A Working Definition of Product Design

A Working Definition of Product DesignStories from the Trenches

For the past ~18 months, I’ve been working as a product designer. And I’ve spent that same 18 months trying to understand what that means. This an attempt to articulate, in the broadest sense, what it means to practice product design.

My product design work is the work I am most proud of, but it doesn’t anthologize or summarize well. Most of it goes unnoticed. It’s doesn’t manifest as discrete, blog-able units. It doesn’t Dribbble well. It’s broader than wireframes or UI or screenshots. If a product were a house, it wouldn’t be the interiors, or the frame, or even the foundation. It would be the reason for the house, the motivation for the house, and the idea of what the house could be and the purpose it could serve. Product Design is formless.

I put a lot of time into brand, UI, UX, etc. But those all feel like they are at the periphery of what I do. Those skills exist in the execution layer and support the product, but without solid product thinking, they are baseless.

A year-and-a-half’s worth of thinking (and plenty of stammering through my explanation of why I left behind a more comprehensible design career) has landed me on this working definition of what it means to be a product designer. Here goes…

Product Design is…

  1. recognizing patterns of human behavior.

  2. discovering the motivations and impulses that drive those patterns.

  3. creating tools that improve or elevate the output of those behaviors.

I. Recognizing patterns:

New behaviors are emerging all the time in online culture. I have no specific threshold, but once a behavior becomes a meme, (in that it is culturally transmittable), then it has reached a point of significance. When enough people are doing the same kinds of things, there is a possibility that they are acting on the same kinds of impulses or share the same kinds of motivations.

The biggest mistake a product designer can make is to dismiss any behavior performed by a significant number of people as fad, vanity, immaturity, etc. (selfies, oversharing, digital hoarding, even sexting*). There is always more there there.

II. Discovering motivations:

If behaviors are the variables, motivations are the constants. The drive behind the behavior is likely something fundamental, something that has been** around for a long time. There are clues in human nature, clues in history, clues in culture that could help explain just why this latest behavior has caught on, swelled, or spread. Our task is to become cultural anthropologists.

Culture is a thing of surfaces (read ‘behaviors’) and secrets (read ‘motivations’). The anthropologist is obliged to record the first and penetrate the second. Once we’ve figured out what people believe to be true about themselves, we can begin to figure out what’s really going on in this culture.

~Grant McCracken, Why Reality TV Doesn’t Suck, and May Even Make Us Smarter

III. Creating the tools that make the most of our impulses:

The internet has a natural tendency to provide an outlet for every kind of imaginable impulse. But what comes less naturally are productive*** outlets for those impulses. Building those takes real work. So wherever there is a trend in behavior, and especially where that behavior manifests itself in unproductive ways, there is opportunity to elevate that behavior.

The right tool can elevate an impulse to connect from large, low-touch networks (MySpace) to intimate circles of richer relationships (Facebook, Path, Days). It can unlock pent-up creativity in unlikely artists that suddenly have access to a creative process and a community ready to validate their contributions (Instagram, Tumblr, Paper).

Product Designers believe that in these impulses there is something fundamental that drives the patterns. Creating tools is not about creating patterns; it is about spreading them, amplifying them, and giving more people access, validation, and power to make the most of them.

Summing it up:

This is now my working definition for what I do:

It is the role of the product† designer to observe and understand any significant patterns of human behavior, to discover the motivations or impulses that drive them, and to design the tools that help people make the most of them.

In those impulses there is opportunity, especially for the impulses that manifest themselves as rudimentary, base, or underdeveloped behaviors. Without instruments, people will still make noise. With the right tools, people will make music ‡. Observe and enjoy the noise because in it you can hear music.

* In creating Snapchat, co-founder Evan Spiegel was partially inspired by the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal and a desire to create an app with expiring data, but ended up with something more about “funny faces” and “thinking of you” messages. The impulse for more immediate and ephemeral connection was always there, waiting for the right tool to make the most of it.

** I’ve been wondering if video-sharing could ever reach the scale and ubiquity of photo-sharing. Long before smart phones, there were camcorders that were, in terms of cost and convenience, at parity with still cameras. For a long time now, for some unknown reason, people seem less driven to capture video than photos. Is the right tool going to change that, or is there no/less impulse there in the first place?

*** I use the term ‘productive’ so I might moralize the idea of these behaviors as little as possible. Patterns might manifest in socially or emotionally damaging behaviors, or they might be as innocuous as mere time-wasters, which, as a label, is a product of time and culture.

† One of my favorite things about this definition of product design is that it opens the scope of the discipline to include a lot more people. Our team is a product design team. Every member is responsible for an execution layer of the product: engineering, UX, fundraising, payroll, project management, etc. But we’ve built a team of product design contributors that are all putting this basic process to work.

‡ “Design everything on the assumption that people are not heartless or stupid but marvelously capable, given the chance.” ~The Internet and Everyone, John Chris Jones

This article first appeared on Medium and has been reposted here with his permission.

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Keenan Cummings is a product designer. You can follow Keenan via his blog, or on twitter

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