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Product designer

Find out what a product designer does and the skills
you need to do the job.

Updated: November 24, 2021

Introduction to the role of product designer

Product designers are expected to understand the problem space, identify opportunities, and develop solutions using an iterative approach. Product designers are considered the “Empathizer in Chief.” They’re the primary user advocate and engage in continuous research throughout the product life cycle. As user advocates, product designers create tight feedback loops to make sure the user’s voice is incorporated throughout the decision-making process. They work closely with the product manager (PM) and client to balance business and user needs in order to influence the product vision. Working end-to-end from concept to implementation, product designers conduct research, facilitate design activities, and ensure the product team is building the right thing.

Below you’ll find the full list of skills for becoming a product designer at Skylight and a description of the skills required for each level. These descriptions offer insight into the scope of work someone at each level should be capable of doing on a consistent basis. We use these role descriptions both as a guide during the hiring process and as a springboard for discussing career progression at Skylight.

Required skills

Research

You’re able to plan, synthesize, and share out generative and evaluative user research. You accurately scope research efforts, and use that research to inform product and design direction.

Interaction design

You define end-to-end flows while taking into account edge cases, error states, accessibility, and scalability. You understand and incorporate intentional information architecture (IA), systems thinking, design principles, and common design patterns.

Visual design

You create simple and elegant user interface designs. You know how to evolve existing visual systems (e.g., style, spacing, components) with clear rationale. You stay up-to-date with industry trends. You have skills in some other visual design areas, such as branding, illustration, iconography, typography, or microinteractions.

Design process

You gather feedback and iterate on design work early and often. You’re familiar with different design processes such as double diamond, design thinking, and equity-centered design. You document your process through artifacts such as journey maps, service blueprints, and jobs-to-be done. Your documentation creates a compelling story to help your team and stakeholders empathize with the users.

Product strategy

You understand agile and lean methodology. As the primary voice of the user, you continuously advocate for their needs and pain points. You’re adept at prioritizing and balancing user and business decisions. You craft mental models to define and refine product opportunities while also supporting product thinking and decision making.

Facilitation and communication

You can articulate design rationale to various groups (users, teammates, stakeholders). You’re adept at receiving and giving feedback constructively. You utilize design activities to gain alignment with cross-functional disciplines through knowledge sharing and convergent/divergent thinking. You know how to negotiate trade-offs when necessary. You know how to incorporate storytelling for effective and engaging communication.

Leadership

You drive excellence in your team’s design execution. You know how to build positive influences in product direction, stakeholder relations, and organizational leadership. You can easily build and establish relationships with designers and non-designers.

Product designer career pathway

Associate product designer

  1. Associate
  2. I not completed
  3. II not completed
  4. Senior not completed
  5. Staff not completed
  6. Principal not completed

As a trainee in an entry-level role working with more experienced designers, you’ll need to have an understanding of the role and show potential, although you’ll need guidance and training to produce good work and develop your skills.

Skills needed for this level

Research

You’re aware and have some understanding of research methods (e.g., interviews, surveys, experiments, contextual inquiry). You can support planning, synthesis, and take effective notes.

Interaction design

You have a basic understanding of common design patterns. Your work demonstrates awareness of existing design systems.

Visual design

You understand how visual design can impact the user experience.

Design process

You exhibit user empathy and have a basic understanding of how to approach solving problems through human-centered design.

Product strategy

You ask questions to clarify project objectives.

Facilitation and communication

You’re able to set an agenda and handle the logistics. You’re able to ask questions to keep the activity moving forward.

Leadership

You work collaboratively with project leads. You build rapport and trust with your team.

Product designer I

  1. Associate completed
  2. I
  3. II not completed
  4. Senior not completed
  5. Staff not completed
  6. Principal not completed

A product designer I is embedded on a multidisciplinary team. At this level, you’re expected to:

  • Have some practical experience but need regular guidance and training to produce your best work and develop your skills
  • Work in combination with a more senior product designer

Skills needed for this level

Research

You have experience with basic user research methods. You understand why research is important, can lead research sessions, and provide insights with some support.

