Product Designer vs. UX Designer

Leigh KunisLeigh Kunis | 10 minute read | May 29, 2019
product designer vs. UX designer

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If you tell someone you’re a designer, they’ll likely assume your primary goals revolve around aesthetics—making things look pretty. They may not grasp that what they see (i.e., the design) is actually the result of customer research, a lot of testing, and usually some pivoting thanks to this testing. When most people look at a product, they rarely realize how much work it actually took to turn a complex idea into a customer-friendly product.

As most people don’t understand what goes into the product design process, it’s safe to assume they don’t know how to differentiate a product designer vs. UX designer. If you’re in that majority, don’t worry: we’re here to help.

The truth is, even veterans of the design and tech fields can have difficulties distinguishing the two, and in some companies, the terms are interchangeable. So what’s the difference? And if you’re just getting started in your career, how do you know which would be best for you?

Product Designer vs. UX Designer: What’s the Difference?

Simply put, a product designer is responsible for the function of the product as well as the user experience. They must take into consideration the needs of both the business and the consumer. Their objectives include deciphering:

  • Who is the target customer and how will they use the product?
  • How can I make the product easy and convenient to use?
  • How can I make the product visually appealing?
  • How can I make the most affordable version of the product?  

UXDesign sums up a project designer’s role by saying, “Design will not be just about users. It will also be about the business. As Product Designers, we must drive product solutions that service the goals of both the users and the company.

Project designers need to not only understand the wants and needs of the customer in order to provide a solid user experience, but also the business. They need to understand what the business challenges are, what affects business decisions, and the needs of the product managers, sales reps, and other key stakeholders. Thus, they need to be able to act like a UX designer “and then some.”

The “and then some” doesn’t really fall into the role of a UX designer. While every employee should be concerned with the goals of the company, a UX designer’s primary responsibility is giving the customer a great product experience so they will continue to come back.

Their primary focus is: how can I make the product as delightful and easy to use as possible?

As you can see, a UX designer focuses on the needs of the customer (i.e., making an easy-to-use product or website), but a product designer focuses on the needs of the customer as well as the company. So while a UX designer is a champion of the customer, a product designer is a champion of both the customer and the company.

Now that we’ve identified the key differences between a product designer vs. UX designer, let’s get a bit more granular and answer these questions:  

Product designer vs. UX designer: what are the roles and responsibilities?
Product designer vs. UX designer: what do they actually do?
Product designer vs. UX designer: what is the average salary?

Product Designer vs. UX Designer: What They Do

If you’re looking to break into a new field, it’s imperative to have an understanding of what you’ll do day in and day out. Let’s take a look at how a product designer’s typical day differs from a UX designer’s.

What Does a Product Designer Do?

According to Hubspot, “A Product Designer, at its core, is a problem solver.”

Product designers are well versed in multiple areas of design and have to oversee the full lifespan of a product: they must understand the business objectives, know (and adhere to) the budget, and seek to identify and address problems with the product. They focus on user experience, technical design, marketing, and more. And of course, they have to stick to a strict time frame.

When product designers explain what they do, many reference the movie “The Founder,” a film about how everyone’s favorite supersized fast food chain came to be. There’s a scene in the movie where the McDonald brothers use chalk to draw kitchen plans on a tennis court, rendering it a prototype for a restaurant. Next, they bring out their staff to make pretend burgers and fries and “choreograph it like some crazy burger ballet.” As they watch their employees make faux food, they listen to their feedback, see where efficiency can be improved, and update the chalk renderings.  Finallyafter six hours of tests, feedback, and revisionsthey have what they feel is a perfect, efficient process that is ready to go into production.

YouTube video player for jTageuhPfAM

As you can see, the McDonald brothers acted like product designers. First, they defined the problem. Next, they created low-fidelity prototypes. Then, they conducted user testing and refined their product based on user feedback. The result? The McDonald brothers put it best: “a symphony of efficiency.”

What Does a UX Designer Do?

The McDonald brothers wanted to give their customers a good user experience and in order to do so, they refined the process on the back end, realizing that the faster they made burgers the happier their customers would be, and the more burgers they could make the more customers they could have. They looked at both the customers’ needs as well as the business’ objectives. And clearly, it was a success.

