Product design: a tale of two disciplines

Changing design disciplines isn’t unheard of, but it comes with its own unique set of challenges and techniques to navigate. Here, JM’s Product & Industrial Designer Hamish Snow delves into how his formative years in industrial design equipped him to make the leap to digital product.

“Ah, so you make sheds?”

When I tell people that I studied industrial design at university, this is the typical response. While not entirely inaccurate, it isn’t hard to see why this particular discipline of design can cause confusion.

Different, but the same

So how then, you may be pondering, can someone trained in the creation of physical products begin a career as a digital product designer? What similarities can an Oxo Good Grips potato peeler and a ride-sharing application possibly have in common? Surprisingly, the two disciplines aren’t as different as you might imagine.

This user-focused mindset means that product designers (both physical and digital) are now, more than ever, considered fundamental for business success.

A product or platform that is helpful, delightful or joyful to use will have a clear advantage within the market as customers will favour it over competitors that are confusing, annoying or downright creepy (Furbies anyone?). Such a notion is particularly prevalent within the tech industry, with a 2007 report by John Maeda citing the fact that, since 2010, 27 startups co-founded by designers have been acquired by some of the most profitable companies on the planet, such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Adobe. Companies started by designers have also generated billions of dollars in value and are raising billions more in venture capital.

Better together

With such strong fundamental similarities, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that knowledge and learnings from the physical and digital design realms can — and should — be applied interchangeably. Gleaned from almost three years working as a product designer aboard the good ship Josephmark, here are a few learnings I wanted to share with designers currently operating in or attempting to move into either or both spaces.

Exercise user research principles and techniques

Designers should constantly be evaluating the decisions they make within their practice against the criteria of ‘how will this benefit the user?’. Empathy for the circumstances of others that can often be different from your own is a necessity, and can only be gained by — you guessed it — talking and interacting with them.

Stay on your toes because times are a-changing

Just as the needs and circumstances of users are as individual as snowflakes, so too are they likely to change over time, for a myriad of reasons. Expansions in learning, geographical location, physical disability and/or ageing and psychological well-being — and that’s to name only a few. In response, design needs to be fluid and malleable, and ideally adapt to the user’s changing circumstances over time. It’s the responsibility of the designer to be constantly considering the context within which their work will exist, and for whom.

Understand the numbers

Also crucial is a consideration, even if only at a basic level, of business principles and metrics. Hold on, I can imagine you’re thinking, eyebrows rapidly raising in astonishment, why would a designer need to concern themselves with something as uncreative as business? Unless you’ve designed a way to manufacture money (which is ethically pretty questionable for a number of reasons), then your creation will somehow have to recoup the costs required to bring it into the world, and ideally generate a profit. This can then be invested into ongoing research and development, expanding the product suite and new feature development, and generally allow you to keep doing the thing that you love to do.

Open your mind, and keep it open

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is a willingness to learn. Innovations in science, technology and a whole host of other fields are now occurring at a rate never before witnessed in history, and the moment you pause to think, “finally, I’ve caught up.” You’ll already be two steps behind. Sure, this can seem overwhelming, but I also see it is as an incredible opportunity. With a plethora of information literally at our fingertips, we have the ability to expand our knowledge constantly. This means we can improve our practices and be active rather than reactive in the face of such rapid change.

Design is our language. Venture is our mindset. We are Josephmark.