In today's fast-paced digital landscape, user experience (UX) is a critical component for the success of any digital product or service. However, many digital leaders who need to staff their teams still struggle to differentiate between the roles of UX Designer and Product Designer and are unsure which one to hire for their team.
As a design researcher, strategist, and leader working in a digital design team for a big financial institution in Canada, I’ve been exposed to the conversation around “product designer vs UX designer” numerous times and learned a lot about the definitions of these job titles, including the key differences between both job descriptions.
If you are a product manager, product owner, project manager, or digital transformation manager, this article will help you unpack the difference between the roles a little bit and understand how to proceed if you’d like to staff your teams with design professionals that have the most relevant skillset.
Whether you are looking to improve the user experience of an existing product or design a new solution from scratch based on user needs, understanding the roles and responsibilities of these two positions is crucial for success.
What are the origins of the titles as we know them today?
Both job titles have long histories that span over a few decades. They were coined at different times in history, and their interpretations have changed over time.
In addition, I took into account how regional linguistic variations might influence the popularity of one job description over the other, and took a close look at the roles and responsibilities of each role to make it easier to understand the ideal role to hire in different situations. Let’s unpack them a little more.
The term "Product Designer" originated during the Industrial Revolution when designers focused on creating physical machinery, tools, and equipment that were both functional and visually appealing. As technology advanced, designers began incorporating digital products like software and mobile apps into their work, leading to the emergence of the term "Product Designer" to encompass both physical and digital creations.
Today, product design encompasses various design disciplines, including industrial design, user experience design, visual design, and speculative design. However, over the past three decades, a specialization divide has formed in the design industry, separating physical product design from user interface (UI) design. This divide has led to the emergence of new sub-domains like IoT design and data visualization, and as technology, society, and the economy continue to change, the field of design is expected to further evolve, with new design skills likely to emerge in the future.
The term "UX Design" emerged as a result of contributions from academic disciplines like Human Factors Engineering, Architecture, Industrial Design, and particularly Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). Don Norman, a cognitive psychologist and designer at Apple, officially coined the term in the 1990s during his tenure leading the "Office of User Experience" at the company. His focus was on creating visually appealing, intuitive, and user-friendly products that centered around the needs and experiences of the user.
Norman's influential book, "The Design of Everyday Things," published in 1988, introduced the concept of user-centered design and emphasized the significance of understanding the user's mental model in the design process. Through his continuous work and publication, the term "User Experience" gained popularity, with Norman defining it as encompassing all aspects of the end-user's interaction with a company, its services, and its products. Nowadays, many tech companies and digital agencies often view UI design and usability as the primary responsibilities of user experience designers, sometimes even using the title "UX/UI Designer."
However, it's important to note that the field of user experience design extends well beyond these aspects, with some companies having UX designers responsible for designing pixel-perfect user interfaces while others maintain separate roles for UX designers and UI designers.
UX designers deal with business needs, information architecture, interaction design, creating prototypes, usability testing, and the user journey, while UI designers deal more with the creation of high-fidelity wireframes, typography, and animations and, in general, tend to have a graphic design skillset.
How have UX designer and product designer jobs evolved?
Now that you understand the origins of the two job titles, let’s understand why certain organizations prioritize one job title over the other.
Changes in ways of working
Before the early 2000s, software development teams predominantly followed a linear and sequential model known as "Waterfall," involving distinct stages like design, coding, and quality assurance testing (QA). However, in response to the inefficiencies of this approach, a group of software developers formulated the Agile Manifesto in 2001. This manifesto introduced a set of principles emphasizing iterative work, incremental changes, continuous testing, and collaborative development instead of rigid processes.
The Agile approach has gained significant popularity, shifting the mindset of software development from a project-based approach to a digital product perspective. Methods like Kanban and Scrum have become prevalent, focusing on treating code as an evolving digital product that undergoes constant incremental changes based on testing and user feedback.
As a result of this shift, the roles of digital product managers and product owners have become increasingly important in leading digital product development cycles. Consequently, digital designers have also had to adapt their ways of working, adopting a more "lean" approach.
In some organizations, the job titles responsible for digital design have been changed from UX design to Product design to align with the new product development process that emphasizes small, incremental changes over extensive upfront design. The term "Product Designer" now encompasses the idea of a designer who understands and operates according to the agile principles of software development.
Regional differences around job titles
One other plausible explanation that I’d like to suggest for the existence of both job titles is regional differences.
While comparing the search volume of the terms “UX Design” and “Product Design” in the past 5 years on Google Trends I got the following results:
As you can see, in certain British Commonwealth countries such as the UK, Australia, India, New Zealand, and South Africa, there’s a higher search volume for the search term “Product Design”—potentially because the term is a bit more popular in the industry in these countries.
Know the facts!
In the past few years, there have been quite a few articles such as this one that suggest that Product Design is an evolution of UX Design that require designers to focus not only on user needs but also on business goals. This isn't exactly true.
What we need to remember is that UX designers have always taken into consideration the business goals in their design process, so the difference between the roles doesn’t necessarily imply an evolution in the scope of the skillset required to do the job.
