Product Design vs UX Design

Product Design and UX Design Roles: Unveiling the Differences

by Mads Soegaard | | 42 min read
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Product and user experience (UX) design have become particularly prominent in the fast-evolving digital landscape. People often use these terms interchangeably in conversation, despite their unique attributes. However, they’re not the same. 

Product designer vs. UX designer is not a simple either-or scenario. Each role has unique responsibilities and focal points, contributing differently to the end product. 

Here, we aim to dig deep into the distinctions between a UX designer and a product designer, dissecting their roles, responsibilities, skills, tools, and more. 

Understanding these differences can help you align the skills and roles better to ensure a more efficient design process and an improved end product. 

So, let's get started!

What is a Product Designer?

A product designer is someone who leads or is part of the team that creates a new product or makes an existing one better. They take care of the entire design process. This professional works in cross-functional teams to address technical constraints and ensure usability from ideation to production. Ultimately, they significantly contribute to the overall product experience beyond its visual appeal.

"Our role is to imagine products that don't exist and guide them to life." 

– Apple designer Christopher Stringer

Learn more about product design in our guide | What is Product Design?

Responsibilities and Job Duties of a Product Designer

Product designers take on the task of understanding user needs. They translate those needs into functional and appealing designs and collaborate with cross-functional teams to bring their designs to life.

Product Design Process

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Among their fundamental duties, product designers typically:

  • Conduct user research and create user personas to understand their needs and motivations. A product designer might use interviews, survey questionnaires, diary studies, secondary market research data, or many other tools and resources to understand the users and the business context of the product.

  • Ideate and sketch design concepts based on insights gained from research.

  • Develop and test high-level prototypes, collecting user feedback to refine designs.

  • Collaborate with developers, project managers, and other team members to implement their designs.

  • Maintain a user-centric design approach, always aiming to enhance the user experience.

Key Skills and Qualifications for Product Design

Product designers need a wide array of skills and qualifications to excel in their roles. This includes:

  1. Computer Coding: Understanding languages like C++, CSS, and JavaScript can empower a product designer to communicate effectively with digital designers and provide useful input on the technical aspects of a product. 

  2. Visual Design: Have good knowledge of elements of visual design, such as layout, color theory, imagery, and typography, to create aesthetically appealing products.

  3. UI Design: Skills in creating interactive visuals and front-end development contribute to designing user-friendly interfaces.

  4. UX Design: Skills like prototyping, information architecture, and wireframing are essential to crafting products that deliver a positive user experience

  5. Prototyping: The ability to quickly and effectively create prototypes is crucial. Prototypes allow designers to test concepts and general approaches to understanding if the design meets business and user goals.

  6. User Research: Effective user research, including planning, surveying methods, and auditing, is pivotal in understanding user needs.

  7. Communication: Good communication skills to facilitate task delegation, timely project completion, and comprehension of client requirements.

  8. Teamwork: Collaboration is vital in product design, fostering the generation of solutions, understanding of project goals, and incorporation of diverse ideas.

  9. Problem-Solving: Finding innovative solutions and identifying and rectifying design errors are essential problem-solving skills in product design.

  10. Attention to Detail: A keen eye for detail ensures alignment with client guidelines and identifies areas of design improvement.

  11. Creativity: Innovation and creativity are integral to generating fresh product ideas and interpreting stakeholder information.

  12. Empathy: Empathy helps understand and address user needs effectively, leading to user-friendly products.


(Watch this video to learn more about Empathy and why it is crucial in product design.)

  1. Critical Thinking: The ability to explore and test multiple design ideas and observe and improve design processes aids in effectively applying user research.

  2. Emotional Intelligence: Emotional intelligence enhances user engagement and experience via designing products that elicit specific emotions.

These skills make you a proficient product designer and enhance your ability to create products that meet and exceed user needs.

Examples of Successful Product Designs and Their Impact

The power of successful product design is evident in the many groundbreaking innovations we encounter daily. 

Uber's product design shines with its Base design system, prioritizing functionality and visual consistency. A standout feature is the one-handed design that caters to on-the-go users. Key features are strategically located for easy reach. Flyout menus in the design enhance the experience, showcasing the profound influence of thoughtful product design.

