Among the most sought-after professions today, there is nonetheless a lack of clarity on the difference between Product Designer vs UX Designer. Things are made even more confusing by the existence of a third role also similar, that of UI Designer.
What these jobs consist in is not always easily understood. They are not roles in software development, nor in marketing, nor in data, although all of these things will be involved to an extent. Furthermore, their tasks and responsibilities often overlap with each other, making their specialisations even harder to pin down.
In this article, we will try and explain as clearly as possible the differences between a Product Designer and a UX Designer. For simplicity, we will restrict our discussion to these two roles, and leave the difference between UX and UI (user interface) designers for a separate article.
- Product Designer vs UX Designer: Similarities
- What is a UX Designer?
- What does a UX designer do?
- What is a Product Designer?
- What does a Product Designer do?
- What is the difference between a UX Designer and a Product Designer?
- Tools used by UX and Product Designers
- Tools used equally by Product and UX Designers: Adobe XD, Sketch, Affinity Diagram
- Tools used by UX Designers: Lucid Chart, Overflow
- Tools especially important for Product Design: Roadmaps, Trello, Jira
- Do I need a certificate to do Product Design or UX Design?
- Product Designer vs UX Designer: Salaries
- Product Designer vs UX Designer: Conclusion
Product Designer vs UX Designer: Similarities
If there’s a common link between both professions, it’s this: the product.
Let me explain.
A digital product is at the heart of the work of UX Designers and Product Designers both.
A digital product doesn’t mean ‘anything that exists online’. A website, for example, is certainly digital, but it is not necessarily a product. A company that sells a physical product and simply wants to create a website to promote it is more likely to call a web developer than a designer (who will then use prefabricated themes and templates instead of doing design).
Instead, a digital product is any product which has a digital interface at the heart of its function and its commercial strategy, whether it operates primarily online or not. I’m using the word ‘digital’ in a loose sense, to refer to things that are broadly related to computers. Semantic debates about whether a light switch might be defined as ‘digital’ are beyond the scope of this article.
Examples of digital products may include social media platforms, music and video streaming applications, podcast platforms, news and media apps, food delivery apps, fitness apps, transport apps, and many more.
A certain subset of video games can also fall under the category of digital products as we are describing them here, but not all of gaming. Where a game’s distinctiveness has to do with its mechanics rather than its unique digital interface, the roles of UX and Product Designers take a backseat in favour of truly specialised game designers.
Now that we know what these designers work on, let’s take a look at what they actually do.
What is a UX Designer?
UX is shorthand for user experience, which means everything that a user will feel, see, and do while using a digital product.
In tangible terms, a UX Designer comes up with the functionality, the structure, and the appearance of the product, bridging the gap between the management board who came up with and commissioned the broad idea, and the software developers who do the nitty-gritty work of building it.
In a more abstract sense, UX designers create the experience itself of using the product, and variables like the psychology behind web design and behind user behaviour will factor heavily into their work.
What does a UX designer do?
A UX designer does the work of designing a product (evidently), testing the effects of their design, and optimising it accordingly.
Testing in particular is what demarcates this role from other creative ones in fields such as the arts. A UX designer is not like a painter, pursuing their own vision in solitude and then releasing it to the world. Instead, they will regularly put out different versions of their work, study (and where possible measure) the reactions of others, and tweak the product accordingly.
UX designers are typically enrolled in the early to mid phases of a project’s production, and will be responsible for creating more or less from scratch the entire application or, if the scale of the project is large, one of its features.
What is a Product Designer?
A Product Designers will take an existing product and change the way it looks or works to best fit its intended market. Basically, they are the person a company calls when they have a product (or a prototype for one) without a strategy.
As a job description, ‘product designer’ existed long before the software business did. The title was and continues to be used to refer to people who design everything from coffee machines to furniture, which is why the role we are discussing here is distinguished as Digital Product Designer, or sometimes in greater detail as UX/UI Product Designer.