While providing a good user experience is one component of a product designer’s role, it is the main goal of a UX designer.

UX design is what makes products easy to use thanks to consumer-friendly designs; a UX designer’s job is to look at the target market, understand their behavior and needs, and create a design that meets those needs. While a product designer must also focus on the needs of the business, a UX designer’s primary focus is making the customer happy.

Continuing with our fast food theme, let’s look at what happened when designer Cameron Cress tried to use the self-ordering screen at McDonald’s:

The McDonald's self-ordering process

Source: Medium

As you can see in his user journey above, the experience was awkward… The screen wasn’t very user-friendly: it was too big, difficult to navigate, didn’t prominently display the kids’ menu, and provided a confusing order checkout process. Plus, it took 24 minutes to get a happy meal!

While the McDonald brothers may have had a win with their initial product design, the company failed when attempting to launch self-ordering screens. 

RelatedHow to Become a UX Designer

Product Designer vs. UX Designer: Role Requirements

Not surprisingly, there are many overlaps in role requirements between a product designer vs. UX designer. In order to better understand the job requirements for both, we looked at job postings on Glassdoor.

What Are the Requirements for a Product Designer?

We looked at a variety of job openings for product designers throughout the U.S., both at early stage startups and more established corporations. Most companies are looking for applicants with the following:

  • Undergraduate degree in a relevant discipline
  • 3 years of professional experience in a related field
  • Deep understanding of design process to guide, plan, and scope project work
  • Strong UX, interaction, and visual design skills
  • Demonstrated portfolio with functional web UI and visual designs across desktop and mobile devices
  • Strong wireframing/prototyping skills
  • Experience conducting research/partnering with user researchers
  • Experience partnering with engineers to release features, products, and/or services
  • Experience working on complex applications
  • Excellent visual and verbal communication skills
  • Expertise in programs such as Sketch, InVision, and prototyping tools.
  • Strong cross-functional collaboration and communication skills

What Are the Requirements for a UX Designer?

To understand the requirements of a UX designer, we went back to Glassdoor and compared job openings for UX designer roles throughout the U.S. in both startups and more established corporations. We found that companies typically look for UX designers who are curious, passionate, empathetic, and good at time management. A university degree isn’t always necessary, but common requirements include:

  • 3+ years of experience in UX design
  • Strong understanding of the UX process
  • Mastery of design and prototyping tools such as Sketch, Adobe Creative Suite, InVision Axure, etc.
  • Endless curiosity about people, technology, design, and life
  • Strong problem-solving skills
  • Experience interacting with clients and the ability to speak about work with passion and data
  • Demonstrated skills creating process flows, sitemaps, wireframes, prototypes, and other UX deliverables
  • Produce clear, user-centric design across mobile, desktop, web, and hardware endpoints
  • Contribute to all aspects of design, including requirement defining, user research, workflow diagramming, and engineering support
  • Partner closely with developers, QA, and product managers to rapidly iterate on designs based on user feedback, tech constraints, and market dynamics

Product Designer vs. UX Designer: Role Responsibilities

There’s a lot of overlap in responsibilities between a UX designer and a product designer. Most of the postings for product designers require a great degree of experience within user experience. Let’s take a closer look.

What Are the Role Responsibilities for a Product Designer?

To get a better understanding of what else a product designer does, we went back to those Glassdoor job postings. Most required that product designers:

  • Take part in user experience research
  • Have a holistic view, understanding, and strong consideration of design and user experience, including layout, typography, color theory, visual hierarchy, and working knowledge of Sketch or Adobe CC
  • Create prototypes, wireframes, sketches, journey maps, and other digital tools to test and improve product experiences in collaboration with internal and external customers
  • Use research to challenge and validate design decisions in an ongoing development process that strives to make the customer experience better
  • Work hand in hand with product managers and lead developers throughout the discovery, design, and development process to bring great ideas to life
  • Stay on top of industry trends
  • Lead the experience design and be able to communicate validated concepts to product owners, engineers, leadership, and customers.
  • Use mixed usability testing methods to gather qualitative and quantitative data, translate that data into feature enhancements or new products
  • Have a holistic understanding of product design, including visual design, experience design, and business acumen

To further illustrate the variance among product designer vs. UX designer, we looked at job openings from different fields.

