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I've notice that more and more people who used to call themselves UX Designers are now calling themselves Product Designers. I have a rough feel for the differences but I'm struggling to find any good articles on this and I'm wondering if somebody could help to clearly define the two roles in a way that clearly illustrates the differences.

Side thoughts: I guess it's further fragmentation or perhaps an evolution and I suppose it's not completely without value. Traditionally a Product Designer made real world objects but nowadays it is coming to mean digital products as well. That makes a lot of sense to me as they are products, it just further adds to the confusion of digital design roles to outsiders though. If I tell my friends I'm a product designer, ux designer, interaction designer, ui designer (and so on) they have no idea what I'm talking about.

p.s. I know similar questions have been asked but they are more about whether the differences matter. I say they do matter but there's a lack of clarity and definition..

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This is based on my vision, so I don't know if it's correct. but FOR ME, a Product Designer is in charge of the Product Design, whether it's a material or a digital one.

This means that his tasks are more generic, and doesn't need to be a specialist in the disciplines involved in the design of the whole product, but needs to know a bit of them all. A "jack of all trades" if you wish, or a Project Manager oriented only to the product itself

However, an usability designer has a specific role, and needs to master it. In this case, usability. Not design, not programming, not marketing, not packaging, but usability (which may or may not require some of these abilities).

I think there's an interesting discussion about the need (or not) of using the same person to do usability and design or development. I think this question is resolved with the figure of Product Designer (this link is for a Product Designer explaining what she does, although it's quite "UX-y" for me)

  • I've seen this too, though often would call that a 'product owner' but again, it's all fuzzy terminology. – DA01 Jun 25 '15 at 19:20
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    I liked this answer, though usability and UX are quite different as UX encompasses the entirety of the experience rather than just how usable it is. But I do agree with the idea that product designers will likely be more of a jack of all trades – Chris Jun 27 '15 at 8:18
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Trends...

There has been a general positive trend over the last 15 years for designers to take on larger and larger scope of responsibilities within the product development process

15 years ago in the "Microsoft" era of formal software development, human-computer interaction, visual design, or information architecture were specific disciplines in design, and products were handed to specialists in these disciplines at formal points of the development process.

Since then, the trend has been to move away from specializations and allow designers to influence and direct broader and broader circles of scope in the development process. This has given rise to broader diciplines like UX design, as the diagram below shows:

(click to expand) designer roles

Some drivers for this trend:

  • The promulgation of design thinking as a paradigm for end-to-end product development, not just "design phase" work.
  • The incredible success of design-led companies like Apple, Dyson, Nest, and others, which has shown the business world how successful design-led development can be.
  • The flattening of the development process by frameworks such as Agile and Lean, which leads to designers and other team members working more cross-functionally with larger scopes of responsibility.
  • ...and so on.

Product design...

...is just another term, but it's also an almost predictable evolution/variant of User Experience. It represents the next enlargement of design scope, away from just user experience design towards an even broader mandate of design for an entire product.

This may include some or all of the bubbles in the diagram above: a product designer may work not only on crafting a user experience but also on functional ergonomics, technical design, marketing approach, and so forth.

Keep in mind that these terms are fuzzy, but fuzziness doesn't mean that there is no meaning to the term. When understood in the context of how a term evolves, it's easier to understand why it is being used, and what it's intended to communicate and differentiate.

Companies will use the term 'Product Designer' differently, but keep in mind that:

  • Some fuzziness in definition doesn't make a word unusable or useless (think of how fuzzy the meaning of the word F**k really is, but yet it's still very useful =). There is value to the term 'Product Designer' because it communicates a differentiated scope of design responsibility.

  • Even if a Product Designer does not have a vastly broad scope of responsibilities for a particular company, there can still value to the company in using the term because it may communicate a commitment or aspiration to design-led product development.

Hope that helps.

  • thanks tohster, would you say that Product Designer is essentially a direction a UXer might take if they were looking to broaden their remit (to include more of the product development cycle) or perhaps it's more that they are simply doing less UX and becoming more a 'jack of all trades' as @Devin says in his answer? – Chris Jun 27 '15 at 8:23
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I agree with all the comments that say the difference is a fuzzy one, that most titles in our field are vague, and that a good designer can do either job.

The main differentiator in my experience is that UX is a bit more driven by the experience of individual users, and product design is more driven by the idea of users. Product designers make decisions that will make the product more attractive, while UX designers make decisions that will make the product more useful. A product designer will look to focus groups, market research, and competitive analysis first, while a UX designer will want lots of 1-on-1 qualitative data from a usability lab.

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    ^ That. It's a matter of emphasis. Product Design tends to focus on business/market needs, UX Design tends to focus on user/workflow needs. Not that either ignores the other. – plainclothes Jun 25 '15 at 22:09
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Like most titles in our profession, it's fuzzy.

I think 'product designer' is partly just a trend/evolution. Though I do see job postings for 'product designers' where they are looking for more full stack designer (if that makes sense). In other words, they're looking for someone that can design the UI, then prototype it.

  • here's a little example job description that looks suspiciously similar to a lead ux role: codecademy.com/about/jobs/product-designer – Chris Jun 25 '15 at 18:19
  • Except that posting seems to involve more visual design and less user research than I'd expect in a UX position. – Ken Mohnkern Jun 25 '15 at 19:00
  • @KenMohnkern - yeah definitely, which just further complicates the idea of a Product Designer – Chris Jun 27 '15 at 8:24
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This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately as well. Part of this comes down to our love of categories at a psychological level, but I think there's also value to understanding the points of intersection and difference between the different design titles.

For example, I think there's a lot of overlap between a UI designer and Product designer - especially where patterns and systems design are concerned. These designers should be champions for consistent UI patterns both within their own product ecosystem, as well as across other products and companies (ie aware of industry trends).

At the same time, I believe that a UX designer is key to this discussion and to the placement of these patterns. UX designers work really well with an IA (information architecture) or UXR (user experience research) skill-set or buddy. The primary concern for UX designers should be to champion user needs.

But at the end of the day, I imagine these roles will look different in different workplaces and with different team structures. I agree with the post above that overall better design thinking should lead the way (where design thinking can include UX, UI, and product concerns when appropriate or applicable to a moment in a project or product's lifecycle).

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