle.

This approach accrues high transactional costs. While predictability is important for design agencies and other outsourcers—who sell their clients a guaranteed result that they can achieve only through formal processes—speed is critical for product companies who build their processes around that need. (Read more on this topic in a recent edition of Ask UXmatters, “The Future of Large UX Design Firms,” to which I contributed.) Small startups provide good examples of companies in which people serve multiple roles. Because they’re limited in the number of hires they can make, it’s often necessary to hire people who can wear many hats and double up on roles.

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Requirements for Modern Product Designers

Who do we need for this brave new world? Let’s dig into the diverse qualities and responsibilities of the modern product designer.

Taking Responsibility for the Product

Decreasing transactional costs throughout the product development cycle is critical. Project deliverables’ going back and forth between process phases burn through lots of time and effort. Plus, they increase the amount of routine work a product team must do, instead of team members’ engaging in really interesting tasks that deliver greater value. We must stop taking an assembly-line approach to product development and instead rely on dynamic teamwork, which requires every member of a product team to be responsible for the product outcome, regardless of his or her role. This is possible only on a compact, dynamic team with minimal overlaps of authority in decision making.

The core value of a product designer is not knowledge of tools, methods, or best practices, but the desire and ability to take responsibility for the product. This level of responsibility requires product designers to be professionally flexible regarding authority, skillsets, and role definitions, so they can meet the needs of particular product teams. When all members of a product team are similarly flexible, they can attain the necessary agility and speed in their internal communications.

Product designers cannot live in a world of professional stereotypes and clichés. For example, even though an information architecture might conform to IA best practices, it might not serve real usage patterns for a certain product. While common sense is a great guiding principle in UX design, users are often irrational and superstitious. So the best solution for a specific problem in a particular product for a certain audience might contradict common design rationales. And while our goal should generally be to create great designs, sometimes it’s okay to give short shrift to the design of a rarely used feature that just a small fraction of users will ever see. There are likely much more important tasks needing your attention.

Modern product designers understand people who work in other disciplines and understand their challenges, needs, and tasks. They don’t use pejoratives when referring to developers, product managers, or other professionals. Product designers try to reconcile conflicting requirements from multiple sources and make realistic decisions that demonstrate an understanding of constraints, but fight bravely to get the best design decisions implemented. (Your work is pointless if developers or managers change your design against your will.)

Keeping Up with Changing Times

Modern digital products are really complex and often leverage new technologies. In his article “Technology First, Needs Last,” Don Norman acknowledges that disruptive innovations come from new technologies, saying that design often gets involved only after the first implementation of a product to make technology usable.

Developers often design the elements of a user interface for a new product themselves. But over time, specialization has increased and new roles have emerged, including those of UX designers and researchers, and today, good product teams include UX professionals. A decade or more ago, companies wanted designers who could talk with users and do interaction design and visual design. But it was hard to find people who were strong in all of these skills, so companies started hiring different people to do research, interaction design, and visual design. Designers and researchers started to specialize. When a company is small, it’s okay to have a UX team of one. However, as organizations become more mature, team members often specialize in particular design or research skills.

However, today, the pendulum has swung back toward companies’ seeking the universal designer. This designer is typically especially strong in key design skills and good enough and gradually improving in other UX skills—often including research and coding in HTML/CSS. This level of skill is enough for most projects—and when it’s not, hiring managers can call in an internal or outside expert in UX research, information architecture, interaction design, visual design, or front-end development for some help. Jared Spool launched the UX Unicorn Institute last year on Kickstarter, which provides online courses to teach the full-stack designers that are in high demand right now.

Regrettably, some people interpret the word design as describing just the visual, or decorative, side of designing a product or service. However, the term product design clearly conveys the real meaning of design, and the product designer is a specialist who defines a product. Regardless of your actual title, you either take responsibility for the product and solve business problems through design; or you just draw gray boxes in Axure or high-fidelity mockups in Photoshop. If you want to be a product designer, don’t wait until they call on you; initiate changes, devise processes, recommend solutions, and make decisions proactively.

Accepting the Challenges of This Approach

The challenges that come with this approach often include less time for design and more trade-offs and compromises. Sometimes this can be emotionally painful. When product designers take responsibility for design decisions and defend them, they become attached to them, and having to rework a design after an unsuccessful dispute with managers or developers can be depressing.