In addition, based on some job descriptions, in some cases, companies might use the term “Product Designer” to imply the need for a designer that can work on both interaction design as well as the visual design process. We can think of it as some sort of full-stack digital designer. So, if you're applying to this role, make sure to ask the hiring manager to clarify the specific scope of the role—it's not the same for everyone!
Which role should you hire?
Both job titles involve problem-solving skills and both roles work with different stakeholders. In addition, ideally, both roles involve some user research activities, and an understanding of both the business needs, personas, design thinking process, and design tools.
Let’s talk about some of the nuances that will help you decide which job description is a better fit for your organization.
Role and responsibilities of a UX designer
UX designers work across the five steps of design thinking in a project-based environment with their main focus on designing user-friendly solutions:
- Empathize - Understand your user persona and their pain points by conducting user research activities
- Define - Understand what’s the right problem to solve by synthesizing all the information collected through user research activities
- Ideate - Brainstorm ideas for user-friendly solutions
- Prototype - Use tools such as Figma, and Sketch to prototype mockups of solutions and user flows
- Test - Conduct user research (sometimes called “UX research”) to test the usability of the solutions and get feedback from potential customers.
In certain organizations, UX designers have to be generalists who work through all these stages up to delivering the final design in a form of a high-fidelity wireframe to the client.
The typical work environment of UX designers
A typical work environment for UX designers is an environment that’s project-based.
That means, most projects are well-scoped by a project manager and are managed according to budget and time constraints. This is usually the case in organizations such as digital agencies as well as design studios. Oftentimes, projects are executed in a less agile fashion that resembles the Waterfall model since these types of projects tend to be short and less iterative.
Tools UX designers use
In accordance with the different stages of the design process, UX designers can use different tools to perform different tasks.
For user research activities UX designers use user research tools such as UserTesting, UserZoom, Dscout, and Lookback. These tools can allow UX designers to do live and moderated tests, or unmoderated and asynchronous tests while leveraging the option to recruit participants from these vendors’ panels.
For any type of ideation and brainstorming session, UX designers can use digital boards such as Miro, Mural, and FigJam.
UX designers often need to use prototyping tools to prototype their solutions. These can include Figma, Marvel, Sketch, and more.
Since user experience is constantly changing, upskilling resources are a valuable tool in a UX designer's toolbox. Webinars, online course, UX design podcasts, and videos are all valuable for ensuring UX designers are delivering their best possible work.
Lastly, UX designers need to document their solutions before handing them off to clients using documentation tools. Such solutions can include tools like Notion, Confluence, and Google Drive.
Average UX designer salary
In the US, the average UX designer is paid approximately $95,549 per year, according to Glassdoor.
Role and responsibilities of a product designer
Just like UX designers, product designers can work across the five steps of the design thinking process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. They are accountable for the user experience of a product, for better or for worse.
The main difference comes from the fact that product designers usually work inside organizations that develop software in a continuous product-based fashion.
Because of that, they need to understand how to participate in and run the ceremonies that are related to the Scrum agile method such as stand-up meetings, sprint retro, and feature kickoffs.
They also need to understand the shifting business priorities and how to adjust their work to achieve specific business goals while creating user-friendly solutions. These guys are in it for the long run and do not operate in a “one-and-done” mode that’s more common in the agency and the consulting world.
The typical work environment of product designers
The increase in digital transformation processes within organizations led to the popularity of agile software development.
Typically, you’ll find product designers in such organizations that use agile methodologies. These organizations can range in size, from a small startup company all the way to a big and established global tech company or a financial institution.
Tools product designers use
Product design tools vary a lot from one company to another but they would typically include all the tools that UX designers use for user research, ideation, prototyping, and testing.
On top of that, they can include working with design systems, which are components that can be leveraged to design user flows in different parts of the web or mobile application in a more efficient way over time that creates a shared understanding of developers and designers.
Understanding the product management tools used to execute product roadmaps in this environment, such as Jira or Asana, is a big plus since new features and even new products tend to be developed all the time in such organizations, and product designers need to know how to work in multidisciplinary delivery teams that work this way (e.g. squads, pods, etc.).
In addition, since the competitive landscape changes all the time, knowing how to operate market research and competitive intelligence tools at least at a basic level is a big advantage. One example of such a tool is iSky Research which provides examples of user interface design in different financial institutions around the world.
Average product designer salary
The average annual salary for product designers in the United States, again citing Glassdoor, is $76,248.
So, should you hire a UX designer or product designer?
The roles and responsibilities of UX designers and product designers are often shaped by the work environments in which they operate.
If you ask yourself what job title you should hire, the general rule of thumb is the following: if you are looking for project-based professionals you should aim for UX designers, and if you aim to hire professionals to work in an agile product-based and continuous improvement environment then product designers would be the best fit.
Find the right fit.
It’s important to remember that many organizations use the titles UX designer and Product Designer interchangeably and that you really have to take all the elements mentioned in the article into consideration to come up with the most successful recruitment strategy.
Bear in mind both roles contribute to the creation of a great customer experience and to higher levels of customer satisfaction—what mainly differentiates them is the work environment.
In the future, we’re likely to see more specialization within these roles which could lead to the emergence of further job titles, so it’s always good to keep yourself informed about these trends!
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