Product Designers vs. UX Designers: What's the Difference and Does It Matter?
Terms like "product design" and "user experience (UX) design" are often used interchangeably along with their corresponding job titles. But are they the same thing? And more importantly, does it even matter?
In this blog post, I'll break it down and explore the differences between product designers and UX designers, and share my personal experience having worked in both roles.
Let's start with the typical scope of work for a product designer vs. a UX designer
Product Designers: Product designers have a broad scope that extends beyond user experience. They consider the entire product ecosystem, including its physical form, features, functionality, and aesthetics. They collaborate with cross-functional teams to ensure the product aligns with business goals, market demands, and brand identity.
UX Designers: UX designers concentrate specifically on the user's experience and interaction with the product. They deeply understand user needs, behaviors, and motivations. Their primary focus is on optimizing usability, accessibility, and overall satisfaction throughout the user journey. Furthermore, their scope of work may not include a product at all but rather an experience or user journey through various touch points.
And moving onto skillset...
Product Designers: Product designers possess a range of skills, including strategic thinking, market research, problem-solving, and visual design. They have a holistic understanding of the product development process and collaborate with various stakeholders to bring the product to life. They may also have expertise in areas such as industrial design and branding.
UX Designers: UX designers specialize in understanding human behavior and translating it into intuitive and engaging experiences. They have expertise in user research, creating user personas, developing user flows, information architecture, interaction design, and usability testing. They focus on empathizing with users and crafting interfaces that meet their needs and expectations.
What about objectives?
Product Designers: The main objective of product designers is to create a product that satisfies both user needs and business goals. They are often aligned closely with product managers and must consider market trends, competitive analysis, and strategic direction to design products that are commercially viable and align with the company's vision. They balance usability with broader product considerations, such as manufacturing feasibility and market fit.
UX Designers: UX designers prioritize optimizing the user's experience with the product. Their primary goal is to make the user journey frictionless, intuitive, and enjoyable. They conduct user research, identify pain points, and design interfaces that address those pain points while keeping users engaged and satisfied. They aim to foster long-term user loyalty and engagement.
Does this ring true in practice?
I can definitively say... "sort of" based on my experience as both a product designer and UX designer.
My experience as a product designer
As a full-time product designer at Ava, a startup that created a wearable device that tracked a woman's fertility, I was focused on, you guessed it, their product. Their product was comprised of a physical product (the tracking bracelet) and a digital interface (the Ava app). I worked on a product team to design the app interface based on Ava's product strategy which considered a combination of company business goals, feasibility, cost as well as user needs. I leaned heavily on my product manager counterpart to determine which features aligned with the company strategy and leveraged various tools such as concept testing, usability testing and NPS scores to ensure the design of these features met user's expectations. I worked on both the information architecture of the app as well as the visual design, and user interface (UI).
In addition to the app, I was involved in the design of the physical product and its packaging which included sourcing and collaborating with an industrial design firm and various printers and manufacturers. This part of the product design considered usability, branding/marketing objectives, cost, as well as manufacturing. In essence, I considered user experience in its entirety from the very first interaction with the brand, throughout the purchase process to its daily use.
My experience as a UX (user experience) designer
In a contrasting example, I recently freelanced as a UX designer for an Austrian grocery store chain with an e-commerce presence. In this role, I was taslked to focus on one specific aspect of the user experience at a time, which in this case was the product grid and delivery date selection process. I was tasked with making improvements that would lead to a better shopping experience for users, ultimately leading to bigger shopping carts and more sales.
The difference may seem clear cut, however, to imply I was only concerned with the needs of the user as a UX designer would be inaccurate. I couldn't exactly ignore the needs of the store merchandisers, nor their business strategy. However, as a UX designer, my main focus was more aligned with the user, making sure the product was user-friendly and that their needs were met. Another key differentiator in this role, was that I was laser focused specific aspects of the shopping experience as opposed to looking at the user experience holistically.
While this is just one example characterizing my own personal experience, I think it demonstrates the most common differences between these two roles, as well some of the overlap.
Who should you hire? A product designer or a UX designer?
If you are an early stage startup focussed on selling a product or service, I would suggest hiring a product designer. A product designer will look at your design needs holistically and strive to balance your business objects, company vision with the needs and wants of your users. In theory, their skills will be more broad and this range of skill will be very useful.
If you are further along in your design development process and are looking to optimize or enhance certain parts of your product, then you could hire a user experience designer. A UX designer would be an especially good fit if you are concerned about the usability of an existing product or experience, and want to understand why it might be underperforming, and how to fix it. They would have the skillset to analyze your experience, conduct the appropriate testing and design solutions based on their findings.
Which role would you rather do?
This really comes down to considering what aspects of design you enjoy most and excel at. Do you appreciate looking at a product from every angle, throughout the user journey, balancing the needs of the user with business objective and other strategic goals? Or would you rather be focussed mainly on user needs, tasked with optimizing certain features of a product or interface?
For me, the answer is clear. I really love looking at products holistically from the first user interaction to a products daily use. Considering all of the competing goals is challenging but equally rewarding. That said, it's also refreshing now and then to hyper-focus on optimizing one aspect of a product or system and see how much you can improve it.
Product designers and UX designers are both vital contributors to the product development process, but their roles and areas of expertise differ slightly. Product designers have a broader scope and consider the entire product, while user experience designers specialize in optimizing the user's experience and interaction. That said, there's certainly overlap, and some may not agree with this distinction or make much of a distinction at all. So does it really matter? I would say yes, but maybe not as much as often implied.
About the Author
Allison Sarno is a product and branding designer based in Zürich, Switzerland. She specializes in lean design for startups and emerging brands. Have a project you'd like to discuss? Reach out at email@example.com