Over the years, I worked for a lot of companies and with lots of people. With the mistakes I made and the knowledge I gained from others, I created my work method. During the past year, this method has become my guiding principle. Last week, I decided to put it all down on paper (or HTML) and share with you my 12 principles for being a professional product designer.
It takes time to feel confident as a product designer, and it does not happen overnight. I believe these principles will help you to reach this goal.
I wrote it from the perspective of a product designer but it would be useful for any UI designer, UX designer, UX researcher, and DesignOps.
This article has two aims:
Everything in this article is based on this principle. There are many places where you can read about ownership, but here is my explanation:
Ownership means you are the one who takes all the initiative to make sure it happens.
When you own something, you consider it to be yours, so you are willing to take care of every last detail because it belongs to you. You know you are the one who needs to take action to make it better. So treat any task as though it is your own. That is the point. The task is not someone else’s, it’s yours. You’re responsible for it. Nobody will solve the issue, only you.
I will explain it with three examples:
Let’s say you have a task to design a data table with lots of information. Nobody told you what exactly needs to go in there. If you take ownership, you will talk to the users, Product Manager, Product Owner, another designer, and even the developers to find out what information needs to be inside the table. You are not waiting for anybody to give you information, and you insist on it until you get it.
Your design team and the developers don’t have a smooth handoff process and it is difficult to pass the information on to them. If you take ownership, you will hold a workshop, retrospective, or any other kind of meeting to improve the process until it works.
No one in your design team takes care of the UI kit. The designers always complain that it does not work, but nobody does anything about it. If you take the initiative, you will start fixing this problem. From this moment you took ownership of that, and it is your task. You are the one who fixes anything and cares that the UI kit will work for everyone on the design team.
Feedback is a tool that product designers should use to improve their designs. You can get feedback from product designers, product managers, product owners, developers, and users. The key thing here is to not take feedback personally. You are not the work. When you get feedback, try to understand what the other person is trying to say.
It is also important to get feedback as soon as possible. Many designers, especially young designers, work a lot to come up with a perfect solution that everyone will agree on. In reality, this doesn’t happen.
First, you need feedback to close understanding gaps between you, the developer, and the product manager.
Second, you need feedback to find technical issues.
Third, product design is all about finding the balance between business, design, and development. You need feedback as soon as possible to balance this triangle.
Another thing to remember is that feedback has two sides, getting and giving. If you can, give your feedback. This shows you care about the product and want to make it better.
Product designers need to be good communicators. you need to communicate your solution to another stakeholder, so you have to be communicative and know how to explain it so that people will understand.
Here are some examples of great communications:
Before you present the design, write the key points and the open points. Make sure the presentation and the prototype are working. That way, you will have less friction with the participants and they will be able to understand your points.
Write down the main points in meetings and send them by Slack at the end. Then put all the design decisions in an organized place.
Some team members, like product managers, don’t have much time for meetings. They are in meetings all day, and finding an open spot in their schedule is difficult.
For this case, I recommend sending a short Slack message about the process and how it’s progressing. Describe what happened, is everything okay, or if you have any blockers.
You can also record the screen and show a prototype of the solution you are working on.
Sharing updates make people feel in charge.
If you don’t know something, just say “I don’t know.”. Just be honest. If people think you know but you don’t, then it is causing misunderstanding between you and them.
When you don’t understand something, say that and ask someone to explain it to you. In addition, when you hear a term or topic you are not familiar with, ask what it means.
If you do so, you will learn new stuff, and in the second place, you will see your knowledge gaps. If you don’t do it, you will not know, and worse, people will think you understand the topic.
A professional product designer must always learn new things. New ideas, design concepts, design processes, technology, and software are coming out every day. It’s your job to stay up to date. You can read articles and books, listen to podcasts, watch videos, and participate in conferences and webinars. A lot of the knowledge you can find is free, so there is no financial barrier. One more thing, you don’t have to study just product design, you can study marketing, development, product management, graphic design, or any new skill that will help you grow.
For example, 3 years ago, I realized I needed to sell my ideas to my teammates. I will be able to have more influence on the product then. So I started learning how to sell. I read books, articles, and watched YouTube videos. I am not a salesman, but this helped me understand how to convince my team members.
It is easy to sit at the table and say nothing in a meeting or design thinking workshop but don’t do it. As a product designer, it is your job to advocate for the design and share your thoughts with everyone. You need to make sure the product design is good. When you are in a meeting and someone says something you know is not true, just say it.