Another compelling example is Medium. It excels in product design through its open writing platform, which fosters an immersive reading and writing experience. Its minimalistic design, characterized by a clean white background, minimizes clutter and distractions. What's remarkable is its embodiment of polite design principles, carefully balancing user engagement with respect for the users’ time and attention. Notifications like subscription renewals subtly reinforce trust and respect for user choices. 

These examples illustrate how thoughtful product design can have a profound impact. It reshapes industries and influences how we live and interact with the world.

What is a UX Designer?

A UX (user experience) designer focuses on enhancing user satisfaction by improving usability, accessibility, and interaction between the user and the product. They focus on creating seamless and meaningful experiences. Their work influences the entire process of acquiring and integrating the product, including branding, design, usability, and function.

"There are three responses to a piece of design — yes, no, and WOW! Wow is the one to aim for."

Milton Glaser

Responsibilities and Job Duties of a UX Designer

UX designers are the users' advocates. They place the user at the center of the design process to ensure their needs and expectations are met. Their responsibilities typically include the need to:

  • Understand and define user goals, motivations, and behaviors through user research.

  • Create user personas, journey maps, and wireframes to represent and guide the user experience.

  • Design the user interface layout and navigation flow.

  • Test design concepts and iterate based on user feedback and usability testing results.

  • Collaborate with UI designers, developers, and product managers, which will ensure the final product delivers a seamless user experience.

Key Skills and Qualifications for UX Design

To succeed in their role, UX designers need a distinct set of skills and qualifications:

Essential Skills and Qualifications Required for Product Designers and UX Designers

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Research: The ability to plan, conduct, and analyze user research is essential. It allows UX designers to understand their audience better and their needs, helping shape more effective design strategies.

  • Technical skills: Technical skills for prototyping, including familiarity with programming. Although knowledge of actual programming in Java or JavaScript may not be required, it’s crucial to understand how live prototyping tools work.

  • UX Design Tools: Familiarity with design tools like Sketch, Figma, or Adobe XD is needed to create and adjust designs efficiently.

  • Information Architecture: Organizing information in a user-friendly and intuitive way is key. This includes designing clear navigation systems, labeling, and search functions that make the product easy to use.

  • Wireframing: Creating wireframes, or blueprints, for each screen of an interface helps to define the necessary elements for each page and how they will work, instead of focusing on aesthetic aspects.

  • Visual Communication: Proficiency in visual language is necessary. It may include an understanding of layout, color, typography, icons, images, and design theory.

  • Interaction Design and User-Centered Design Principles: UX designers must understand the interaction and user-centered design principles strongly. These principles help designers create designs that facilitate a smooth user experience.

  • Problem-Solving Skills: Excellent problem-solving skills help UX designers identify and overcome design challenges.

  • Communication Skills: Effective communication skills are vital to collaborate with various stakeholders and clearly explain design decisions.

You don't always need a design degree to become a UX designer. Many people in this field come from different careers and have taught themselves or gone through intensive short-term programs known as boot camps.

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(Learn about the history of UX and what it means to be a UX designer.)

Examples of Exceptional UX Design in Websites or Digital Products

We encounter countless examples of effective UX design in our digital interactions. Airbnb's website is one such example. Its easy navigation, intuitive search functions, clear listing information, and seamless booking process contribute to an exceptional user experience.

Apple's website exemplifies superior UX design with its intuitive "compare products" feature. It presents a detailed comparison of selected items in a structured, easy-to-follow format. This tool streamlines online shopping and decision-making for users. It demonstrates that innovation and user support can significantly elevate the digital customer experience.

Real-Life Examples of Successful Product Designs and UX Designs

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

In both examples, the UX designers have excelled in understanding and meeting user needs, demonstrating UX design's pivotal role in creating successful digital products.

The Differences Between Product Designers and UX Designers

While product and UX design have a lot in common, they each have a unique focus that differentiates them. Let's explore these roles more deeply, highlighting their similarities, differences, and exceptional contributions to the design process.

The Differences Between Product Designers and UX Designers

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Here’s a table of differences between product designers and UX designers to give you an overview: 

Product Designer

UX Designer

Focus

Broad and holistic. Their work involves the entirety of the product, from concept to finish. 

Specific. They focus mainly on the user interface and the experience the user has while using the product.