Interaction design

You have a foundational understanding of common design patterns in the field and the product. You have conceptual familiarity with information architecture, multi-step, and cross-platform workflows. You also consider different states in your work ( e.g., error, empty, success).

Visual design

You’re able to use existing design systems and have a basic understanding of leading practices. You can create individual components by following an existing visual system.

Design process

You have a foundational understanding of human-centered design. You’re able to follow a design process which incorporates the users needs, goals, and wants. You collaborate with other disciplines. You’re able to iterate your designs based on user research.

Product strategy

You partner with more senior leaders to ensure your work is aligned with the product direction. You’re learning to understand the customer and how user research informs product decisions. You’re starting to recognize and learn about industry patterns and trends.

Facilitation and communication

You’re able to ask insightful questions, actively listen, and effectively support a lead facilitator.

Leadership

You can effectively communicate within your team and actively work to improve collaboration. You take initiative on leading team meetings, such as stand ups and retros. You’re comfortable receiving and giving feedback.

Product designer II

  1. Associate completed
  2. I completed
  3. II
  4. Senior not completed
  5. Staff not completed
  6. Principal not completed

A product designer II is usually leading design and/or collaborating on a multidisciplinary team. At this level, you’ll be expected to work independently on a team.

You’ve worked in most stages of the product development lifecycle.

Skills needed for this level

Research

You’re proficient in research and can effectively synthesize and extract insights to move forward. You know how and when to involve your team in research activities.

Interaction design

You’re able to use design patterns across web and mobile. You design end-to-end flows, accommodating multiple use cases and edge cases. You clearly articulate intent behind design decisions. You demonstrate proficiency and understanding of IA, multi-step, and cross-platform workflows.

Visual design

You have a solid understanding of leading practices and know how to apply the right visual language. You understand how to create accessible components and design.

Design process

You have a strong understanding of human-centered design. You’re able to lead a discovery phase of a project. You can explore multiple concepts and iterate effectively. You’re a systems thinker and can understand constraints in regards to the bigger picture. You know how to facilitate effective cross-functional collaboration. You’re able to identify user assumptions to validate. You can adapt the design process and apply it to more challenging design spaces (e.g., API design, machine learning, and conversational design).

Product strategy

You understand product scope and can explore multiple solution paths. You understand the voice of the customer and use user research to inform product decisions. You deeply understand current industry patterns and trends and know when to apply them to your work.

Facilitation and communication

You can support structured workshops with a target audience. You’re able to facilitate workshops well with some guidance. You’re able to effectively communicate with multidisciplinary teams to achieve the desired outcomes.

Leadership

You can lead processes and prioritization with your product team. You influence product direction. You’re able to balance and properly scope shifts in the project. You’re comfortable explaining your design decisions.

Senior product designer

  1. Associate completed
  2. I completed
  3. II completed
  4. Senior
  5. Staff not completed
  6. Principal not completed

A senior product designer is an experienced practitioner who’s able to plan and lead product discovery and influence product direction on large teams and within more complex problem spaces. At this level, you’ll be expected to:

  • Build best product design practices and processes within a team
  • Supervise and develop other members on your team or within the product design practice
  • Lead design activities

You’ve worked at all stages of the product development life cycle.

Skills needed for this level

Research

You can lead user research without guidance. You understand practices and use common methodologies. You’re able to take your insights and turn them into actionable items. You’re able to speak to the clients about the value of research.

Interaction design

You can create custom design systems to solve problems in complex domains. You’re able to understand business and technical constraints and can manage design trade-offs accordingly.

Visual design

You know when to use an existing design system vs. create one from scratch. When necessary, you’re able to create custom components.

Design process

You have experience leading a discovery phase of a project for ambiguous problem spaces. You’re comfortable leading the team to better understand the needs of the user and the business. You can effectively apply and adapt common frameworks and methodologies. You’re able to work with PMs and developers to prioritize problems, solutions, research direction, etc. You’re able to improve cross-functional collaboration and processes. You’re able to look beyond the problem and consider the system as a whole (e.g., service design and systems thinking).