People appreciate when you participate in meetings. Remember that each person in the group can learn from you. Another reason is that if you share your ideas and knowledge, you have a better chance of influencing the product. If you don’t make any impact and don’t influence the product with your ideas and knowledge, then you are just acting on other people’s ideas.
There is an important point here. There are companies for whom product design is not important or teams where one person ignores other ideas. You can try to make changes, but in many cases, the team or company culture is too strong to change. In this case, look for another job and avoid being a YES man because it will hurt your career.
Product design is not a task for one person. Design a product involves different people in the team working together. As with a football team, a product team has to work well together to win. This includes the product manager, product owner, developers, QA testers, and product designer.
As the product designer in the team, you should build good relationships with other team members to be able to collaborate. In my opinion, it all starts with empathy, by listening to the team members and understanding their perspectives and pain points.
For example: If you want to improve the visual design by adding an animation and the developer says that is not possible right now because of lack of time, then you have to respect that. A designer who doesn’t understand it doesn’t respect the other professionals.
Collaboration is also about organizing the way of working so it will feel smooth. Great designers build a shared understanding of how teams work. It can include conducting design thinking workshops, creating an agreement about where the team documents information, and making the design hand-off process.
Negotiating the solution with the team and designing something that the team can deliver is also part of the collaboration. We always run out of resources, but if you work as a good team member you understand that and put the focus on the important points.
By doing so, you can ensure your design balances the team limitations and the user requirements.
Figma sketch and whiteboard tools like Miro and Figjam are the main tools for product designers. It doesn’t matter what tool you use, but you have to master it. It will make you work faster so you have more time to create great user experience design instead of making screens.
Often I hear designers who work in Figma but don’t know how to use auto layout and components. That is not professional at all. As a professional, you have to master the tool and know all the tricks.
If a designer doesn’t control his/her main tool well, it gives the impression that he/she isn’t a professional and is kind of lazy. Not just for the other designers but also for the product team.
We are here to make an impact. We want that our solutions will help the users. The most important thing you need to keep in mind when you design something is to think how you can help the user to get the best result.
It is a common myth that designers who work more hours will get better results. That is not true. It’s easy to work a lot of hours and make many screens, but if you don’t understand the user needs and his/her problems you will not be able to make an impact.
Perform user research to understand the users problems. You should interview users and take a look at analytics data. Once you’re done with the design process, test it as much as you can and then deliver it to development. That will help you be more confident about the impact of your design.
If you work for a company that uses KPIs to measure success, that’s great! You should first figure out what the KPIs are so you will know what is success for the company.
In each design you do, convince your team to set a clear KPI to measure success. If you do so, you will be able to measure the impact you make on the product.
When you work within a team, you must be precise. Each error will affect both the team members and the user.
Being precise means:
By working precisely, both you and your teammates will work less, and they will have more trust in you because you will deliver the information without any problems.
People need to trust you to work well together. Working with someone we trust makes us work less because we are confident.
Trust for me is built on two things. One is to work precisely. As I explained in principle 9.
The second thing is transparency. If you need more time, say it. If you don’t understand something, say it. If you don’t know something, say it. In other words, be honest and don’t hide important information.
Apart from that, admit your mistakes. I have heard people say, “We made a mistake”. However, sometimes it is not WE, it is YOU. So if you made a mistake, for example, you didn’t do a good design handoff, just say, it’s my fault. It will show people that you understand responsibility.
You need to know your product before you can design a solution for it. You can’t just talk to users and focus on the part of the product you are responsible for. As a product designer, you need to know your product well and learn how the whole system works.
Let’s take a marketplace as an example. Imagine you’re in charge of the buyers side. You can’t design it 360 degrees if you don’t understand how the seller side works. In the end, the buyer and seller have to communicate. Then you want to know how the seller gets the info from the buyer. How do you design a solution when you know half of the process?
It’s always okay to ask for permission to use the product in an internal environment if you need to study it. Furthermore, ask the product managers or customer success people to sit down with you and explain to you how the product works so you understand it better.
Last, but definitely not least, the users. It is your job to represent users and solve their problems.
Knowing the users is key, and there are a bunch of ways to do it. Interview them, survey them, talk to the customer support people or ask the sales people about them.
Secondly, you need to design the right kind of solution for them, so you need to understand their issues so you can prioritize what’s most important. It also means sitting at the table with the other stakeholders and negotiating on behalf of users.
Another thing is to perform a design QA to make sure the developers implemented the solution just as you designed it. By doing this, you will make sure the design handoff process is correct, and there will not be any design bugs or gaps between the design and the development.