However, as Christina Wodtke has noted: if you write great code or create a great design and the product fails, it’s depressing; but if you’re a product manager and the product fails, you’re fired.

Product designers who learn how to deal with these challenges can move mountains. However, they must first understand and be able to speak the language of business. Why has a company made certain business decisions? Why were some of those decisions more important than others? What challenges will the business need to meet in the near future? What business direction would make the company more successful?

Knowing all of this enables product designers to foster effective team communications and ensures that other team members hear and understand their ideas. Such product designers have the authority to do much more than just define interactions or visual style. Product designers can solve business problems—which is essential if they are to have a serious impact on a business. When taking this approach, it becomes easier to agree on basic design decisions, too—as I mentioned in Part 1 of this series.

Confronting Difficulties in Hiring Product Designers

While the term product designer has been around for a long time, more designers started calling themselves product designers a couple of years back. At Mail.Ru Group, where I lead User Experience, product design became important to the company about five years ago and changes have occurred as a result.

When hiring product designers and integrating their work into the product development cycle, it became apparent to us that there was a lack of UX professionals who could take responsibility and authority for product decisions. When managers are trying to influence design, when there’s not enough time, or when designers must support several projects concurrently, product designers must deal with these objective realities. Many designers can give great speeches, create perfect mockups, and propose great visual and interaction design concepts, but only a handful can be true leaders who get their design vision built despite unfriendly external environments. The product development environments in most successful technology companies are very demanding.

Why is this? Because there have not been many product companies in Russia, where I work, most designers come from agencies. This is another world, in which designers are rarely responsible for the long-term success of their design decisions. Just a fraction of all designers communicate with clients directly, bypassing their managers. Even fewer can talk to real users. While a recent startup boom might have brought more product designers into this market, not all of these companies are successful, and a key factor in this is their need to gain the necessary experience. The USA and Europe have more mature markets—including UX maturity—but the prevalence of systematic design approaches is a fairly recent development.

Nevertheless, if we can’t hire product designers with the qualifications we need, we can teach UX professionals to become such designers. The primary requirements for product designers are good basic design skills and the motivation to grow professionally. There are three key factors in identifying and training product designers:

  • mindset—This defines a designer’s general approach to product design and teamwork. Product designers should strive for increased engagement and responsibility.
  • skillset—These are the skills that a product designer must have. Product designers should always strive to deepen and expand their skillset because the industry in which they work becomes ever more demanding.
  • toolset—To survive as professional demands become progressively greater, product designers should strive to make their work more efficient whenever possible.

Now, let’s look at each of these factors in detail.

The Product Designers’ Mindset

When you’re defining a product-design process, there are some important considerations that increase engagement and grow general professionalism.

Taking Responsibility for the Product

I’ve already made this point, but I want to stress its importance. Product designers must take responsibility for the success of the product they’re designing. This is the primary mindset of a product designer. To paraphrase Steve Ballmer: responsible, responsible, responsible!

Active Participation

Product designers actively participate in discussions, the implementation process, and planning the future for the product. They react to user feedback and analyze the product’s performance in actual use. Designers should not be outsiders, taking notes on other people decisions. They should have┬ápersonal opinions and advocate them or correct them as necessary. It’s not enough just to have a vision or mockups of a design. Products have to launch.

Julie Zhuo says that leadership starts when a designer owns a problem and can resolve it despite any roadblocks. Active participation nurtures future leaders.

A Close Relationship with the Product Manager

Among product designers’ relationships with the members of product teams, their relationships with product managers must be the tightest. The product designer and product manager define the product in collaboration with one another. During the early stages of a project, a product manager can’t give a designer exact requirements—that is, what to design and how to do it. A product manager often knows only some preliminary requirements or has a hypothesis that’s not yet been thought out or evolved into a complete product definition. Many iterations are necessary in designing and defining a product; it’s a process of trial and error. However, if their communication happened through a task tracker, and they followed the flawed practice of “you give me a task, and I’ll give you a mockup,” the transactional costs would be huge, and design deliverables would Ping-Pong back and forth between these two key team members.

Their collaboration should be efficient, minimizing handoffs of deliverables, and instead relying on constant communication and interactions. Moreover, product managers often become overwhelmed with administrative and outbound marketing work that takes their time and attention away from product definition. So having a designer’s help will be just what they need. We must feel empathy not only for users, but for other team members, too.

