Product Design Career Guide
What is a Product Designer?
You could probably guess and be approximately right, but it's easy to get lost with so many designer roles out there.
You might be asked for the same skills in job ads for diverse design roles. On the other hand, different companies may require different skills for the same product designer position.
Fundamentally, a product designer connects the dots between what a business wants and what a customer needs. As a product designer, you are generally expected to do everything from user research, recognizing customer pain points, brainstorming solutions, to wireframing, information architecture, prototyping, overseeing the design process, and testing the final product.
It's a demanding role that asks a lot and gives a lot in return.
But for you to get a grip over the must-have skills and how to become a product designer, this article will reveal:
- Product designer skills and responsibilities
- Practical approach to a product design career
- Relevant statistics
- Is product design a good career?
Product designer skills and responsibilities
As noted above, many might be confused by what a product designer means to different organizations. Moreover, the term design may lead you further astray by making you think you'll only deal with, well, design. However, a lot more is expected from a product design professional on the side of management, people and soft skills, or creativity and problem-solving.
To fully understand what this role entails, we'll go through all the necessary knowledge and skills at different stages of a product designer's career.
Spheres of skills and responsibilities
Associate product designer
Welcome to the first step on the product design career ladder.
In this moment of your journey, you're an "apprentice" that focuses on mastering the craft. You are expected to know the design basics, use the tools, be interested and passionate, and perform well within a team. Your primary aim is to contribute to creating the best user experience. Regarding user/market research, you can rely on product managers and data analysts to direct you towards innovative solutions.
All in all, this phase is all about personal and professional development. With each day, you will evolve in your own approach to design, learn more about user psychology, and better understand various stages of the product design process.
Primary skills and responsibilities (1):
- Design basics (color theory, typography, graphic design),
- Wireframing (visual representations of every step a user can make while exploring a product),
- Proficiency in design tools (Adobe XD, Figma, Sketch, InVision, Adobe Illustrator, etc.),
- Creating simple user journeys,
- Familiarity with design systems,
- Soft skills: communication, curiosity, motivation, problem-solving, teamwork.
Mid-level product designer
Congratulations on reaching the next level – you're on the right track.
This is where you get much more involved in different stages of the design process, from research to solution validation. In this role, the goal of linking business and user needs comes to life. You are expected to talk to the target audience, brainstorm with the team, understand commercial outcomes, create designs, test them, participate in building prototypes and end products.
Primary skills and responsibilities (2):
- Thorough knowledge of everything under primary skills and responsibilities (1),
- Performing user testing and feedback collection,
- Developing product specifications and defining features,
- Documenting user journeys in detail,
- Communicating with developers about implementation possibilities,
- Detailed wireframing,
- Prototyping (in-depth interactive sketches of the design and functionalities – is supposed to mimic the end product),
- Communicating design solutions to other team members,
- Active listening and the ability to question chosen directions,
- User testing prototypes.
Senior product designer:
Looking good, Señor & Señorita!
Senior product designer is oriented to people (customers, team members, upper management), and he oversees the design process. The specialist has mastered the craft and is focused on research from the customers' perspective, industry trends, and market opportunities. Team members rely on senior product designers to pull another innovative product or a feature out of their hats. However, senior specialists are not alone in this quest. Higher positioned product designers and upper management help them determine new feasible and lucrative ideas. The design team dances to the senior product designer tune.
Primary skills and responsibilities (3):
- Thorough knowledge of everything under primary skills and responsibilities (1) and (2),
- Ability to speak the language of data analysts, project managers, and technical team members,
- Making design and business decisions,
- Oriented to details while meeting deadlines,
- Building complex designs and user journeys,
- Leading a team and providing feedback,
- Keeping up with the industry trends and keeping eyes and ears open to the wishes and needs of customers,
- Content production related to product design.
Principal product designer:
You've come a long way, and it's only one more step to the top!
Walking in these shoes means you must have made thousands of good decisions and delivered consistently successful products. You are now a Yoda of product design. Your team(s) rely on you for advice and constructive feedback. It's expected of you to create production timelines, manage budgets, and lead your team(s) through the sweet door of timely and exquisite delivery.
