Good Product Designer/Bad Product Designer

Fifteen years ago, legendary investor Ben Horowitz published Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager. That article has, for many, served as a doctrine on all things product management. So I’m borrowing from Ben today with my own version, this time on Product Design. Here goes…

Good product designers think about helping users. They believe that “the best – maybe the only? – real, direct measure of ‘innovation’ is change in human behavior.” They see their work as a way to solve real problems for real people. They spend time learning the details of their users’ environments so they can articulate solutions in specific and familiar ways. They know that their product is hired to do a job.

Bad product designers rely on their own opinions and experiences as proxies for users’ goals. They focus on abstract problems and invented edge cases. Bad product designers can happily deliver solutions that are aesthetically pleasing without regard for their impact on user behavior. They declare success once a project is ‘designed’ or ‘shipped’ rather than ‘has changed behavior’ or ‘has solved users’ problems’.

Good product designers have a wide tool kit to solve problems. They know exactly when to use each of those tools. They can wireframe, sketch, user test, create prototypes, make storyboards, facilitate workshops and a hundred other things. They never insist on a step in the design process if it does not add value to the problem they are solving.

Bad product designers feel uncomfortable expanding their toolkit or changing it to suit their current problem. They follow a rigid design process over and over, demonstrating little understanding as to why.

Good product designers realize that every design problem has constraints and use these to their advantage. They uncover constraints early in their process – embracing constraints when they cannot be changed and challenging them when they can be.

Bad product designers ignore constraints or become frustrated by them. They spend their time thinking of how great it would be to work at a place with more resources, more time and fewer limitations. They show concept work that never launched, citing a variety of reasons that prevented their work from going live.

Good product designers are quick on their feet. They are masters at uncovering new information and adapting their solutions to it. Good product designers are always evaluating their proposed solution – quickly deciding to stretch it (if they can adapt to the new information) or to propose a new solution (if their solution no longer works given the new information).

Bad product designers are slow to react. They throw away solutions as soon as new problems arrive, never considering an iterative approach. Worse, they fall in love with solutions that no longer solve the new problem.

Good product designers think beyond the current interface they are working on. They consider the entire user journey and fit their solution into the larger context. They look for opportunities to reference patterns the user is familiar with and to create extensible patterns that have uses beyond the current design problem.

Bad product designers create unique elements for each design challenge they take on. They cause friction for the user by introducing new patterns sporadically and without thought to the the overall user experience.

Good product designers have a wide knowledge of common solutions to problems. They are familiar with interface guidelines and patterns of widely used platforms (including their own). They know how their users are currently solving their problem, whether that is with competitors’ software, a cobbled together solution or non-consumption.

Bad product designers waste time by inventing novel solutions to solved problems. They value invention over innovation and add complexity to their problems by insisting their solutions need to be unique.

Good product designers are masters of storytelling. They ‘Start with Why’ and describe the struggles of their users using real examples. They break down complex solutions into consumable chunks, always speaking in the language of their audience. They adapt their stories to their audience fluidly, spending more time explaining implementation details to engineers, business impact to product leaders and interaction details to other designs.

Bad product designers are hard to follow and spend time explaining the irrelevant details to the wrong people. They have a hard time explaining ‘why’ and focus on ‘what’ and ‘how’.

Good product designers seek out feedback quickly and from a wide variety of people. They know that the best design processes are iterative and that by soliciting feedback they can achieve great results. When they receive critical feedback, they rarely go on the defensive. They have little trouble coordinating multiple (sometimes contradictory) feedback. They follow up with people who have given them feedback and ask “Does this new version address your feedback?” They trust the process and make it easy for others to do the same.

Bad product designers get defensive when receiving feedback, causing their teammates to remain silent. They often ‘go dark’ for long periods of time, hoping to wow everyone with their genius once they emerge.

Good product designers know how to give the right feedback at the right time. They ask great clarifying questions to make sure they understand the problem fully. When they need to be direct, they have no problem doing so because they value quality so highly.

Bad product designers worry about what other people will think of them if they disagree with them. They remain silent because they are afraid that being critical will make them unpopular with their team.

Good product designers negotiate with product managers and engineers to ship simple, lovable and complete versions of their designs. They have a keen instinct for the highest impact parts of their designs and know what can and can’t be cut to meet deadlines. They know that design is not ‘done’ when they stop designing and engineers start building.

Bad product designers have hard time working with their teammates. They force product managers and engineers to make scope decisions and become frustrated when everything isn’t built to spec.

Wow – it’s hard to be a good product designer. Luckily, nobody expects you to be perfect when you first start. The key is to stay curious. My advice? Find a great mentor, read everything you can, listen to awesome podcasts (even tangentially related ones) and remember that it takes time (and that’s okay).

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