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12 Principles of Highly Effective Product Designers

12 Principles of Highly Effective Product Designers

The top professionals in any industry are not differentiated from their peers by what they do or by which skills the posses, but by HOW and WHY they do what they do. In any given market you’ll find thousands of professionals with the same skills, knowledge, and proficiency, yet what is it that separates the top performers from the rest? It is not skill, but mindset. In essence it is how they think. Their way of thinking and how they approach problems is what makes them highly effective.

If the professional design career landscape were a game of chess, the product designer would be the highest value piece on the game board. That’s because, to a great extent, they are responsible for the success or failure of a product. Their design decisions are key in shaping the overall product experience and their work brings immense value to the users. The product designer is a special role that combines knowledge in design, technology and business, all while keeping the users in the forefront.

We all know the skill stack of a product designer: user research and strategy, interaction design, user interface design, content strategy, information architecture, business strategy, testing, and the list goes on. There are countless articles that expound the skills it takes to be a proficient product designer. This article is not one of those. On this occasion we’ll deconstruct the mindset of successful product designers. This list of principles came about from more than 10 years of working experience in the industry and also from observing peers on the job. If you have decent skills as a user experience designer and add the following criteria to your thinking process you will raise the quality of your work to new heights.

Product Thinking involves all the the above

They crunch numbers and hard data like an economist. They analyze large amounts of information, both quantitative and qualitative. Metrics and KPI’s are an important tool in their utility belt which helps them measure the success of their product or validate assumptions. All this forces them to spend a bit more time looking at excel spreadsheets and less on design software like Sketch or Figma. But at the same time, they make decisions based on data coupled with instinct. Because they have more acumen and experience they also follow their gut. Their decisions are data informed, not data driven. At the end of the day they know who and what to pay attention to.

Principle in Action: they review product metrics and user data periodically. They adjust accordingly, but if a product idea comes along that hasn’t been tested they venture forth and experiment anyway. Many times while designing groundbreaking products they’ll have incomplete data to work with. This doesn’t paralyze them, they still move forward with a new product feature because they know they are also trend setters.

“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” -Steve Jobs

They are designers with a business sense. They’re not advocating solely for the users anymore. They outgrew the UX designer role. Sure, users are at the center of their product, but the business is also in their radar. They have to advocate for both. Because think of it this way, a product designer is in business to generate revenue by delivering value to users. Users come first, but the business facilitates the whole exchange. They have to keep both parties happy. In order to accomplish this successfully a product designer must know the business context, the value proposition, the business model, and how this keeps the company afloat. Suit and tie are optional.

Principle in Action: they know the revenue streams generated by the product and how each feature implemented impacts the bottom line. They know the lifetime value of users and what it costs to acquire them. They also consider if a product initiative is too costly for the business to execute and provide other alternatives.

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They are results driven. They ask themselves: what is the desired impact of this work? They’re no longer just delivering beautiful and usable interfaces. They go beyond the screen and engage with the users. Ultimately their goal is to guide user behavior by providing incremental value. So it’s not simply about shipping a product. That’s output. It’s more about user sign ups, conversions, sales, retention. They’re responsible for what happens after the product is released in the wild. That’s when things get interesting. That’s when they confirm that the product outcome they were aiming for is achieved.

Principle in Action: They set a goal and know how to track it. They experiment and measure results constantly to validate their assumptions and adjust the design if the outcomes are not as expected. If the goal is 20% conversion rate they tweak the design elements and run a split A/B test until they reach the goal.

They apply the Pareto Principle religiously. They want to make things better but they only focus on high value initiatives. Those that will give them the biggest returns on investments of time and energy. They want to solve problems, but before they dive head first into fixing and experimenting with all the problems in the world, they analyze the cost of doing so. Because they are aware that resources are limited and time to market has a deadline. They focus only on activities that drive value after analyzing the cost-benefit.

Principle in Action: They use a prioritization matrix and define features for the product based on value versus difficulty. They ask themselves: If I implement feature X, how much value will it add compared to feature Y? How will this impact the users? How will this impact the business?

They have a holistic view of things. They’re no longer limited to pixels on the screen or code on the server. Their locus of control has expanded and now they see the big picture. They understand the dynamics and interactions between the whole system, from where the users are acquired and what they think before they click on a button in the product, to the API connection, to the server requests, and all the way to the electronic transfer of funds to the company’s bank account. They know how it all fits together and they can see all the moving parts (inputs and outputs) that give the product life. This allows them to make better decisions because they know how one change in one part of the system affects the whole.