Jeff Lash compares a product manager’s role to that of a president. Just as the president takes advice from cabinet members, product managers should leverage the knowledge of their cabinet members—that is, the user experience, marketing, and technology folks on their product team—to inform the decisions they need to make. Because the user interface is what users see and what they think of as the product, and a good UX designer or researcher understands users deeply, a product manager needs their knowledge to ensure a successful product launch.

Jeff has also posted his great presentation on the intersection between product managers and UX designers, shown in Figure 1, on SlideShare.

Figure 1—Jeff Lash’s presentation “User Experience and Product Management: Two Peas in the Same Pod?” on SlideShare

Teamwork and Pair Design

When several designers are discussing and working on a single task, they look at it from different viewpoints, using different skills. Pair design may occur on an ad hoc basis, depending on the problem and the skillset that is necessary to solve it. It’s getting harder for a company to have niche specialists to fill every role in the modern world of product development. And we can’t know what combination of skills we’ll need tomorrow. Situational workgroups, in which several designers work in close collaboration, let us leverage their rare combinations of skills. Collaboration enriches not only the product, but the team itself—because everybody’s skills improve.

Situational workgroups don’t have a strict hierarchy or involve subordinate relationships. They have leaders instead of bosses. For example, one team member might be especially strong in promotional design, another in coordinating guidelines documentation, and third might be a master of Android design. In each situation, the team can turn to the person who has the relevant skills.

An interesting outcome of this collaborative approach is a lack of well-defined authorship. Nevertheless, there is always one person who is responsible for a task and compiling everyone’s ideas, propositions, analytics, and concepts to design and refine the final solution. Pair work is important for all roles on a product team, not just designers. It helps decrease the transactional costs of a design’s going back and forth between team members at various project phases.

Minimizing Deliverables

Specifications, wireframes, design mockups, and other project deliverables are just methods of transferring the product vision and implementation details from one team member to others. They also produce transactional costs. The best product specification is a working product. It’s much better to spend time polishing the product than refining project documentation. Product designers should strive to minimize the time they spend on creating unnecessary deliverables.

If a designer can skip creating mockups and instead dig into coding with a developer, it will save time and effort, and changes will get into the product faster. Sometimes it’s much easier to make a paper sketch or a rough mockup of a secondary screen rather than spending hours on a detailed mockup. Deliverables age really quickly, so maintaining them takes a lot of time and effort. Does a product designer want to be an archivist or solve real product design problems? The latter is a lot more interesting, so let’s not build our careers around tools or deliverables like wireframes.

Systems Thinking

Product designers should do much more than just work on incoming requests—though they do need to understand why requests arise, who made them, and how they can influence them. It’s better for you to look forward and determine what you’ll do in a week, a month, or a year.

Systems thinking let’s you avoid reinventing the wheel. There’s no need to create patterns anew each time you embark on a project. For users’ comfort, designers’ personal convenience, and rapidity of development, you should reuse patterns—preferably patterns that you’ve implemented in code. Plus, tools now let us automate some tasks.

It’s also important to understand that complicated problems rarely get solved in one go. Typically, we must adopt the practice of continuous improvement—perhaps progressing from a nightmare design to good enough, then from good enough to modern and trendy, and finally, from following established trends to igniting your own. While it’s possible to leap over some of these steps, a systematic approach usually beats heroism over the long term—especially when you pair it with hard work and the obstinacy to see things through to the end.

Professional Erudition

Product teams and stakeholders expect a certain level of professional erudition from product designers. This means designers must have deep knowledge in their areas of expertise—for example, what solutions are in use now, what trends are emerging, how we got to where we are. This level of expertise is hard to achieve and even harder to maintain and evolve.

There is a non-stop flow of new platforms for which product designers must design user interfaces. They must understand their specifics and think about interactions across multiple devices and channels. The depth of available knowledge about a certain industry increases every day. Products and services are becoming more and more complex. We need to spend enough time reading books and other publications, participating in professional communities, searching for and collecting innovative patterns, publishing, and presenting. This is the only way to pursue the speed of change in our industry and raise our level of competence.

How does this benefit product designers and their teams?

  • Deep research about new market niches is available when a project team needs it. If a designer has already compiled a collection of patterns and research reports on successes and failures, it can give a project a great jumpstart.
  • A team can react quickly to market changes. Android Wear and Apple Watch have just been announced, but designers who have been following the trend for a couple of years know how to create interactions for them.
  • Product designers can increase their credibility within a company and in their professional community. Well-informed designers can answer many questions more quickly and provide more profound answers for them. They are also in greater demand and garner more trust as UX professionals.

