The Elements of Product Design, and the discipline vs. the job

A Product Designer is a job title; doing product design is a discipline that almost anyone can apply regardless of their line of work. But can we be more vague and unhelpful?

Yes we can: Wikipedia helpfully informs that nobody really agrees on what Product Design is:

Due to the absence of a consensually accepted definition that reflects the breadth of the topic sufficiently, two discrete, yet interdependent, definitions are needed: one that explicitly defines product design in reference to the artifact, the other that defines the product design process in relation to this artifact.

Eric Eriksson wrote the popular “What is Product Design”, but the context of his definition is limited to the responsibilities of Product Designers as we know them today. I say limiting because the essence of “product design” goes back to the Stone Age and can elucidate matters for people everywhere, and this point of view is getting lost amidst the rising popularity of the function as detailed in Eriksson’s article.

My goal with Product Matters is to break free the definition of product design and help people learn from insights across fields and disciplines. After all, Product Design the job is fundamentally about cross-disciplined skills and know-how.

Cubes representing the elements of product design: material, action, business

The job

I see Product Design, the relatively recent job title, as a function at the intersection of the following: Material, Action, and Business.

Material regards the resources involved, from brick and mortar to silicone and CPU, from paint and plastics to PHP and Python. You’re creating something to newly exist in a tangible form, even if that form is all-digital.

Action describes the user’s way of interacting with the product, and what that user experience is like. Steve Jobs famously said “Design isn’t what it looks like, design is how it works.” Action covers all aspects of “how it works.” From UX to IxD to visual and graphic, from accessibility to how one accesses the product.

Business, finally, encompasses knowledge of the market you’re creating the product for: a business model to make it viable, how to sell it, your go-to-market strategy, user research, and so forth. Making the case for your product being the solution to someone else’s pain.

Without business, you are creating art: a passion project for which the first goal isn’t to sell but a means to express something. Without action, you are creating an exit strategy: a typical Silicon Valley dud of a product that doesn’t work or isn’t well-considered, but might get acquired for its technology and business value. And lastly, without material you’re that person with an MBA and an idea who’s looking for a technical co-founder.

Product Design the job brings knowledge and expertise of these three aspects (and some others) together. You take in a client or a market’s needs; you envision and articulate what solution satisfies those needs, and you can lead people to design and build that solution to completion.

Or as Eric Eriksson put it:

“A key aspect of Product Design is understanding the business value behind every decision. Data informs everything we do, user research checks our assumptions, and we measure our success through business and engagement metrics.” — Eric Eriksson

One important unmentioned skill is communication: Product Designers must articulate their ideas so clearly that people from quite different disciplines understand them. In a sense, they are like generalists acting as the glue between more distinct specialists and subject matter experts. They often have an eagerness to accumulate varying skills, so that they possess more than a cursory-level understanding of topics.

The discipline, a.k.a. “why should I care about this?”

In my article A Dao of Product Design, I describe product design as “the Ur-discipline” — the oldest discipline in the books. It’s not quite the job as described above, but rather it’s the functional principles that apply here. Think of the discipline as a more holistic evolution of planning.

An early-era toolmaker can put a sharp-edged stone on a stick and call it an axe, but unless they design the functional nature of the axe first, it’s not much of a product. Once the toolmaker strings the stone to the stick, sharp edge facing outward, she has created an axe. She has assessed a need—a weapon or tool we can wield for hunting or chopping—and designed a solution to satisfy it.

This is where the discipline diverges from the job: our crafty cavewoman leveraged principles that are universal. You can apply product design to your work, whether you make hardware tools, bake cakes or are in public office. We wouldn’t call you a product designer for making luxury chocolate or designing a house, but you can apply product design principles in your work:

First, articulate your goal: What do you want to create?

Then, conceive a rudimentary version of it: What does the end result look like?

Next, envision its functionality, its design: How would it work?

Assess your required materials: What resources are needed to make it?

Determine your path to success: Which optimal steps get you to the goal?

Now go forth and bake/craft/manufacture/paint/sculpt/write/design your product!

This process can be equally applied to artisanal cakes and luxury chocolate, that painting aching to be released from inside you, or someone’s dream iOS application. We could be discussing a new form of water pump for the desert or the weekly business analysis report you have to create each Friday—the process involves those same key steps: the elements of product design.