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There’s No Such Thing as “a Designer”

NOTE: The following is a guest post by Didier Thizy. If you want to submit your own guest post, click here for more information

Across all industries, product managers are waking up to the power of user experience design. They are realizing that a great design can differentiate a product in a field of competitors, reduce development churn, and sell more product.

And most product managers agree – teams need to include “a designer”.

But did you know that there are not one but three very different types of designers? Design researchers, interaction designers, and visual designers. Each is about as distinct from the other as sales, marketing and engineering.

Successful companies like Google, SalesForce.com and Facebook involve all three design skillsets on their projects. If your process does not, you may be missing out on a serious competitive advantage.

3 Design Disciplines

  • Design Research. Design researchers specialize in uncovering user needs. They train for years to learn how to interview and observe end-users, and communicate those results to the other two designers. Their findings often yield fascinating insights that can be used to determine the exact point in the workflow where users are abandoning your product, or even help you uncover the next big innovation in your product line.
  • Interaction Design. Interaction designers are the masters of information architecture, intuitive workflows and content prioritization. They work with product management and design researchers to obtain market and user research and translate it into a draft of what the product will look like, how it will behave, and how it ties back to the user’s goals—usually in the form of sketches called “wireframes”.
  • Visual Design. Visual designers are graphical experts that specialize in tools like Photoshop and Illustrator to add the right visual “wow” to software. Good visual designers can provide users with an instant emotional connection to a product even before they start using it.

From my experience working with many designers, it is quite rare to find “a designer” who is strong in two, let alone three, of these areas. Each skill set is so different from the other that companies are often best served involving even part-time help from a specialist in each area rather than trying to find a jack of all trades.

The Usual Suspect

Most often when a team has “a designer”, we find out that what they really have is a visual designer, who is in charge of making their product “look good”. Great visual designers are essential. Good ones know how to present visual information in a way your users immediately “get”. They help make the potentially confounding analytics graphs in your product easy to understand. They design icons that help your users instinctively understand what to do. But there is a lot more to creating a design users love than visual look and feel.

The Unlikely Hero

Of all three disciplines, the most overlooked is the Design Researcher (also known as the User Researcher or UX Researcher). Product Managers are responsible for a lot of research, and as such they (or their bosses) don’t always see the value that a design researcher could bring.

From our experience, product managers are very busy. More than any other role in a software organization, they are thrust with a myriad of responsibilities, from strategic planning to sales calls to working with marketing on launch strategy and collateral. Of all these responsibilities, the one that most often gets deprioritized is talking to real-world users.

Design researchers are specialists at drawing out insights from end-users using a variety of techniques, from contextual interviews following a formal protocol to card sorting and triading. They are also trained in communicating those insights to interaction designers and visual designers.

As such, a design researcher can be an extremely valuable partner for a product manager.

Design researchers can:

  • help product managers glean insights from end-users, especially as they pertain to
  • the product design and workflow
  • act as a bridge between user research and the interaction and visual designers
  • act as the voice of the customer in technical team scrums, particularly when the
  • product manager is away with marketing and sales
  • present user research results to executives to support the product manager’s strategic  plan

Most importantly, having even a part-time design researcher on the team ensures the critical task of getting real-world user input is not dropped.

In an industry where B2C and B2B vendors are setting the bar higher and higher every quarter with design, it is no longer enough to recognize you need “a designer” on your team. Recognize all three design skillsets. Incorporate each at some level in your process. And be amazed at the true power that design can bring to you and your product.

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Didier Thizy  is Director of Market Development for Macadamian, a global UI design and software innovation firm. You can find more information on Macadamian’s blog.