All of our study makes us stronger specialists and more valuable as colleagues. Our investment of time pays off in professional and career growth. However, erudition alone is not enough. Nobody needs a walking encyclopedia who produces nothing. Nevertheless, deep knowledge, master-level skills, and experience can together give mind-blowing results.

Being Able to Foster Agreement

Product designers don’t cop an attitude, saying “it’s my way or the highway!” They balance the constraints of time, technology, priorities, and resources. They work really hard to deliver a perfect design, but can also make good trade-offs so a product can launch as quickly as possible. However, they will insist on fixing bugs just after launch. Designers also have to balance business and user interests.

While a product’s first impression is really important, its launch is only the beginning of a long road of product improvements and modifications. Perfectionism can be a great quality, but not if it dominates rational judgment. Many young designers will stake their life on making a product launch perfect. But this is the moment of truth when we finally get feedback from users about the product in actual use, so it should not be delayed unnecessarily. We usually have to make a lot of changes to move design toward what users need and away from our perfect vision!

Cameron Tonkinwise aptly describes such a situation: One disorder of lower-order designers is what could be called serial monogamy. Such designers commit their focus to one project and work toward its completion. On that project, they do not aim to satisfice, as Herbert Simon has claimed people do. Their quest for perfection motivates them; the ideal that there is a once-and-for-all innovative solution for a problem. Invariably, time and money constraints dictate that the project must end before the designer accomplishes that ideal, and the designer moves on to a different job. Because of this pathology, designers quickly become bored by their job.

Functioning as an Integral Part of a Product Team

Above all, the product designer is part of a product team. The team solves problems together, making this process very unlike that of independent artists or designers who send mockups on request, but distance themselves from the process. Only by encouraging tightly connected product teams and personal contact can we leave behind assembly-line approaches to solving problems. Khoi Vinh says that the most critical time for designers to be involved in a digital product is all the time. Nevertheless, perhaps the most important time for them to stick around is after the product’s launch, when they can observe how real users are using the product, then amend, refine, revise, and evolve it.

The Lean UX approach solves many of the problems that I’ve described and defines a modern product design process. However, it’s hard for big companies to apply this approach in its entirety. No matter. The purist’s wish to preserve methods in their pure state is often dogmatic rather than practical. So, if you want to use just part of the approach, why not?

Working on a Product, Not a Job

Millions of users buy and use popular products. It’s sweet when they thank us for the great job we did on the Web or even personally. It’s even better when business is strong as a result. This is better than any likes on Behance or Dribble. We first need to focus on solving both users’ and business problems. Nevertheless, your story about the product’s success will make a great addition to your portfolio. Tools and deliverables, methods and best practices, processes—these are all just ways of solving design problems. It’s great when you know all the professional tricks, but they’re just tools.

The Product Designers’ Skillset

So far, I’ve described a pretty broad set of requirements for the modern product designer. But exactly what skills should a product designer have? The following skills are necessary for a product designer to work effectively on a product team:

  • soft skills
    • both analytical and creative thinking
    • facilitation of meetings, brainstorms, and critiques
    • effective communication
    • teamwork
  • UX research
    • discovering new insights
    • understanding user needs
    • evaluating design solutions
  • user-centered design
    • describing users and their activities through personas, scenarios, and customer journey maps
    • task analysis
  • analysis
    • understanding the product domain and competitive market
    • defining and measuring UX metrics and product analytics
    • setting and testing hypotheses
    • statistics
    • analysis and visualization of big data
  • UX strategy
  • information architecture
  • interaction design
    • defining a user interface’s structure and workflows
    • defining the navigation for a user interface
    • modeling screen or page layouts
    • specifying interactions and patterns
    • creating interactive prototypes
  • service design
    • modeling real-world interactions
  • visual design
    • basic graphic design skills, including composition, grids, typography, and color theory
    • creating icons
    • illustration and sketching skills
    • animation and motion design
    • defining guidelines
    • data visualization and infographics
    • identity and branding
    • type design
  • front-end development
    • HTML, CSS, and JavaScript coding
    • transitions and animations
    • connecting data sources
    • setting up a development environment for testing and production
    • optimizing for performance and browser compatibility
  • content strategy and copywriting
    • strategic planning
    • creating microcopy
    • creating content
  • usability and quality assurance
    • expert evaluation
    • usability testing
    • formalized testing
  • marketing and public relations
    • authoring publications
    • giving presentations
    • search-engine optimization (SEO)
    • app-store marketing
  • project management
    • project planning
    • team management
  • product management
    • requirements definition

No single person could ever be an expert in all of these skills. But product designers should at least be aware of all these skills and roles, focus on and have deep expertise in several of them, and broaden their skillset throughout their career. Such designers are often called T-shaped people. Today, the horizontal stroke of the T is getting wider.

