Every year our field is barraged with new terms, buzzwords, and concepts — nature of a discipline that is still evolving. In trying to keep up with the industry, it is easy for even the fundamental concepts to become fuzzy.

Recently at a local UX event, I met a few aspiring professionals who were in the process of applying to various companies. One conversation, in particular, got me thinking:

Hey, my name is Person and I'm a product designer, I'm currently looking for UX jobs. Some companies know what product design is, others call it UX design so I change my resume depending on the job description —Person

The rest of the conversation was about how the job market, in general, is broken for the field of UX (which deserves its own separate post), but I wanted to talk specifically about product design vs. user experience design. Are they really interchangeable terms?

Understanding the difference here can take away some of the fuzzy expectations that are created while applying for a new role or when writing job descriptions. Let's take a shot at describing the ideal outcomes of practicing each discipline:

At its core, good product design requires making a product not just aesthetically pleasing but also functional.
Taking good product design and putting in the context of user psychology and environment is good user experience design.

An Example

I find that an example goes a long way in solidifying a concept, so let's consider one:

Disclaimer: this is an overly simplistic example to demonstrate a point and obviously doesn't cover the actual scope of what goes into building a product.

Let’s say a company is building a lamp specifically for basements. Their product design team is tasked with designing this lamp. Product designers get to work and design just that - a lamp that functions well and looks beautiful. Company builds out the lamp, puts it out in the market, but alas — sales are not as hot as you had hoped… What went wrong?

Now let us imagine if the company had leveraged its user experience team along with their product designers. The UX researchers would then start the process by studying the users, the context (basement) and would note that basements are often dark even during the day. Upon synthesizing the research, a high priority action item would be to make the lamp switch discover-able in dark basements. The lamp would then feature an LED in the switch so it’s visible in a dark room, and Boom! you’ve got a product that is successful in the context of its use.

This isn't to say that there is no overlap of skills and function between the two disciplines. Both disciplines ultimately want to solve a problem. The difference is in the mental model of how to think about solution. User experience is a discipline that teaches you to approach problems from the users' perspective and let their psychology dictate the form of the product. Product designers on the other hand put the product itself in the center of their process and let functionality dictate form. For a successful product, you'd need a healthy mix of both. If you go just the user route, you'll end up with a faster horse. If you go only with form fits function approach, you'll end up with a $400 juice squeezer that no one needs.

UX teams conduct user interviews to understand user needs. Sample from UserBit.

Product Team != Product Design Team

Right about now, a lot of product folks are probably unhappy after reading the product designer role described here. And rightly so, as the scope of their role seems a lot larger. They think about brand identity, they deal with validation, communication, engineering timelines, and pretty much everything that is associated with a product. The reason for this confusion is that in most organizations, the term product team is used for product management team and not for product design alone.

Unfortunately, a lot of widespread knowledge also confuses the role of a product manager with that of a product designer. Product management responsibilities undoubtedly envelop the entire development process since they have to maintain a bird's eye view of logistics and communication end-to-end.

These roles by no means have to be looked at as hard rules with strict boundary lines. In fact, depending on constraints like limited budget or lack of knowledge, many companies have hybrid roles and pick one of the terms for namesake. That is why these days it is the expectation that is more relevant than the actual term. Hopefully, this guide helps underline some of the key differences between these disciplines and sets the correct expectations for both employers and future employees.

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