I (Jai) haven’t been writing for this blog nearly as much as I intended to when Magda started it, but I’ve been home in bed with the flu for two days, and finally had some space to finish something she asked me to write ages ago – a little explanation to the age old question…
What Do You Do For a Living?
There are lots of reasons why I avoid and detest the cliche question, “what do you do for a living?” when I meet new people.
One of those is because it always feels like a quick way for the asker to decide whether the other person is worth their time, and I don’t for a second feel as though anybody can or should be judged for their vocation alone.
The other reason, probably the main one, is because if the person asking it isn’t within the technology & design industry, I never feel like I have a clear and simple answer.
My go to response can vary from the vague and kinda wanky “I’m a (digital) product designer”, to the blunt but more descriptive:
“I design apps ‘n websites ‘n shit”.
Or perhaps if the asker does know a little about tech, the slightly longer variation might be, “I see myself as a ‘specialist generalist’ across all applications of design and design thinking in envisioning, executing and evolving digital products”…
But, that’s also pretty wanky, huh?
So, You Make Things Pretty?
I started on this path as a Graphic Designer – which everyone thinks they understand, as they respond “Oh, so you make things look pretty, that’s cool!”.
To be fair, I think most of my friends and family who are not involved in the tech world still think that’s what I do.
In fact, my official job-title at work is still simply Designer, and for as long as I had* that on my email signature, I found people would still dismiss me as the guy that should be able to polish any turd of a product into something amazing once all the big decisions had already been made.
(* I changed my email signature to ‘Product Design & Strategy’ last year, and nobody seems to have questioned it)
Don’t get me wrong, there are people that can polish turd products, and they can do it very well.
Some of the best looking and most delightful apps to interact with that I’ve ever seen were completely polished turds of a concept. They offered little value to anyone and thus faded away into obscurity despite the rave reviews about the design of the app.
By the same token, some of the most practical and useful apps I’ve ever used looked like utter crap. They were at times confusing and disorienting – and while the hype around these apps often last longer, they can also struggle to build up the audience to become widely accepted or adopted.
The Many (Inter)Faces of A Product Designer
In simple terms, a (Digital) Product Designer, is someone who works across all aspects of a product, throughout it’s whole development cycle.
They’ll explore the initial concept or problem, and validate if anyone even needs a solution in the first place.
They watch and learn from how users respond and engage with the app once it’s launched, and decide how to improve it.
And they’re involved with pretty much everything in between.
(Apologies for the amount of jargon terms in the next paragraph – if you want to know more about any of these, leave a question in the comments)
This involves working across skillsets traditionally split out as their own specific roles, such as Product Strategy, User Research, Information Architecture, Wireframing, Visual Design, Brand Design, Interaction & Motion Design, and Prototyping, which themselves are often simplified down (in varying combinations) to simply User Experience (UX) Design and User Interface (UI) Design.
There’s also countless other areas a product designer might choose to expand their knowledge and skills around.
Some things I’ve found an interest in which have served me well in my role include Front-end Development (coding), Metrics & Analytics (measuring user engagement & behaviour), Psychology & Cognition, Marketing & Growth, and Business.
It all depends on your context and aspirations.
Go Deep, Go Wide, or Go Both?
As you can probably tell already – there is a lot to learn here.
Each of these topics align directly with job titles that people work years to reach an expert level at – how can you expect to master them all?
Quite simply, you probably can’t.
Since joining this industry, I’ve never had a shortage of entries on my Things I Want To Learn list, and in all honesty I’ve still never quite cleared my Things I Need to Get Better At list.
Then there’s the fact that there’s always going to be someone nearby better than me at just about everything I do.
This can seem like a struggle at times, but eventually you realise it’s actually an amazing opportunity – there’s always someone nearby I can learn from.
Personally I feel that my natural curiosity is well suited for this, but it might not be for everyone.
I feel like in the last few years the graph of my knowledge and expertise has broadened and diversified as quickly as, or quicker than, my core skillset knowledge has deepened.
To maintain this, it helps to keep a growth mindset, and always be learning, as much as it’s crucial to know your current limitations, and respect the expertise of others.
What is it You Do Again?
I hope this post begins to explain what I (and other Digital Product Designers) do, to any level of clarity.
If you have any questions, or disagree with any broad generalisations I probably made in order to try and keep this from getting too technical, then hit me up on Twitter, or leave a comment.
At the very least, I hope this explains why my go to response to being asked what I do is usually:
“I design apps ‘n websites ‘n shit”.