April 7, 2021

Why product design is hard — on skills, hiring, and influence

Doing product design well is hard because it takes an extraordinary amount of base skills, mindset, and conscious moves to even get to the starting line.

1. The product skills needed are broad and the market needs change rapidly.

Information architecture, interaction design, content strategy, accessibility, branding, visual and UI design, front-end engineering, visual programming, design systems, service design, growth design, conversation design, AR/VR design — there's a ton of technical areas and emerging disciplines in design to make sense of. And they literally change everyday.

Tools and workflows evolve. Collaborative design software, prototyping tools, and no-code workflows make design easier and more accessible. But reaching high-level craft will always require you to put your reps in. For instance, you won't learn Webflow if you don't actually spend time using it. Can you improve your UI design skills just by reading?

I think it's reasonable to believe that the job market, ever since the dawn of capitalism, has rewarded T-shaped specialists. To be relevant, product designers have to constantly refine their design base and decide which direction they want to specialize and sub-specialize in.

Individual contributors can choose to be experts in specific domains or industries, emerging technology, or craft-oriented methodology. Whatever the case, the market will move on without you and your opinions about tools.

From here, it's all about trying to predict which skills will be the most valuable in the future, while ensuring that you're working in an industry you believe in and are actually interested in.

2. Hiring is hard because those who possess the right combination of skills and mindset are in short supply.

The unicorns are all hired!

Sure, the market changes so rapidly day-by-day that whatever technical skills you learned in the last year or two can possibly be irrelevant today. Learning the base of technical skills to be a decent designer is not the only problem.

Critical thinking skills, the ability to communicate, kindness, self-awareness, and growth-oriented mindsets are actually very short in supply. Personally, there is no greater joy as a design peer, than being able to work with ambitious and self-aware teammates.

I've seen it myself, and It's easy to just not care about the people around you. You would think more senior people would be good at this, but age or experience is no predictor of success in this arena — motivation, interest, and commitment matter. The best self-aware designers and product people I've worked with were open to others' opinions, provided criticism kindly, and asked pointed questions that steered any conversation in the right direction.

You have to think about all of this while taking diversity, equity, and inclusion into account—and whatever your organization's goals are. Early hires are tremendously important, because whoever they are and whatever the behavior they model is literally the culture being embodied.

In addition to this, most designers are stuck in the proverbial "making it pretty" mode of design. You may have a different opinion, but I believe that product design will always be about problem solving—both for the business and for people. Designers don't always have the luxury of being thrown into organizations that value design enough to think in this way, which makes the evangelical role even more important for the whole profession to thrive.

3. Designers need to learn how to build influence in their organizations.

To effectively make things happen in any organization, product designers need to understand the context they are moving in while carefully building trusting relationships with people.

They have to get into the minds of their executives, cross-functional peers in other disciplines (Product, Engineering, Sales, Marketing, etc.), and their direct reports (if they're a manager) to determine the right next steps. It's easy to actually work on useless stuff that doesn't matter to anyone.

To create true influence, you must build things that create value for other people in the organization. To understand the needs of your peers, try shadowing them to find pain points. Then find ways to make their lives easier. Doing this intentionally and consistently ensures a steady state of growing influence not just for you as an individual, but for the whole design organization/function.

Product Designers are ultimately judged by the outcomes they can achieve. Sure, you'll be inundated by stupid tech jargon—OKRs, AARRR metrics, NPS, CSAT, Heuristic Evaluations. But realistically, you can really only achieve them if you're in an enabled and empowered state. You can't do your job to the utmost capacity if the prevailing infrastructure does not allow you to.

That's why it's important to create the space for design to happen. And that only happens when we build influence. It's funny because as designers, we're most of the time caught in this endless loop of trying to sell our value to the organization without actually solving the real problems. Or building the right relationships.

To create influence, empty, shallow design rhetoric won't work. Prove your worth to your cross-functional peers with results, and by helping them solve their problems too.

Other Ramblings