Responsibilities

Conceptualization, design, and refinement of the product, aligning business goals with user needs, and working on the complete product lifecycle

Researching detailed user needs, designing user interfaces, conducting usability tests, and optimizing the user experience

Skill Set

Market and user research, ideation, design thinking, prototyping, interaction design, visual design, and usability testing

User research, wireframing, prototyping, usability testing, and understanding of human-computer interaction

Outcome

A complete product that meets both business and user needs

A smooth, intuitive, and efficient user experience when interacting with the product

Collaboration

Works with a variety of roles such as UX/UI designers, engineers, project managers, stakeholders, etc.

Collaborates primarily with UI designers, developers, product managers, and user researchers

Product Designer Vs. UX Designer: Comparison of Job Roles 

Product designers and UX designers both work towards creating user-friendly and engaging designs. However, their roles differ in terms of scope and focus.

A product designer guides a product through its entire lifecycle, from initial concept to final execution. Their responsibilities are not confined to user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design. They also consider business goals, market viability, and the product's technical feasibility.

Conversely, a UX designer focuses primarily on the user experience. They research user behavior, create user personas, and design the interaction between the user and the product. They prioritize the user's needs and emotions, ensuring the product is intuitive, satisfying, and enjoyable.

Distinct Areas of Focus and Expertise

Product design and UX design also have distinct focus areas.

Product Design: Product designers focus on the big picture. They strategize, brainstorm, and make crucial decisions about the product's design and features. They consider various aspects of the product to deliver a complete package that fulfills the user's and the business's needs. These aspects may include aesthetics, functionality, and the overall business strategy. 

UX Design: UX designers are primarily concerned with the user's experience. They deeply understand the user's needs, motivations, and behavior. They prototype and test designs to meet user expectations and create a seamless, enjoyable experience.

Contributions to the Overall Design Process

Both roles contribute significantly to the overall design process, each in its own unique way.

A product designer is typically involved from the initial concept to the final execution. They define the product's direction, set design goals, and coordinate with different teams to ensure these goals are met.

A UX designer is involved from the beginning with the primary objective of enhancing the product's user-friendliness. They conduct user research, create user journeys, and test prototypes to identify and fix usability issues.

Learn more about the design process in this piece by the IxDF | Design Process

Real-Life Examples of Unique Contributions

To understand the differences better, let's consider a few examples.

Product Designer: In product design, Stripe stands out with its sleek interface and efficient navigation. Despite offering complex payment API services, Stripe's well-crafted website design ensures easy access to information through clearly categorized menu items, unique icons, and distinct color schemes. This focus on user-friendly navigation demonstrates the depth of a product designer's role in creating a compelling, intuitive, and ultimately successful product.

UX Designer: Spotify, the popular music streaming service, showcases excellent contributions from UX designers. The intuitive and personalized user interface makes it easy for users to search for songs, discover new music, and create playlists. The designers also conceived user-focused features such as Discover Weekly and Year in Review to enhance the overall experience and make Spotify a top choice for music enthusiasts.

Knowing how these roles differ is the key in design. It helps put the right skills to use at the right time. Even though these roles share some similarities, each has its own view and skills. Both of them bring a unique perspective and set of skills that contribute to creating a successful, user-friendly product.

The Interconnectedness of Roles

Despite their differences, the roles of product designers and UX designers are far from silos. There's a significant amount of overlap and collaboration needed between the two. For example, a product designer's decision about a feature will influence the user experience, and the UX designer's research and testing can provide valuable insights into product development.

Skills and Qualifications

While both roles require a keen eye for design, the specific skills and qualifications differ.

Product Designers: Product designers need a broad set of skills, including visual design, UI design, UX design, familiarity with software development, and an understanding of business and market strategy. They also need excellent problem-solving skills, the ability to think critically and make decisions, and strong communication skills to effectively collaborate with various stakeholders.

UX Designers: UX designers need expertise in user research, usability testing, information architecture, interaction design, and prototyping. They must be empathetic to understand users' needs, have strong problem-solving skills to improve the user experience, and be effective communicators to advocate for users' needs.

The Impact on the End Product

Product and UX designers' distinctive contributions greatly impact the end product.

Product Designers: Product designers influence the product's overall direction and functionality. Their decisions determine the product's features, how it will look, and how it aligns with the company's strategic goals and market needs.