Principle in Action: They analyze the customer journey and service blueprint. They know all the touchpoints and channels the customers interact with internal and external to the product. They use these tools to design the flow of users and information in a way that is highly effective for all parties involved.

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When analyzing things they use both a macro lens and a micro lens. They see the high level 30,000-feet view of the product and where it fits in the market, but they can also drop down into the minute details like micro copy on the screen. Because they know the details make the difference. This allows them to navigate the product landscape like a professional and apply quality craftsmanship to the product on every level. They are capable of taking a concept to different levels of abstraction and back.

Principle in Action: They review the customer journey of their product and find that to improve retention they must redesign transactional emails in the checkout flow. They drill down and focus on the transactional email copy until user retention is improved.

They are the product’s main evangelist. They weave the product story into everything they do because they know stories sell. They know the wonders of the product inside and out and want the whole world to know about it. They infuse the product vision and strategy into their work. They know where the product is going and what lies ahead. Their vision drives the product. They know how to connect with their audience (users, stakeholders, developers, team) to move the product design efforts in the right direction. They make the product come alive with the power of words.

Principle in Action: They control the narrative. Language is important. Writing is important. Copy is important. They use every opportunity at their disposal to communicate with their audience in a compelling manner. This can take the form of a funny error message microcopy in the app, or an impressive presentation for a new product feature given to stakeholders and investors.

They never assume anything. They formulate a hypothesis and ask a ton of questions that guide them toward a solution. They have ideas, but they know better than to make an absolute assertion. They obsess about solving problems for the user. They want to get at the root of the problem and find the answer to why. They seek to understand first. They look for clues. They think in terms of people and their behaviors. They’re more interested in what people do and less about what they say because they know people are complex. And this is why they experiment to test assumptions constantly. This is design thinking at its finest.

Principle in Action: They start by formulating the right questions because that’s half the solution. They practice methods of observation and split test their solutions to pick a winner based on real world evidence from user tests. They observe and listen more and talk less.

They know the product’s market fit. They keep abreast of new developments and trends. They spot new product ideas and opportunities. They find the gaps in the market. They connect the dots. They envision how the product can be improved. They analyze constantly to see what new feature can be added to the product that will enrich the experience for users. They also regularly monitor their competitors. Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer is their mantra.

Principle in Action: They devour new information and try new products. They go to market industry events to learn about new trends. They try out competing products. They ask current users questions because that’s their core market. They look at innovations in other industries and try to cross pollinate ideas into their own product to add value.

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They think in product processes: discovery, research, design, and testing. They know that to craft a superb product from scratch it must undergo incremental phases of refinement. And they know where each design methodology and activity fits within that process. They do design sprints, user surveys, user persona workshops, affinity mapping, business canvas, empathy maps, customer journeys, service blueprints, user interviews, prototypes, usability tests, and the list goes on. They use each tool at their convenience based on the stage that the product is in, and the goals set forth by the stakeholders and the business.

Principle in Action: Before getting to work on a new product they set the stage by defining goals and a timeline of the work involved for each phase. This gives them a clear picture of the design efforts ahead and allows them to align with other team members as well.

When they look at an interface they don’t see a screen, but components and design patterns. They break down the whole into their most minute parts. Each component has a definite purpose. And every pixel has its place. All the UI elements (buttons, icons, tabs, loaders, etc.) are like cogs in a well oiled machine. They take this approach to improve the efficiencies in their workflow and exercise control over every aspect of the interaction design process. All this allows them to replicate design patterns efficiently and come up with solutions very quickly.

Principle in Action: They create and maintain a living design system that gets continually updated and shared with the design team. They have a design pattern library ready at their disposal to get up and running with new product features and prototypes quickly.

They understand that technology is a commodity. In the era of Google cloud and Amazon AWS a product doesn’t stand out by having the fastest server, but by offering a superb experience. Solid performance is expected as a baseline condition for any product. Unless a digital product involves revolutionary technology like quantum computing, tech is only marginally improved by newer tech. Hence, the product’s tech stack is interchangeable and replaceable. Data infrastructure preference does not matter. Programming language preference does not matter. There are countless options to choose from that can get the job done. But product design is a bit more nuanced. Do you add feature X or feature Y to your app? Do you add one more step to your flow or remove it completely? What will users respond to best? Design drives experience and this is where the power to make or break a product lies.

Principle in Action: They define the product features and design the interaction first. Once that’s established they consider the technology. Never the other way around. The technology adjusts to the requirements of the experience. It’s not important wether it be programmed in Python, Ruby, PHP, or JS. What’s critically important is wether the tech stack brings the product experience to life.

“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology”. — Steve Jobs

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