As we will see in the section on salaries, this distinction does matter. In the context strictly of discussions within tech circles, however, it is not necessary. With rare exceptions, we simply use the title ‘Product Designer’, and it is generally understood that this refers to the digital type, and not to someone who designs lamps.
What does a Product Designer do?
Like a UX Designer, a Product Designer will have substantial input in the structure, functionality and appearance of the product, but they will usually start working at a more advanced phase of the project.
Product Designers will generally have the same range of skills as UX Designers when it comes to changing the way a product works or looks, but they will start working on something that already exists rather than from scratch.
Their focus will be on how the product has to enter and perform on the market. A great deal of their work will therefore involve researching the market and the competitors – what is known as benchmarking – as opposed to just the users, and then optimising the product according to their findings.
What is the difference between UX Designers and Product Designers?
The difference between Product Designers and UX Designers is one of seniority and ability: a Product Designer is simply a more advanced and experienced version of a UX Designer, with most of the same skills, but also several more to boot. This is why their broader title is UX/UI Product Designer, because they possess abilities in both fields.
There are many exceptions and edge cases, of course, with some UX Designers asked to take up more of the research work and some Product Designers more of the creative work (this is particularly common in startups). But it’s largely true to say that a typical career progression will see somebody starting out as a UX Designer, and eventually becoming a Product Designer over time.
It is quite rare for this to go the other way round, although there are also many options for intermediate paths (e.g. a senior UX Designer with research specializations comparable to those of a Product Designer, but who does not get involved in product strategy as much as the latter).
While the differences between Product Designers and UX Designers may not be set in stone, they are common enough that we can list them:
- UX Designers usually work on the early to middle phase of a project. Product Designers work on the mid-to-late one.
- UX Designers do more of the purely creative work, while Product Designers do more of the managing, honing and perfecting.
- UX Designers generally have narrower skills, with a greater specialism in actual design (creating things that are pleasing to the senses and the mind). Product designers are more likely to be generalists, with many of the skills that UX designers have, but complemented with a broader understanding of the market and a deeper ability to analyse it.
- The domain of UX designers is more closely involved with a product’s visuals, its interactive functions, and its general feel, in relation to any given individual user. That of product designers has to do with its viability as a business model, how its features will affect its performance in terms of engagement and economic conversion, and how the market at large (as opposed to any given individual) will respond to it. The matter of the product’s usability – a frequently used word in this field – is one that is crucial to both roles.
- All of the key performance indicators, or KPIs, for UX and Product Designers will diverge from each other in accordance with the above differences.
Tools used by UX and Product Designers
Due to the overlaps we noted above, a clear-cut distinction between the tools used by UX Designers and those used by Product Designers risks being misleading. Here we will attempt a general overview, but it should always be kept in mind that the specific tools used by any given designer will come down primarily to their individual preferences and their background, as opposed to their job title.
As importantly, the fact that two Product Designers may use the same tools doesn’t imply that they work in the same way. There is such a thing as a UX process which designers will follow, and this process can be remarkably variable – even if it is usually developed with a common set of tools.
Tools used equally by Product and UX Designers: Adobe XD, Sketch, Affinity Diagram
Tools that are essential to both UX and Product Designers include those that allow for the creation of prototypes (or more precisely ‘hi-fi prototypes’, meaning ‘high fidelity’) as well as wireframes, which are graphic and structural outlines of a digital product. Among the most prominent tools for this job are Adobe XD, Balsamiq, Origami Studios and Framer.
Complementing those tools will be more specialised / specialistic ones, such as Sketch (only for Apple users) and Figma, which are vector graphics editors – essentially, applications that break down the barriers between drawing / painting by hand and doing so on a computer. Other specific tools may include Affinity Diagram, Sitemaps and similar systems used to group and map data.