UX Designers: UX designers directly influence how users interact with the product at the same time as ensuring that business needs are met. Their work ensures the product is intuitive, enjoyable, and meets the users' needs, influencing user satisfaction and loyalty.

While product designers and UX designers have distinct roles, they both play a critical role in creating a successful product. Using their unique skills and perspectives, they work together to create a product that meets business objectives and delivers a satisfying user experience.

Which One Should You Choose?

Choosing between a career in product design or UX design will depend largely on your interests, skills, and the kind of work you enjoy doing. Both roles can offer rewarding and lucrative career paths. Nevertheless, each requires a different set of skills and focuses on different aspects of the design process.

  1. Product Designer Vs. UX Designer: Evaluating Interests and Skills

Firstly, you must take stock of your interests and abilities. If you love to think big-picture and enjoys handling multiple aspects of a product, this might be a sign that you’re suited for product design. Also, if you want to get involved in the entire product lifecycle—from conceptualization to market release—then product design could be the right choice for you. This role requires a good understanding of technology, user interface design, market trends, and strong problem-solving and leadership skills.

On the other hand, if you're drawn to understanding user behavior, conducting research, and creating intuitive and engaging user interfaces, UX design might be more suitable. UX designers often need strong empathy, analytical thinking, and skills in user research, along with proficiency in using UX design tools and creating wireframes and prototypes.

  1. Product Designer Vs. UX Designer: Career Paths and Opportunities

Both fields offer significant opportunities for career growth. As a product designer, you can advance to senior roles, lead design teams, or even become a product manager. Product designers often find opportunities in tech companies, design agencies, and startups.

Product designer salary - $76,421/year

Career Path and Salary Ranges for UX Designers and Product Designers

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

In the field of UX design, you can progress to senior UX designer, UX manager, or UX strategist roles. UX designers are in high demand in industries like tech, e-commerce, digital marketing agencies, and any business with a strong digital presence.

UX designer salary - $95,587/year

Learn more about the different UX roles in this piece | The Ultimate Guide to Understanding UX Roles and Which One You Should Go For

  1. Product Designer Vs. UX Designer: Personal Preferences and Aptitude

Consider what you value most in a job. Product design might be the right choice if you like having varied responsibilities and directly impacting a product's end result. However, if you prefer to specialize in creating optimal user experiences and working closely with user data and feedback, UX design could be a better fit.

Finally, consider where your natural aptitudes lie. Do you have a knack for aesthetics, technology, and overseeing projects? You might excel in product design. But you might find your calling in UX design if you're a strong communicator with an analytical mind and a passion for understanding and improving user experiences.

  1. Product Designer Vs. UX Designer: Making an Informed Decision

Before you decide, it can be beneficial to gain some practical experience. Try taking online courses or participating in design challenges to get a feel for each role. Speak to professionals in both fields to understand their day-to-day work and their challenges to make an informed decision based on a realistic understanding of what each job entails.

Remember, there's no one-size-fits-all answer. It's about finding the role that aligns best with your interests, skills, and career aspirations. Whichever path you choose, both product design and UX design are exciting fields with the potential to shape the future of technology.

Conclusion

Understanding the differences between product designers and UX designers is crucial, whether you're an aspiring designer, a hiring manager, or interested in the field. As we've discussed, product designers focus on the overall product, integrating multiple facets from concept to market. In contrast, UX designers hone in on the user experience to make products intuitive, enjoyable, and user-friendly.

Consider your interests, skills, and long-term goals when choosing a career. Both fields offer rewarding career opportunities, but they each require a unique set of skills and focus. You can gain a deeper understanding of these roles to make an informed decision that aligns with your career aspirations.

This article aims to be an evergreen resource, providing key insights into the dynamic design world. We'll continue to update it to ensure its relevance and usefulness.

Are you ready to kick-start your journey in design? Upskill for your next role with our intermediate courses, or if you're new to the field, join our beginner UX courses today! Let's embark on this exciting journey together!

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Download our free ebook The Basics of User Experience Design to learn about core concepts of UX design.

In 9 chapters, we’ll cover: conducting user interviews, design thinking, interaction design, mobile UX design, usability, UX research, and many more!

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