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How to break into product design

Hotjar's Saskia Everard shares her insights.

PX insights

Last updated

18 Aug 2022
How to break into product design

"The responsibility of the product designer is to focus on the user," says Saskia Everard, product designer at Hotjar. Here, she shares important insights learned during her journey from graphic to product designer—and how you can get started, too. 

Are you a natural problem-solver with great empathy skills? Do you love collaborating across teams and analyzing information to come up with innovative solutions? 

Then product design might be the perfect career for you. 

But is there a single path to becoming a product designer? In this guide, we checked in with Saskia Everard, Hotjar's product designer for the Buyer Experience team, to learn more about how she kickstarted her own career in product design and how you can, too. 

What do product designers do?

Designing human-centric products and experiences with the user in mind are what most companies offering a product strive for. The user comes first, and any successful business knows that the only way to unlock business value is to solve the right user problems. A business can only be successful when they have solved that problem for the users they seek to serve.

That's where product designers come in. Their job—Saskia's job—includes:

  • Translating the goal of the product—the problem it solves—into a simple, flowing user experience

  • Making a product more efficient and functional for the user

  • Creating prototypes, wireframes, and mockups for new and existing products

  • Organizing, conducting, and analyzing user research and interviews

  • Collaborating with product managers and developers to ensure all interests of the company are being covered

Or, as Saskia puts it: "I listen to the problems of people whose needs we are trying to serve and translate that into a functional solution that people can actually use— translating user needs into business value."

Sound fun? 

Here's how she became a product designer.

How to get started as a product designer?

Saskia followed a path many product designers also did: she studied visual communication and graduated as a graphic designer. But throughout the years, she began feeling that graphic design wasn't satisfying her problem-solver instincts—she wanted to solve real-world problems.

While Product Design bachelor’s degrees have become more frequently available in recent years, they certainly weren't as mainstream for most millennials. "The tech industry is not something that was commonly talked about when I was at school, and I definitely wasn’t considering it as a career path until later on," she told us. 

At the time, Saskia was living in Barcelona, Spain, one of Europe's famous tech hubs. "I talked with my engineering friends and it became clear the tech industry was where I should focus," she said. At first, she started supporting senior user experience (UX) designers on different projects—she wanted to get a better understanding of what the role consisted of. 

After that, she decided to retrain as a UX designer—usually the entry point into a product designer's career. "I took courses and, most of the time, I simply learned from doing."

​​After having learned from other UX designers in a creative agency role, she went on to work in product design at a Swiss company. "I stayed until my dream company Hotjar came along, and this is where I find myself now. Hotjar has a good set-up (design-wise) and many incredibly talented people to work with and learn from. It's a different kind of learning curve—one I’m very grateful for."

Typical paths to a product designer role 

Although Saskia's break into product design came from a background in graphic design, that's not the only path available for aspiring product designers.

An engineering background can also lead to a product design career from a technical side—in fact, this role is not exclusive to design or tech backgrounds. For example, one of our senior designers comes from a biology background specializing in ethology, the study of individual behavioral patterns. Although formal BA and MA courses are becoming more popular, they are usually not enough to secure a position. 

But, as Saskia herself explains: "I don’t think one way of starting is better than the other—but I do think one path is certainly more ‘comfortable.’" By that, she means starting in an organization with more design maturity, which can better support aspiring product designers with more hands-on learning. By working directly with more experienced people, a young product designer can learn the career's best practices early on. 

In an organization without so much design maturity—that is, without an established Product department, or where a UX designer must wear many hats—you'll be thrown into the deep end from day one. Saskia points out: "This way, you’ll either sink or swim. But whatever happens, you will learn, and fast."

Paths might differ, but the end goal remains the same: breaking into product design. 

Ultimately, the key is to get any experience—especially at the beginning. From there, you can start growing.

What skills do product designers need?

Saskia points out that soft skills are more important when first starting out as a product designer—hard skills are still relevant, but they will come with time and experience. For her, the fundamental skills are the following:

Skill one: curiosity

Being curious is at the core of a product designer's daily tasks: always asking why and thinking of new ways of understanding the problem at hand. "It's about exploring the context around a problem and breaking it down into smaller parts, seeking the best solution," she explains.

Add that to limited resources—time, money, data—and remaining curious will ensure you always see problems in a different light. 

Skill two: humility

"No one is always right. This is especially important to keep in mind as a designer." A product designer will never know how something will perform until testing has finished, and they will never have all the information they need, or all the skills necessary. 

"Accept that," suggests Saskia. "Be eager to learn and collaborate with others,"—especially if they come from different design or product backgrounds. Their insights might differ from yours, as different departments offer various views on the users' problems.

