How to get into Product Design? 💡

1st July, 2020

TL;DR - Read voraciously, learn to understand people, find your design process through projects, create a portfolio.

For the past few months, people have approached me through various channels to ask how I entered into the field of UX or product design. I felt that I could share a short digestible note describing what I consider are building blocks to kickoff your journey of becoming a product designer. The following tips are a product of my many conversations with mentors, practictioners and veterans in this field and I hope you find value in it.

Background ðŸ‘”

l graduated with a Computer Science degree, did a masters in a program that was in the intersection of design and analytics. The first leg of my career mainly involved coding design components using HTML and javascript before entering into a product design role. There is always a catalyst that drives motivation to pursue the journey and for me it began by enrolling into the Human-Computer Interaction course that was being offered in university for the first time.

Show me the way â›°ï¸

To be fair, there is no wrong way to pursue a career in product design. Then again there is no perfect way either. However, two key traits are a must have to set yourself up for success: 1) Have an unfading passion for design and, 2) Taking feedback positively.

I always revisit Jhulie Zhuo's essays whose candid advice to aspiring designers to stay grounded and focused on honing your craft and execution of projects is a source of encouragement. There is honestly so much overlap in today's industries that a person is likely to wear multiple hats â€” conducting interviews, to generating wireframes and documenting changes made on the current design. This multi-tasking is an excellent way to learn the necessary skills at an accelerated rate, especially if you're in a small classroom setting or independent projects. 

There are other routes available as well! From the countless conversations that I have had with product designers, most had a unique story of how they made the shift to this field. I am mentioning a few initiatives they took:

  • Carrying out independent projects
  • Taking online courses — Coursera, Udemy etc
  • Attend onsite workshops such as those organized by General Assembly
  • Collaborate with other designers in their workplace.

Become a voracious reader ðŸ“š

The thing about learning design in 2020 is that there is massive amount content to read and get inspired from. You would also find yourself stuck in an infinite loop of trying to cut through the noise to find useful material. However, you have Medium has loads of articles where authors; who may be potentally working for high profile companies, detail out their interview experience, lessons from working in the role of a product designer. UX Collective is a gold mine of knowledge and I belive is one of the best design publications out there.

However, there are two fundamental books every aspiring product designer must read to - Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman and Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug. If you start preparing for interviews there is Cracking the coding interview alternative for product designers called Solving Product Design Exercises by Artiom Dashinsky.

If you consider resources that do a deep dive on design, John Maeda's State of Design Reports are a treat to look into. Think of his reports as a summary of design trends observed in the present year. His method of describing the evolution and utilization of design in various fields; intricate or typical ones, are profound and at times witty. He advocates for next emerging field of Computational Design.


Understanding People 🧘🏽‍♂️

A cornerstone of UX, in my opinion. It is important to understand how humans see the world, of how unique each individual's situation and background can be. Only through knowing the details, a product designer can even think about attempting to solve the problem. Consequently, Human Centered Design is built around the principle of 'empathy' as it puts humans at the center. It asserts that design to be a collaborative experience, where the designer researcher conducts interviews and contextual inquiry in order to get to know what pain points people experience in set scenarios. I would highly recommend reading Steve Portigal's book on conducting interview. Its comprehensive, touches bits on behavioral psychology and describes various techniques to get the most out of users in an interview setting.

There are certain soft skills that you can facilitate you in user research. Practicing "Active Listening" is one way which involves you, the interviewer, being fully present and aware about the user's behaviour and body language. Another skill is asking the right questions during user interviews. The goal we are trying to accomplish is maximizing feedback through uncovering problems, identifying business opportunities and generating relevant insights that will go towards the final product. I wrote about how to do this in a Medium article


Building your Design Process ðŸ’ªðŸ¼

To thrive in the field of product design, its important to build a design process, which is basically the steps you take to build awesome solutions for users from start to finish. Finding your design process can take months or even years depending upon how you operate in terms of speed and effectiveness. 

Discovering delightful work published by designers on platforms such as Behance or Dribble is a good starting point to build incremental knowledge about what a design process entails. Apart from being a good source of inspiration, UX case studies highlight a designer's method to tackle a problem and it is perfectly fine to integrate bits and pieces of the general idea into your own workflow.

Pursuing passion projects is another way of identifying your design process. This can be recreating an app experience people use every day or inventing something which is not in the market. While you work on these projects, it helps to document your progress or accomplished tasks, with clarity in mind. Consider this as your playbook to guide you in future endeavours. 


Importance of Design Systems ðŸŽ¨

A Design system is a guideline for complex systems made to assist teams in using the right design component for the task. Developing an understanding about design systems will significantly improve your product thinking and approach to tackle problems with a design-driven approach. 

Design Systems describe how web and mobile components are meant to interact with each other to create the ideal user experience. Notable examples are Google's Material Design and Microsoft's Fluent Design which contain valuable instructions on designing apps for multiple devices such as iOS, Android or Windows. These systems are packaged in the form of toolkits and generally combine knowledge of most spectrums of design that includes UX, UI, iconography, grids, accessibility, typography and color systems. Designers need to cognizantly know which area of a design system they can contribute productively when working withing cross-functional teams. 


Create a portfolio ðŸ–¼ï¸

To be a product designer, is like building your brand. I cannot stress enough the importance of creating a portfolio that describes your work. If you're trying to switch jobs to a more design-oriented role, a portfolio is considered a recommended part of the application. Its important to note that design recruiters look for personality and creativity. A resume would not be enough as it gets a maximum attention time of ~7 seconds and a decision is made right there unless there is more for the recruiter to see. 

When you start building your portfolio, dedicate multiple hours in polishing the content, illustrations and layout. Once you have a feeling that the portfolio is taking shape, the next step is to get feedback. Approach friends or your mentors who can help you point out mistakes, which by correcting them can can make a huge difference. If you're looking for inspiration, Cofolios is a useful reference point to check out portfolios of people working in top companies. 

IBM includes the practice 'restless reinvention' in their design thinking pipeline, and I think its super useful. Using this approach to continuously tweak content on the portfolio will pay big dividends later.

Concluding Thoughts âœŒðŸ¼

My belief is that it is much more challenging to get hired as a product or UX designer job now compared to; say, 2016. With the onset of Covid-19, high profile companies can afford to be selective as their design teams and frameworks have matured over the years. They would ideally have preference for seasoned designers but that does not mean there aren't other opportunities out there. Startups that prioritize design into their business are worth exploring. If you're looking to apply within Pakistan, I have compiled a Github link that you can refer to.

Lastly, my question to you is: How can I help?

If you're emerging deigners and have questions or ideas to share, my lines are open. If you want a second pair of eyes to review your portfolio, will be happy to provide feedback. 


Share this article with your peers

Is your team hiring a product designer? Want to discuss ideas or projects?
Let's connect virtually!

Updated July 2020