A job posting for a Virginia-based product designer at Carmax describes the position as:

Product designer responsibilities

(The salary range is estimated by Glassdoor to be $50,000 – $77,000.)

San Francisco startup House Canary seeks a product designer that will help with “user research, UX design, visual design, prototyping, UI design and testing for our industry-leading suite of enterprise real estate products.”

Product designer responsibilities

(The salary range is estimated by Glassdoor to be $108,000 – $160,000.)

NYC-based Braze (another startup) wants a product designer to work “on all aspects of the user experience,” with a particular strength in one area:

Product designer responsibilities

Source: Glassdoor

What Are the Role Responsibilities for a UX Designer?

A UX designer’s job can typically be broken down into three main categories: research, design, and testing. Depending on the company, the position may lean more heavily in one direction or encompass all three. We looked at job postings on Glassdoor to bring you some real-world examples.

NYC-based Nexient is currently looking for a UX designer to create end-to-end user experiences:

UX designer role responsibilities

(The salary range is estimated by Glassdoor to be $55,000 – $74,000.)

San Francisco-based Myriad Genetics is seeking a mid-level UX designer “with an insatiable appetite for understanding your users” who can:

UX designer role responsibilities

(The salary range is estimated by Glassdoor to be $90,000 – $119,000.)

Atlanta-based Home Depot is currently seeking a UX designer:

UX designer role responsibilities

(The salary range is estimated by Glassdoor to be $105,000 – $136,000.)

Product Designer vs. UX Designer: How Much Do They Earn?

There is a slight discrepancy in salary for a product designer vs. UX designer, with product designers being on the higher end, according to national averages for base salaries. This makes sense, as may product designer roles seek applicants with UX design experience. So, in a way, a product designer is a UX designer who encompasses additional skills and performs additional tasks.

However, salaries depend on location, so if you’re set on living in a particular city make sure to check the average for that location rather than relying on the national average. As an example, an entry-level UX designer will make more in Austin, Texas, than in NYC!

Related: UX Designer Salary Guide

How Much Does a Product Designer Make?

A career in product design can be quite lucrative. According to Glassdoor, the national average base salary for a product designer is $106,766.

product designer salaries

Keep in mind that this is the national average, and salaries will vary greatly based on additional factors, including location, demand, and experience. For example, Glassdoor tells us that an entry-level (0-2 years of experience) product designer in San Francisco will earn $102,180, while someone in the same city with 4-6 years of experience will make closer to $130,000. If you compare this to NYC, you’ll see that an entry-level product designer averages $98,000, yet someone with 4-5 years of experience will make closer to $102,000.

How Much Does a UX Designer Make?

Just like product design, UX design roles pay pretty well—for entry-level, mid-level, and senior-level jobs.

According to Glassdoor, the national average base salary for a UX designer is $90,067.

UX designer salaries

If you go city by city, you’ll find that some markets are inundated by UX designers and so don’t have as high of a demand (i.e., these cities have salaries below the national average), while others are desperate to attract UX designers and thus have high salaries.

In NYC, the average salary for someone new to UX design (less than 2 years of experience) is $77,000 (UX designers with 4-6 years of experience make around $93,000). If you check out the Bay Area, however, you’ll find entry-level UX designers in San Francisco are making 20% more than the national average: $109,000. More experienced UX designers in this area are making $112,000.

RelatedThe State of UX Salaries in 2019

Final Thoughts

We hope this helps clear up the difference between product designer vs. UX designer and can help guide you down the right path. As we told you at the beginning, there are many parallels between the two: both require proficiency in design basics and programs as well as soft skills such as communication, curiosity, and empathy. Both focus on problem-solving. In fact, if you search “product designer” on any career search platform you’ll often receive results for UX designer or even “UX product designer.”

The key difference is that a UX designer is concerned primarily with the customer journey, while a product designer is concerned with the customer’s experience as well as the goals of the business itself.

Since you’re here…
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Leigh Kunis

About Leigh Kunis

Based between NYC and Madrid, Leigh is a freelancer with a background in e-commerce marketing. Having spent her career in startups, she specializes in strategizing and executing omni-channel campaigns.