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Product design essentials

10 min read
Product design is what turns great ideas into great products. It’s part science, part creativity, and it comes from a long tradition of designing for the masses. Here’s what you need to know.


What is product design?

Product design is the process of imagining, conceptualising, testing, iterating and refining a product so it’s ready for its end user. Designers spend significant time on each of these steps, meaning that product design is a blend of research, strategy, industry knowledge and creative thinking.

In order to understand product design, it’s useful to define what we mean by a product.

Products can be physical things you can find on a shelf in a store, like a lightbulb or a bicycle, or they can be intangibles like software, services and even information, as with a training course or workshop. The product is the end result of a product designer’s work – it’s what is offered to the customer at the delivery stage of the product design process.

The product design process is shaped around user and business goals. A product’s success depends on how  closely it lines up with user needs and how effectively it solves a user’s problems in the context of their life and work, since these factors will influence how well it sells and how profitable it is. It’s also influenced by the constraints of business, such as the budget available to develop it and the amount of time that can be dedicated to the design process.

For this reason, product design involves working closely both with people from within your business and from those in your target market, so you can make sure your product is on the right track all the way through its development journey.

Product design – a pocket history

Product design has its roots in the related, but much longer-established disciple of industrial design.

Industrial design emerged when physical items were mass-produced for the first time. Whereas in the pre-industrial era, every craftsperson could design and refine their own products, when production became centralised and standardised, there was a need for a specific designer role. Industrial designers were responsible for setting out the characteristics and features of the mass-produced items and making sure they were suitable for the markets in which they were sold.

Industrial design encompasses

  • the utility of an item and how well it functions
  • the features it includes
  • its aesthetic and design characteristics.

Product design evolved from industrial design as part of a widening remit, away from simply physical products and into the broader category of products we defined earlier – both the physical and the intangible.

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Product design vs. UX

Product design is closely related to UX design, since both disciplines are centred around iteratively shaping a solution around an end-user – a mode of working that’s known as design thinking.

So what sets the two apart?

It’s generally agreed that there are significant overlaps between the roles of product designer and UX designer. Both involve high levels of user empathy, and both dedicate significant time and energy to understanding who the user is and where they are coming from.

However, it could be argued that an UX designer is exclusively concerned with the user experience, with the business priorities and goals as a constraint on that goal, whereas a product designer is actively pursuing the goals and needs of the business as well as those of the user.

The product designer role may have a wider remit than the UX designer, since it must take into account the aesthetics of a product and its alignment with the wider business brand, as well as its relationship to what competitors are doing in the same market.

What’s the typical product design process?

Today, product design is less an end-to-end process and more of a continuous lifecycle, since businesses are always reviewing and refining their products to make sure they continue to meet the needs of a changing customer base.

The steps in the product design cycle will vary from business to business, depending on what works best for individual teams and what kind of product is being developed. We can however generalise these basic steps:

1. Research

The first stage is to thoroughly understand the end users and the business goals, in order to define the problem your product is to solve, or the need it’s going to meet. This is where deep user empathy is required to develop a comprehensive understanding, as this will be foundational to the rest of the design process.

At this stage, a product designer might use interviews, survey questionnaires, diary studies, secondary market research data or many other tools and resources to understand the users and the business context of the product. It’s also when they’ll take a deep dive into the business requirements and goals for the product, considering questions like how the item should be priced and what the ROI might be.

Although it’s understandable for a beginning product designer to be eager to get started developing ideas, it’s important not to rush this stage, as the quality and detail of the work you do at this point will have a big impact on the results later on.

At this stage, you may want to generate a design brief. This is a statement of the user’s problem, including the context where it occurs, and the requirements that a product needs to meet in order to be an effective solution.

2. Generate ideas

This is the part that probably comes to mind most intuitively when you think of product design. The idea generation stage is where the creative thinking happens, and product designers come up with as many potential solutions as possible through techniques like brainstorming. It’s often advised at this point that all ideas should be accepted into the list of possibilities with no judgement or bias applied to them.

However, it’s not just a case of coming up with any and every possible idea. The idea generation stage is based on the discoveries during the research stage, which will guide the process and help narrow down the possible options.

3. Refine and validate

With a number of ideas created, product designers must refine their options and create concepts that are thoroughly checked against the user needs profile to make sure they’re viable for onward development.

They must also meet the business requirements, which may involve the aesthetic design, any potential overlap or integration with existing product lines, and whether it will be possible to realise the ideas within a set budget.

Potential ideas also need to be checked against required standards for function and performance, depending on the industry and product type.

Now is also the time when the circle can be widened beyond the product design team and bring in stakeholders from elsewhere in the business to feed back on the concepts based on their specific expertise.

Concept testing is a key component of the refinement and validation stage. A concept-testing tool can help you to gather feedback on many aspects of your ideas, from the features you’ve chosen to include to the messaging that is presented to the user.

You might bring in research tools like conjoint analysis and Max Diff analysis to help define the right mix of features and functions for your concepts.

4. Prototype and test

The ideas that have made the grade can now be worked up into a prototype and tested further. In translating ideas into realities, any number of new considerations and challenges may appear, so there’s likely to be significant tweaking at this stage.

If the product is a physical one, you’ll be able to carry out tests on attributes that weren’t apparent to the end user at the concept stage, such as texture or weight. So you may also find that the feedback you gather at this stage is rich

It’s worth noting that at this stage, an idea may yet turn out not to be viable. This is OK – you have a chance to go back to the start or pick up one of the other concepts that were developed in the previous stage.

5. Iterate

Each time the prototype is tested, new discoveries will come to light that can help you improve the product. The iteration phases are when the improvements are made, and these phases sit in between the testing sessions.

How many iterations you go through and how fast the cycle turns will depend on a few parameters, like the size of your team, the extent of testing, the kind of testing you do, and how much budget you have available.

6. Deliver

When the product has reached a viable state, it can be put out into the market. This doesn’t mean that research, testing and iteration grinds to a halt, however. These processes will continue to run in the background, maintaining the product’s quality and performance over time.

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