Nate Davis uses a great professional-verticals approach to describe designers. However, my skillset definition is slightly different. (It seems that everybody understands the UX profession’s landscape somewhat differently.) I assess designers’ skills using these four levels:

  • awareness—This level means having some knowledge about how a particular type of specialist works, including what tasks they perform, the tools they use, their work process, their methods and practices, and what limitations they must consider.
  • ability—A professional at this level can solve basic problems in their specialty. They can finish less important tasks once a lead specialist sets them on the right track, create mockups or prototypes using existing deliverables, or update documents.
  • expertise—Experts can successfully complete most tasks in their specialty from start to finish and often working solo. They can solve unusual problems.
  • leadership—Leaders can teach their skills to other team members. They help colleagues to learn and achieve professional growth and adopt new tools and methods, and foster design cultures.

Product designers should at least be aware of every skill in my list. As the industry grows, we’re getting closer to a moment when having ability-level skills will be necessary for every skill, too. However, expertise and leadership will always require a deep focus on several key skills.

We need to consider the difference between a role and the specialist who might fill it. Depending on the project, either one person may need to fill several roles or one role may require several people. As Christina Wodtke says, sometimes the engineer is the designer. Sometimes the designer is the product manager. Sometimes design is a hat, not a person. And sometimes the best design comes from someone whose title is not designer.

Management guru Ichak Adizes’s PAEI model characterizes the skills of managers. For a company to succeed, its leaders need all four of his components: Production, Administration, Entrepreneurship, and Integration. But a single executive is likely to be strong in only several of them, so a company needs several managers to grow sustainably.

We need a similar model to describe a strong design team. Jacob Harris has a good take on this; he looks at the complexity of interactions and work domains. I’ll propose my model in my article on teamwork later in this series.

The Product Designers’ Toolset

The scope of knowledge and the variety of skills that I’ve outlined seem overwhelming. Product designers cannot cope with all of the demands on them without using modern tools. Fortunately, there is no shortage of new templates, tools, plugins, scripts, and Web services.

Prototyping

Some time ago, people had to learn complicated tools like Visio or OmniGraffle to model user interfaces. Now, any manager or team member can sketch design ideas using Balsamiq Mockups, Moqups, or Pop. Some experienced UX designers might choose a specialized tool over these, but if someone just wants to communicate an idea, the lower the entrance barrier, the better. It’s the same with other tasks.

Interactive Prototyping for Mobile

InVision, Flinto, Marvel, Proto.io, and dozens of other services make it easy to create a live demo with some basic animation. Some designers go further and learn Xcode, Android Studio, or MS Expression Blend, which is a good way to understand what it’s possible to code and get on the same page with developers.

Animation

Adobe Edge Animate is a good tool for creating one-page promotional sites with rich animation. It can even export them to HTML—though it does a lousy job. Facebook designers have created Origami for Quartz Composer, which allows you to create powerful animations for mobile apps. This niche is growing really fast, and I would like to highlight Pixate, Noodl, and Form among the many other new tools.

Templates and Stencils

Sites like Pixeden, many designers on Dribbble, and teams like Teehan+Lax—which just got acqui-hired by Facebook so shut down their Web site—publish new templates every day. Some people have even made Photoshop plugins such as DevRocket, which simplify template usage even further.

Publishing

One-pagers, long reads, and well-formed design publications are now free or cheap. ReadyMag, Medium, Squarespace, Webflow and many other tools deliver beautiful content without any coding or setup effort. At one point, WordPress was a breakthrough, but we’ve come a long way since then. However, WordPress still provides a solid foundation for interesting tools like Aesop and Qards.