Skill three: communication

Arguably, the most important skill! It's necessary to understand the product's technical constraints, the business objectives, and the users’ behaviors to come up with a feasible solution that the user loves—but also drives the business metrics forward.

"If done well, and it’s not easy, a designer rallies the whole team to share knowledge, ideate together and ultimately create the best solution as a team," tells Saskia. Strong communication skills are crucial.

And, of course, we couldn't forget empathy.

Empathy: the heart of product design 

Product design aims to solve problems. "Those are real problems, and in order to solve them, you need to understand the people that have those problems. That is empathy," she summarizes. 

Empathy is essential and comes into every decision a product designer makes. The user, what they need, and how the product serves those needs is, in essence, the heart of product design—and the designer's responsibility.

But what does that mean? 

It's not simply about 'feeling' what the user might feel. "The foundation for empathy comes from user research," explains Saskia. "It's about understanding who the users are, what they need and why." 

Then, product designers can translate that knowledge into problems or opportunities the product might be able to solve. "And empathy also goes into design ethics," she continues. "Is the solution you are designing ethical and fair? Are you being transparent with the user?" 

As a product designer, your job is not only to understand what your user needs but also to genuinely want to solve their problems. "User empathy is the lens all designers should be looking through to make any product decision. User needs can always align with business needs: one does not have to come at the expense of the other."

But why is empathy important?

We've just seen how empathy is at the heart of product design. Here's why it's so important that product designers empathize with their users:

  • It uncovers new opportunities and solutions that might not have been clear without user understanding 

  • It creates business value since your product will solve real problems, making it more desirable to users

  • It ensures that you're solving the right problem—and not following assumptions and problems that don't really exist 

And on that note: let's cover how product designers can keep their assumptions in check. 

Avoiding the rabbit hole of invalidated assumptions

Assumptions are based on what you would like to believe, and validating them with data is the quickest way of not getting attached to them—or following them down a rabbit hole out of attachment.

"What's the lowest effort way that you can test those assumptions? Get the data as quickly as possible to validate them. If it is the right direction, great, then you can go ahead," summarizes Saskia.

The lowest effort, however, might vary. This depends on where you are in the product development cycle:

  • Initial concept: validate assumptions with user research to better define the problem and opportunities at hand 

  • Defining opportunities: use internal knowledge to gain different perspectives (empathy!). Perhaps the Customer Success team has seen this problem before?

  • Early design: invest in usability tests to better align the design to users' expectations, understanding, and needs

  • After product release: data and feedback. Where are the drop-offs? Are the users following the journey like expected? Why are users behaving a certain way—and how can designers improve their experience even further?

The development cycle is a continuous building, measuring, and learning loop. The methods above can help (in)validate assumptions early on and create better solutions.

Ready to break into product design? Here are Saskia's four tips for beginners:

1. Be a sponge for information

"Learn everything you can as quickly as possible," Saskia advises. Whether through courses, books, mentorships, or internships, stay curious! "You have to be genuinely interested and curious about product design to get through this initial learning curve—the initial information overload may be a test for some."

Remember that we all have to start somewhere, and avoid comparing yourself to others—focus on your own journey, letting curiosity lead the way. Don't give up on learning!

2. Work on your own projects (and put them in your portfolio)

After understanding some product design basics, Saskia recommends working on your own projects and adding them to your portfolio. "I don't think you need more than five projects—quality over quantity."

Pro tip: your portfolio must show that you’ve considered different problem spaces, user types, or even devices. Research successful product design that worked to learn more about the process, too.

3. Know your strengths and your background (but don't be afraid to highlight what you need to learn)

When applying for a job, lean on your strengths and your background—"We all have a background," highlights Saskia. 

But also, don't worry about highlighting what you’re not so good at. "All designers have areas to work on, and I believe highlighting that you want to learn and that you are humble enough to say ‘I don't know everything' is a strength in itself," she explains. 

4. Begin networking

"Network not only with other designers but with anyone in the tech world. It's not a big world, and people you connect with might become your community, helping each other out, and making you feel more at home," she explains.

If you're an introvert who shivers at the brief mention of 'networking,' worry not. There are a lot of networking options available, and not all of them involve introducing yourself boldly at a UX event. Use professional platforms like LinkedIn and Xing to follow and connect with other designers and tech workers—and don't shy away from sending a message if you've got something to ask them.

Becoming a product designer

Product designer is a great career choice, and as products and experiences become more human-centric, the demand for the role continues to increase. There is a shortage of skillful product designers in the market, according to Andrew Balint, former Head of Marketing at Amaysim. Is that the sign you've been waiting for?

If you're curious and eager to learn, the opportunities are plenty. Be the empathetic product designer bringing the users' needs into focus within the company and helping solve real problems for people.

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