Tools used by UX Designers: Lucid Chart, Overflow
UX Designers make heavy use of applications related to defining and structuring user flow, meaning the ‘journey’ that a user will complete while using the product. Examples would be Lucid Chart and Overflow. There are also apps related to topics like colour theory and typography, although those are perhaps more typical of UI Designers (again, these things overlap).
Tools used by Product Designers: Roadmaps, Trello, Jira
Tools that typically characterise Product Design work may include Business Model Canvas or Roadmaps, which allow for the planning and representation of a general business strategy. Other entrepreneurial applications may be favoured as well, such as The Pitch Canvas, which, as the name suggests, helps in the preparation of a product pitch.
Finally, because Product Designers are more likely to be involved in the late phase of a project, they generally make greater use of organisational applications, such as Trello or the spreadsheet/database hybrid Airtable. Jira, a tool used to track issues and bugs as they emerge, is particularly popular with Product Designers over UX Designers.
Do I need a certificate to do Product Design or UX Design?
The short answer is no, you do not need a certificate to be either a Product Designer or a UX Designer. Your portfolio of projects will usually act as your certificate, proving your skills and your experience.
The longer answer is that some form of validation for your skills can of course be helpful, but you have to select it with care. Most courses for UX Design and Product Design offer a certificate at the end, but the main value of those courses has to do with what they teach and what career prospects they open up. We have explored this topic in great detail in our complete guide to UX Design certificates in 2023.
UX Designer vs a Product Designer: Salaries
Comparing the average salary of a UX Designer with that of a Product Designer is a remarkably tricky exercise. While the former is a well-defined role within the tech industry, the latter typically gets mixed up with ‘product designers’ who have nothing to do with digital products, making it difficult to find precise data about their earnings.
This is particularly true for the United States, where sometimes the role of Digital Product Designer will be advertised as “Team Lead UX Design”, “Senior UX Designer”, or something else along those lines.
Surprisingly, even some of the most popular articles on the topic seem to put salary figures side by side for these two roles without allowing for the above nuance (and while using mostly American data aggregators).
If it’s not clear why this is a problem, consider that Salarylist.com, which takes its data straight from the US Department of Labor, gives Product Designers a salary range from $26,000 to $300,000 yearly – an absurdly wide margin which indicates how inconsistent the title ‘Product Designer’ can be. (The range for UX Designers, by way of comparison, is a more contained $63,200 to $145,000).
Figures for the European market are actually much more indicative, because the title Product Designer – in English irrespective of the country – has entered the job market to describe the tech role exclusively.
Indeed, in the list we provide below, the only city where UX Designers have a higher average salary than Product Designers is the only one that is also based in an English-speaking country (London), where tech and non-tech Product Designers hold the same title.
Even with that in mind, one has to take aggregate salary figures with a grain of salt. For example, LinkedIn makes a real distinction between Junior and Senior positions when calculating salaries, while Glassdoor does not. As a result, Glassdoor puts the average salary of a UX Designer in Berlin at €53,000 p/a, which is exactly halfway between the two figures given by LinkedIn for UX Designers (€43,000) and Senior UX Designers (€63,000).
For this article, we will provide the salary figures for 6 major European cities as a broad indication of the earning expectations for UX and Product Designers respectively. We will use the data by Glassdoor, which we feel most accurately represents the true average for the roles in question.
Product Designer vs UX Designer: Conclusion
UX Designer and Product Designer are relatively new roles in the labour market, which is why a vocabulary to properly distinguish them still hasn’t entered common usage. This is particularly true for Digital Product Designers, whose definition frequently gets muddled up with that of non-digital product designers.
That notwithstanding, the two are distinct roles which should be seen as related but not equivalent. The logical career progression of a UX Designer is very often to become a Product Designer, as the latter includes and expands on the skills of the former.
More importantly, they are roles that are here to stay: with the digital industry only set to keep expanding in the near and mid-term future, professionals specialised in designing and maintaining this new type of business will be an indispensable resource to companies everywhere in the world.
The future is digital – make it yours!
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