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The Top Things You MUST Do To Be A Truly Great Product Designer

October 23, 2019

Almost every designer I know is eager to create the next best product experience. This could be the next breakout iPhone app, buzz-worthy brand campaign, or most beautifully crafted digital product. They dream of creating an experience that is both gorgeous and easy to use.  They want their work to be showcased at national conferences and featured on design platforms like Dribble and Behance. They want to be one of the “greats”, alongside Jony Ive, Yves Behar, Ethan Marcotte, Dann Petty, and so many more.


I’m convinced that the greatest designers are thinking about user experience all the time.  Not just when they’re moving pixels on a screen.  They're building a rich, deep, and exhaustive mental inventory of ideas, experiences, esthetics, and more, to make a beautifully designed world for us to live in.  You’ll find that user experience is the consistent theme through all of the ideas below.

Reverse engineer other designs.

As we craft experiences for the world, we often think that some brilliant moment should come from a blank sheet of paper and a heavenly awakening to the next genius design.  An epiphany, if you will, that will put us on the map among today’s top designers.


But what really makes a good designer? It’s simple. They study their craft relentlessly.  They spend hours, days, and weeks researching how other intelligent designs are made.  They follow Behance collections, Dribbble artists, and check awwwards winners on a weekly (if not daily) basis.  They watch for trends, styles, affects, colors, etc. to use in their next work.  


It’s true you can be a better designer by following the rest in the aforementioned practices. But I would wager that great designers don’t just take in these ideas - they take it a step further and actually dissect them. They study how to use design principles like whitespace, balance, rhythm etc. They might even try to copy someone else's work. By trying to reproduce something, they start to learn how to create similar techniques and aesthetics.  


To be very clear, I’m not saying that anyone should plagiarize. Rather, in an effort to practice their craft, they are like young fine-art students learning how to mimic famous painters, studying their brush strokes, use of color, layering, etc.


Use more products than your peers.

The work found on Dribbble, Behance and awwwards are often considered “concept art.” This means that many of the most incredible experiences will never actually see code or a broad adoption as a real app. For that matter, they’ll never be experienced outside the bubble of the design community. They’re really more intended to show off - which is fine, but just something to note.


So then, let’s move to the real world.  As a designer, you need to start using more real products. For example, a couple times a month, I go through the top apps in different categories on the iOS app store and download whatever catches my eye.  I study everything about the apps.  I ask myself the following questions:


  • How are they branded?
  • How do they use illustration, animation, color style, etc.?  
  • How do they onboard users?
  • How do they continue education?
  • How much functionality do they provide (or maybe don’t provide)?


I don’t just use them--I study them.


Beyond mobile, go sign up for web SaaS (Software as a Service) products.  Try every free trial you can get your hands on.  And as you do, make sure that you observe how they craft each interaction with you--the user. Ask yourself why they did what they did, and look for areas you think they could improve.  


Finally, don’t just try them and throw them away.  Give them some time! Contemplate which apps draw you back in and why. Then try and figure out how you can design similar habit routines in your apps. Notice the balance of function and aesthetics.  


We recently just moved away from an incredibly beautiful and highly functional software product management platform here at Crema. They had every feature under the sun!  And it was gorgeous. But in an effort to build a robust experience, they went way overboard with transitional animations, and the experience constantly failed.  Not only was it terribly slow, but it would often crash or data wouldn’t load properly.  There’s so much to learn from this.  It was an award winning design, but a pretty terrible user experience.  


Yes, singing up for all this means you get spammed to the max for all the services you sign up for. But then when you start designing your next experience, you have a mental repo of the best experiences that you’ve not only looked at, but actually touched, felt, and used.

Pay attention to every design you see.

This one absolutely drives my wife crazy.  But I can’t not see every designed experience around me.  How are shelves laid out at a retail store?  What’s in the windows?  How do they greet me when I walk in?


I study how car manufacturers are creating experiences for drivers.  When I unlock a BMW, the headlights subtly raise to great me.  When I walk up to the door, the internal lights glow warm. Then, as I open the door, the light turns a softer white. As I turn on the car, the displays don’t just blink on - they animate in. Sometimes, this is great! Other times, I think, “just turn on so I can drive!


When you pick up a book or magazine, ask yourself, “What does the paper feel like? How is the cover designed? How much margin space do they give you? How do they start a chapter or summarize an idea?”


Restaurants and bars are the best places to see an entire product experience. How are the tables laid out? How do they greet you at the host table?  How do the wait staff take your order and interact? What’s the service like?  Standard, terrible, stressed, or exceptional?  How loud is the music? How’s the lighting? And, of course, how is the food plated, and how does it taste?  


The list could go on forever. Almost everything around you was designed with care. Are you paying attention to it all? It’s truly all about user experience. How can you take a mental inventory of ideas that you can bring to your next designs?

Final thoughts.  

Becoming a great designer requires years of practice.  Mastering any craft takes time, patience and a prolific history.  It requires that you’ve designed more than your peers.  You’ll likely look back at your old design work and wonder how you ever thought it was acceptable to ship.


And while I do believe it’s true that the good artists and designers just make more than their peers, I believe that the really great artists can’t stop studying the work around them.  They take the time to study every experience, try more apps, sign up for more services, and grow an inventory of ideas that they can reach into for a new concept for their next design. They take the time, so they can give their users and customers the best of what they’ve experienced in life through the power of design.