Coding

It’s easier to make simple design changes right in the HTML/CSS code once it’s implemented. God bless Chrome’s code inspector! Many designers use responsive Web design (RWD) frameworks like Bootstrap and Foundation, some skipping Photoshop altogether. Advanced companies build component systems. Check out Intuit’s Harmony, Lonely Planet, Atomic Design, ideology from Brad Frost, and of course, Polymer Project from Google. Plus, there are endless ready-made JavaScript and CSS code snippets on GitHub and CodePen, implementing modern interactions, transitions, and animations.

Web evangelist Jeffrey Zeldman has questioned whether the Web standards movement is dead now, because browsers have become good enough and coding has become easier for everybody.

Design Assets

People have often argued about who should create assets for mobile designs—developers or designers. Now this is easy with plugins like PNG Express, Cut & Slice Me, and Resonator. Some software development companies are baking such features right into their tools. Sketch can do this right out of the box, and Adobe has released Generator for Photoshop CC.

Web Analytics

Entry barriers for tools like Google Analytics were never very high. But thanks to publications from people like Avinash Kaushik, we can get more interesting and nuanced data than just pageviews and bounce rates. While it’s difficult to launch A/B tests in a production environment for a complex Web service, we can do this easily for small or personal projects using Content Experiments in Google Analytics.

UX Research

Dozens of tools let us run user surveys and remote usability tests, including UserZoom, Usabilla, UserTesting, SurveyMonkey, and the long tail of less popular services. Many of these services provide participants or respondents. However, that service is mostly limited to English-speaking markets.

Knowledge Management and Collaboration

Most people use Evernote for personal data collection, but the UX team at MailChimp has built an impressive knowledge base using it. Many teams use Pinterest to collect patterns and create mood boards—thanks to its secret boards. Tools like Slack and the upcoming Facebook at Work make collaboration even more dynamic.

D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself)

Thanks to the never-ending flow of new learning materials, publications, communities, online courses, and other resources, we can easily learn about any topic. As Product Hunt mentor Steven Sinofsky says, there are all sorts of people who are crazy about cameras, knitting, games, and just about every category you can think of. They’re passionate about their craft and thirst to discover the latest techniques.

So, no more dreaming about “if only I had a team of developers…” Do it yourself! Today, designers can do a lot by themselves. The idea of visual programming that visionaries like Bret Taylor have promoted is getting closer to reality. Designers should free themselves from their routine of producing deliverables and use the time to explore interesting things and pursue personal development. Work-process automation is the new black, and we can now do more with less effort.

Many designers are already doing this—such as Teehan+Lax with their templates, Meng To with Xcode for designers, Facebook with Origami, my colleagues with the Resonator asset generator, and others. Anand Sharma may blow your mind with stories like AprilZero. He created every aspect of this personal site—taking it from concept, prototyping, and visual design to implementation and launch! Lots of designers are creating their own scripts and plugins. Some designers have gone even further and launched design tools. 2014 was a hot year for them. The success of Sketch has inspired many people. That team wasn’t afraid of competing with Adobe.

Conclusion

For UX strategy to succeed, product designers must create a shared vision and foster shared values among all members of a product team. They must work at many different levels. In subsequent parts of this series, I’ll be covering different aspects of the design process, but I wanted to start by defining the product designer’s role in a broad sense, including research and strategy. The product designer is the one who makes the product happen.

Modern product design is not just about trends like flat design, orchestrating animation, or wearables. Nor is it about mastery of the newest tools and methods. It’s about understanding the role of design in the modern world. Product designers know a lot about how users interact with products, and this knowledge is invaluable to leaders and other stakeholders. Moreover, we can apply our design thinking approach to rethinking organizational processes. We can break out of the limitations of designing for screens and have greater strategic influence on how a company works.

By using all of our skills and tools, we can achieve impressive outcomes. This will pave the way for our further career growth—as design team leaders, product managers, designer/founders—think Airbnb, Mailbox, Tumblr—or even CEOs of large companies—Lexus and Kia are great examples. We can make all of this happen if we take on greater responsibility, as well as its attendant risks. We can become problem solvers for businesses and users alike, instead of just being pixel pushers. 

Head of UX at Mail.Ru

Moscow, Russia

Yury VetrovYury leads a team comprising UX and visual designers at one of the largest Russian Internet companies, Mail.Ru, which is part of the Mail.Ru Group. His team works on communications, content-centric, and mobile products, as well as cross-portal user experiences. Both Yury and his team are doing a lot to grow their professional community in Russia.  Read More

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