Fig. 13 A Guide for Designers

The Product Design Spectrum

What product designers really need to know, and how to choose which skills to acquire next.

Written by Ryan Clark March 29, 2016

A growing number of product designers think they need to spend their time coding their own designs. I disagree—strongly—and tweeted that sentiment recently. It was a little (a lot) tongue-in-cheek, but the intention was honest. Suffice it to say, that tweet sparked the most heated debate I’ve had online.

“Should designers code?” is a question that has launched a thousand think pieces. This isn’t one of those. Trust me. I dare say that anyone having that debate has failed to address the real question worth asking, one that’s far more nuanced, but much more important. “What skills should a product designer really have?”

To help work through this idea, I separated the core product skills into categories based on their context: content, mediums, and strategy. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but interestingly enough all product teams will have these proficiencies accounted for – in-house or outsourced.

 

The Spectrum of Product Skills

Building Blocks ie. Content

  • writing
  • typography
  • photography
  • illustration
  • iconography

Production Methods ie. Mediums

  • wireframing / prototyping
  • animation / motion
  • programming
  • infrastructure
  • printing

Business and Customers ie. Strategy

  • marketing
  • entrepreneurship
  • customer experience
  • research
  • branding

 

Understand It All

The best product designers will have an understanding of how each of these skills impact the task at hand. On smaller teams you might be responsible for half of them. On larger teams you may be responsible for only a handful. In positions of design leadership your role will focus less on the skills themselves and more on how they relate holistically.

This was the point of the tweet mentioned above. If you can code, great. You should be able to, at least in a basic sense. If you can code, but can’t write a line of copy by yourself, effectively prototype or wireframe, talk about your designs, or relate to you or your client’s customers, you still have some work to do. A lot of work, actually.

 

Where to Focus

I am often asked by design students what they should learn. Of course the whole spectrum has importance, but it’s natural to choose points of focus. In my experience it can be driven by a few things:

  1. Personal Interest
    Learn the skill that you’re passionate about. Maybe you love researching and advocating for users. Maybe you love writing semantic markup. Focusing on skills you love to practice will keep you energized and passionate about your work. And that passion will ultimately shine through to your teammates and customers.

  2. Team Need
    Learn the skill your team needs. Sometimes the best way to add value to your team or product is to pick up the slack somewhere else. If your team doesn’t have a copywriter then maybe content is a valuable skill-addition. Help with customer support to gain valuable insights into your user’s pain-points. When you view your team as a collective set of skills you can find the areas that need the most help.

  3. Skill Scarcity
    Learn the skill that no one else does. This is based on the simple economics of supply and demand. Want to make your skill set more valuable? Find complementary skills that aren’t normal for your role. Move beyond the mediums of design to the strategy involved—you’ll be able to answer the “what” of a problem, as well as the more valuable “why.”

  4. Skill Longevity
    Learn the skills that last the longest. Each skill you learn has a half-life. Interestingly enough designers tend to focus their extra attention on production methods—especially code—but it’s really the softer skills that have the longest half-life. React is a powerful tool, but it’ll become obsolete long before written language is replaced by emojis and reaction gifs.

 

The prevailing narrative of today will tell an aspiring designer they must also become a programmer. In reality, a great product designer will be far more than even that—part marketer, part copywriter, part creative director, part customer service manager—and that is the real goal to be attained. Learning to code is just the beginning.