Primary skills and responsibilities (4):
- Thorough knowledge of everything under primary skills and responsibilities (1), (2) and (3),
- Making everyone else look and perform better (like Messi in F.C. Barcelona),
- Being a visionary, pacesetter, and the brain behind the company's new production endeavors,
- Determining the intentions and limitations of the design,
- Mentoring and coaching,
- Excellent soft skills with emphasis on communication and team management,
- Having head developers, designers, and managers on speed dial,
- Involved in product development strategy creation,
- Being fully aware of and able to read and understand business and financial reports related to existing and new products,
- Flexibility and adaptability.
Staff product designer:
If you've come this far in the product design career, you are knock, knock, knocking on heaven's door
A staff product designer is basically the main product designer that sits at the top of the product design mountain. It might get lonely up there and detached from the craft itself, but it's a position of influence and authority. It means you need to lead teams, mentor those below you and cooperate with senior management.
Primary skills and responsibilities (5):
- Thorough knowledge of everything under primary skills and responsibilities (1), (2), (3), and (4),
- Knowing the difference between good and great,
- Completely understanding the rules of design and product development,
- Ability to set clear, measurable, and attainable goals,
- Handling more projects and teams at the same time,
- High level of user empathy with the ability to merge their needs and desires with business goals,
- Deep knowledge of market and industry history and trends,
- Strategy development and execution.
Practical approach to a product design career
Now that you know a product designer career path, you must be wondering where to even begin. If you are already a part of the industry but want to transition to a product design role, it can be done. You just have to put your mind to it.
Here's a 10-set advice list on how to become a product designer:
A traditional path to becoming anything always includes a certain bachelor's or a master's degree.
Completing a 3 or 5-years education in product design or a related field will shape your mind towards an innovative and problem-solving approach to life and work.
It can provide you with a solid base to work your way up on the product design career ladder if it's an option.
2. Learning through content
YouTube and other product design content sources are also an excellent way to familiarize yourself with this world and the must-know tools.
3. Volunteering in projects
Expose yourself to voluntary local projects to experience teamwork and different product or project development stages. Take responsibility for creating, overseeing, or implementing a project.
If you're a bit further down the line, consider some e-learning and taking part in courses taught by established professionals. These don't take as much time as University and often take you straight to the action. A live course by LinkedIn's Senior Product Designer (Simone Ferraro), for example, takes you through 4 workshops/labs and helps you create a portfolio.
Speaking of a portfolio, it cannot be stressed enough how important it is to have one that stands out. Devoting yourself to creating a solid portfolio will motivate you to partake in different product design projects and show your prospective employers what you are made of. This includes brushing up your LinkedIn profile.
6. Design tools
Master design tools. Rarely any job ad will not require this. If you lack experience, connect with peers who are working their way into the field and ask for guidance. You can also download free versions of relevant tools like Adobe XD, Figma, Sketch, InVision, Adobe Illustrator, etc.
7. Practice design by hand
For fun, practice wireframing and sketching user journeys by imitating existing physical or digital products or coming up with your own. It can take you places you never even imagined.
8. Start a blog
Once you've got excited about a certain area, you can always start a blog to share your thoughts and ideas. Moreover, it's an opportunity to be the lead product designer in the project called "creating your own website". If it's too soon for a website, be more active on social media.
9. Build a network
Connect with like-minded people that are working towards the same goal. It's fun to have someone to talk to and discuss the latest trends, exchange opinions, and share experiences with. Such connections quickly lead to new information or opportunities.
10. Don't give up
It's a modern-day and highly demanding position. To succeed, you can't kind of want it. You need to want it bad.
According to career experts at Zippia, there are approximately 18.000 product designers in the US, with 68% being male and 25% female.
The average age of a product designer is 39.5, while 18% of product designers are between 20 and 30 years old.
A starting salary is around $57.000. However, on average, product designers make approximately $87.000. If you can reach the top 10% of highest-paid product designers, you are looking to earn around $130.000.
Approximately 61% of product designers own a bachelor's degree, and a master's degree is held by only 8%.
Only 2% of companies with less than 50 people employ product designers, while among the companies that hire between 1.000 and 10.000 people, above 35% have product designers.
Is product design a good career?
As the introduction says, it's a position that asks for a lot and gives a lot in return. The highest standards of design, management, and people skills are required of anyone aiming at the top of the mountain. Therefore, every visionary creative that's equally good with numbers and psychology has something to hope for.
If you're drawn to a career like this, try not to miss chances to discover new things. Keep the 10-set advice list in mind and learn from field experts whenever you can.
For those that are still undecided about a specific course to take in the world of design, find out more about different design roles you can play too.