Product strategy

You can handle complex, ambiguous product challenges. You understand the technical and business aspects of the project. You recognize when consensus isn’t reached among peers and stakeholders and start to remedy it. You rapidly understand product scope and can identify trade-offs.

Facilitation and communication

You’re able to plan and structure a workshop based upon the needs of the client and the product. You’re comfortable facilitating workshops and deviating from a fixed plan if needed.

Leadership

You’re adept with stakeholder management and relationship building. You initiate and lead strategic meetings with the team and stakeholders.

Staff product designer

  1. Associate completed
  2. I completed
  3. II completed
  4. Senior completed
  5. Staff
  6. Principal not completed

You’re confident in leading a project with no guidance and direction. You understand and have extensive experience with a wide range of agile and design processes. You’re a strong systems thinker and can solve complex system and design challenges. You’re able to provide expertise to people outside of your team on the design process and positively influence others. You’re able to introduce new tools and processes for atypical design projects (e.g., API design, conversational design, and machine learning).

Skills needed for this level

Research

You have experience with a wide range of research methods and know when to apply the right approach to a situation. You can lead the synthesis of research with complex journeys, users and scenarios. You’re able to educate and lead colleagues on research methods and leading practices. You’re able to positively influence clients and turn them into champions of research.

Interaction design

You demonstrate and can articulate information architecture for multi-step, and cross-platform/product workflows. You lead design work within complex domains and systems. You set the quality bar for design work at an organization.

Visual design

You’re able to enhance the informational aspects with visual design. You can generate accessible visual components.

Design process

You have experience and are confident in leading a project with no guidance and direction. You understand and have extensive experience with a wide range of agile and design processes. You’re a strong systems thinker and can solve complex system and design challenges. You’re able to provide expertise to people outside of your team on design processes.

Product strategy

You actively build consensus amongst peers and stakeholders and play a major role in shaping your team’s goals and roadmaps. You ensure the team is working on the right thing and spot other product opportunities for meeting team objectives.

Facilitation and communication

You can create novel workshops and handle various personality types. You’re able to plan and structure a workshop based upon the needs of the client and the product. You’re comfortable facilitating workshops, and deviating from a fixed plan if needed.

Leadership

You’re able to persuade resistant clients to invest in user research, and teach them leading practices in product development. You mentor and influence your team, stakeholders, and clients on leading practices in product design.

Principal product designer

  1. Associate completed
  2. I completed
  3. II completed
  4. Senior completed
  5. Staff completed
  6. Principal

A principal product designer leads other product designers within an organization and attracts and builds talent. At this level, you’ll be expected to be an expert practitioner who can define and assure leading practices, influence organizational strategy and priorities, and collaborate with partners across all aspects of government. You’re comfortable transforming product design practice at the leadership level across organizations.

Skills needed for this level

Research

You’re able to positively impact research at an organizational level to improve and innovate their user research.

Interaction design

You consistently produce simple and elegant interfaces that set and raise the collective quality bar at Skylight. You consider and make improvements to the holistic user experience and design system. You maintain quality across the entire product.

Visual design

You can advocate for user interface patterns, design system methods, and accessibility to people outside of your team. People recognize you as an expert on visual design. You’re up to date or even defining the newest trends and can educate others on them.

Design process

You’re able to provide transformational expertise to leaders on the value of design and design processes. You’re able to create new tools and processes depending on organizational needs. You’re able to educate leadership and fellow designers in how to best approach problems. You actively solicit feedback to drive impactful outcomes.

Product strategy

You provide substantial input on product scope and direction. You provide strong decision making on how the team could effectively spend their time. You’re frequently looked to for strategic guidance.

Facilitation and communication

You can facilitate complex situations with competing priorities. You define new methods of facilitation and communication. You’re able to find new ways to extract and synthesize insights to reach alignment. People come to you for facilitation guidance.

Leadership

You drive strategy and vision at the leadership level for your clients, Skylight, and the industry.

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