Five Reasons Every Software-development Team Needs a Product Designer

January 11, 2023

Read time 7 min

It may seem self-evident that a digital product team would be incomplete without a product designer. But in reality, the role is often left out.

For more than 20 years Reaktor has been creating bespoke digital solutions for clients across a range of industries, including retail, health, gaming, and aviation. In all this work, we’ve never encountered a project that would not have benefitted from the contribution of a product designer. Yet unfortunately, we still hear clients say they don’t need the role on their teams.

Time and budget constraints mean that product owners may take shortcuts, focusing mainly on development instead of on the user experience. This approach can bring short-term gains, but it inevitably causes headaches and unpredictable expenses in the long run.

Why are product designers seen as a ‘good-to-have’ and not a ‘must-have’? Could it be that the impact of the role is hard to measure? Or is it because product designers are not doing enough to explain their role to stakeholders? 

With these questions in mind, we reached out to some of Reaktor’s consultants and asked them to clearly define the value of having a product designer on your software development team. Here are the five reasons they came up with.

Reason 1: Product designers de-risk your software investment by staying focused on the end user

“Building software is an expensive way to validate ideas about who your users are and what they want. Have a product designer in your team to de-risk the investment.”

Hannu Oksa, Product Design Director

Part of the product designer’s role is to keep software development focused on end-user needs. This reduces the risk of investing in developing a new product for which a market does not exist.

It can be tempting for great coders and user-experience designers to get carried away with creating software that may be conceptually or technically brilliant but that lacks real-world application. Or it may be the business-development team that pushes software engineers to experiment in new directions with no proven application.

Even large and experienced players can fall into this trap. Google Glass is one of the most high-profile examples of a revolutionary product that nobody wanted. While safety and privacy concerns did play a role in the concept’s failure, the main reason Google Glass failed to take off was a bad product-market fit. 

This is why it’s critical that both the software team and the business team always have in mind the end user they’re targeting. Product designers are the ones who drive this user-centric thinking and keep asking the critical questions: Does somebody need this? Who is that person? What do we need to know about them?

Reason 2: Product designers integrate business objectives and design principles

“UX, service and graphic designers won’t always think of your profits. Business designers won’t always think of your development and deployment processes. Product designers will think of both.”

Sasha Tråp, Product Lead for businesses and the public sector

Nobody knows exactly how many new products fail. 

Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen made waves when he said the number could be as high as 95%. McKinsey and Company put average failure rates at closer to 40%. The fact is that the number of failures varies widely from sector to sector. Consumer goods, for example, are among the most likely to fail.

There’s no single reason products fail, but the causes can broadly be divided into one of two buckets: faulty business logic, or issues with the product itself. Sometimes it’s even a clash between commercial considerations and product-design principles that can cause failure. 

A product designer acts as a bridge between these two camps. This means guiding the work of the user-experience and service-design team with sales and profitability goals while getting number crunchers to provide the needed level of investment in the product development process.

Reason 3: Product designers are experts at managing individual components as well as entire design systems

“Asking your product manager and product owner to think of the relationship between user flows and component-library design is asking too much of them. Complex products need dedicated system-level supervision from product designers.”

Anna Heini, Lead Designer

Designing software that works as intended means choosing the right components for the system, and keeping things in order throughout the development process. It’s about both the bigger picture and the finer details.

Product owners and product managers may lack the time and expertise needed for planning user flows and their relation to the chosen component library. But this system-level supervision is needed, or you’ll risk creating knots in the development process that will come unraveled later during the user experience. 

Product designers are the right people to define your component library to begin with and identify pain points along the development path. This is extremely important when building software from scratch, as we at Reaktor specialize in doing. 

You need to start the project as you mean to go on, creating a library of components that build up to a consistent system for designers and engineers to work with. This is how you prevent unnecessary duplication of work and a sub-standard end result. If you haphazardly develop a software system, many little mistakes can add up to death by a thousand cuts. 

Increasingly it’s product designers who develop and maintain these design systems for software products. We’re able to do this as we have a view of both the user’s interaction with the system and of any inefficiencies or clashes between the components. 

Read also: Four ways to design a more user-friendly booking system

Reason 4: Product designers partner with product owners to develop a broader vision

“The product designer helps the product and business teams build a long-term vision. This vision enables scalability and is essential for setting the right priorities. Often, a team would deploy a new feature to solve one problem, bringing three new problems along. If that’s the case for you, it’s a symptom of a lack of product vision.”

Alice Baggio, Senior Designer  

Being a product owner often means focusing on immediate business goals, and coaching the software team to develop the features that help in reaching those goals. There’s often pressure to fix bugs, for example, or move fast in new directions that business decision-makers may want to explore. 

But too much focus on the present means that product owners may neglect the bigger-picture direction – to the detriment of the future user experience. This is where the product designer can help. 

By acting as a bridge between the development team and the product owner, the product designer can resolve the pain points experienced by each party. This mediation role not only helps in creating the best possible prioritization for day-to-day work, it’s also key in developing a broader roadmap for the product’s future.

Reason 5: Product designers drive return on investment

“Are you making software for productivity? Engagement? Transactions? The answer determines what kind of user experience you need. A product designer can help!”

Hannu Oksa, Product Design Director

As product designers, we’re the first to admit that measuring and quantifying our financial contribution is tough. That’s one of the reasons companies may fail to include us in their product development process. But there are some good numbers out there that support our case, both in the development phase and the use phase. 

For example, an MIT panel discussion on the ROI of UX revealed that involving users early and defining usability requirements up-front can reduce development time by up to 50%. A Forrester Research study found that 70% of projects fail due to lack of user acceptance. As we stated earlier, it’s the product designer who can guard against this by staying laser-focused on user needs throughout the whole development process.

It could be about making the case to develop for mobile first, for example. While this is becoming the norm, legacy systems still exist that result in a poor mobile experience. Without a product designer, the limitations of these systems can carry over into tomorrow. 

Another Forrester Research study looked at the six-year stock market performance of customer-experience leaders versus laggards. The top 10 leaders outperformed the S&P index by 43%, whereas the bottom 10 generated negative returns of -34%. Forrester determined that every dollar invested in the user experience brings 100 dollars in return. 

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