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What makes a competent product designer?

​I became a Senior Product Designer this year. And here are the most common questions that I still get asked every day even by people in tech:

○ Do you design hardware?

○ Are you a UI designer?

○ Are you a UX designer?

○ Are you a UI/UX designer?

○ Are you an artist?

○ ...

The answer is none of the above.

In the context of early and growth stage startups, I wanted to share some thoughts about how I look at what product design success means and the core competencies of a product designer.

There are key skills and responsibilities you can easily find in a job description for a Product Designer, and they are not worth repeating here. But here is how I look at the inner thought process of a competent product designer.

Step 1: Advocate for customers, and come up with design solutions

○ As I become more experienced, I realize that people are more cognizant of pains than going through pleasures. But it's not a bad thing. Pain is the starting point of making genuine connections and establishing trust in the values of products your company/startup can deliver.

○ When you present design solutions, constantly communicate customer needs to the level of obsession. In product meetings, in technical review sessions... any chance you can get.

Step 2: Bring design to life with cross-functional team

○ Working with cross-functional teams means more than handing off design to the dev team. An awesome product designer should understand the financial and market constraints, as well as the inputs and outputs of different functions.

○ In the last few years, I obsessively read finance, management and general business books and listen to as many fintech podcast as I can. Broaden your horizon! So you understand how to better collaborate with others.

○ I also want to list some examples of how ability to work cross-functionally changes the way you look at a product:

○ Partnering with Marketing early on can help you understand whether the products you are designing are indeed ready for market yet and how you might want to course correct.

○ Partnering with Business and Customer Success can help you gain control over product discovery process. You can start to look at products in the lights of revenue growth or user engagement, and reflect on design decisions.

That is it! Only two steps and repeat. The shipped products will start creating value for the customers if you do the two steps well.

Beyond that, I thought it'd be helpful to mention some learnings and framework that I operate in:

○ Kaizen: It is a Japanese word that means 'improvements'. I believe in rapid testing product ideas early on and release incremental improvements to get feedback from customers and internal team along the way.

○ Alignment: This is a hard one because it is not easily measured, but aligning design with business, customer and engineering metrics can help expand business in a significant manner.

○ Be a thought partner with high caliber product leaders. The earlier years of a junior designer may involve a lot of 'doing', but as you become more senior, resolving organizational issues or product vision is also part of design process, although your output may not directly be an interface design.

○ User Research: Create mechanisms for the company or organization you work for empathize with users and integrate learnings from user research into roadmap. I think it takes a lot of critical thinking in leading successful user research: do you prioritize the most valuable paying customers or those who we can build features most easily for? When you build out user persona, how do you balance those who are most easy to reach out to and those who bring in the most revenues?

As I wrap up this post, I realize that I'm making product design sound simple, and the truth is the opposite of that. It took me 250+ pages of notes that I wrote to myself at the end of each work day over years to get to this point of relative clarity compared to where I was a few years back. As times goes on, I will keep adding new thoughts and sharing learnings along the way :)

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