November 3, 2023

Product Designer vs Systems Designer

The Question: Episode 1 Wrap-up

Review the FigJam for the Episode 1 conversation.

On Thursday, November 2 of 2023 we held the very first deep dive design system conversation as part of a series called The Question. For a while now, I’ve heard folks saying they want to go deeper. Many of the impromptu calls we have are great, but they only scratch the surface. After a few weeks of ruminating, I decided to try to address this challenge and the result is The Question.

For the first question, I provided this context:

In many one-on-one conversations I’ve had recently, I’ve picked up on an organizational tension between Product Designers and System Designers.

Different organizations use different titles, so here’s what I mean when I use these words: Product Designers are folks who specialize in (you guessed it) designing products driven by insight from their users and measured by the success of those products.

System Designers are folks who specialize in (you guessed it) designing systems driven by insight from their subscribers (the individuals and teams that use those systems) and measured by the improvements those systems bring to their subscribers.

Some organizations don’t recognize a difference—they expect Product Designers to work on the Design System(s).

Some organizations fully recognize the difference—they expect these two roles to have different skill sets and different goals.

(And, of course, there are all kinds of approaches between these two extremes.)

With the above context, The Question for this week is:

What is your perspective (and why) on the distinction between Product Designers and System Designers?

With 111 people signed up to receive this question, I wasn’t sure how many answers to expect. Turns out we got 48 responses, almost half, which felt like a great showing.

What we learned

I spent a good amount of time digging through the responses. There were a lot of excellent thoughts in what folks shared. Some people were adamant there shouldn’t be a distinction:

I see myself as a product designer as I’m working on the design system which is a product in my eyes”

There are a lot of overlapping concepts needed for both: UX and interaction design knowledge, empathy towards the users, design thinking”

I don’t believe there should be (yet another) new job title created by the Design Community to blur the line between role and outcomes”

I don’t see a productive distinction between them in terms of titles, but more as roles or a spectrum that designers can move between”

And, some folks clearly wanted to embrace the differences:

I’ve seen strong designers crumple under the delivery pressure of a product role and I’ve seen strong designers lose their minds working on the minutia required in a system design role.”

They are in service to different groups so they are inherently different”

The organizations that federate their system often burn money and time expecting a product designer to fulfill the needs of the enterprise via system design as well as design for the product they support.”

More distinction is needed as the scale of the design problems increases”

Product Designers usually don’t make good System Designers”

Ultimately, the answers you all provided helped me to identify a few key characteristics of each of the individuals who might be well-suited for these two roles.

Product Designers

Many answers offered ideas about what a product designer does. Here are a few excerpts:

Product Designers…

…are more aligned with the product owners”

…go wide, cover a lot of ground via iteration/exploration and discovery”

…focus on a single product’s needs”

…solve problems with the tools and building blocks within the system”

…focus more on feature delivery, user journeys, quick iterations and experiments”

…are required to understand the product market fit and opportunities to improve user journeys”

…have the goal to create the ideal experience in specific situations”

…inject innovation, creativity, and a relentless focus on the user into the process”

These answers lead to a list of characteristics that seem to synthesize what we look for in individuals who specialize in product design.

  • they are willing to dig in and understand the needs of the business
  • they have a strong desire to know the end users
  • they prioritize speed of delivery
  • they value exploration of ideas
  • they are more visionary when it comes to their work on a specific product

System Designers

Similarly, the responses offered insights into the day-to-day expectations for a system designer. Here are a few of those ideas:

System Designers…

…curate patterns from different product teams and document them, freeing up space for product designers to fully focus on their experiences”

…go deep on knowledge/variants/a11y and support”

…take into account many products’ needs making trad-offs where needed”

…act more as an internal consultant”

…build the tools and building blocks of the system”

…rationalize, simplify, and genericise contributions before a component can be incorporated into the system”

…focus more on UX/UI quality and ship only when they believe the solution to be bulletproof”

…prioritize the cohesiveness of the full experience as well as best practices across a broader set of needs”

These answers lead to a list of characteristics that do a good job identifying those of us who gravitate toward system work.

  • they understand how to embrace compromise
  • they lead with collaboration
  • they have a desire to learn the engineering implications of their decisions
  • they prioritize quality over speed
  • they value automation
  • they care deeply about the stability of their work

A Spectrum from Product Design to Systems Design

There was another set of comments that implied these two roles may be only a variation in understanding along a spectrum of designer roles or maturity.

It’s a distinct set of skills and I see this as something practitioners develop in addition to product design—so it’s more of an evolution than a career path between two distinct roles”

Ultimately the product designer is just a more niche subspecies of the system designer”

All system designers are product designers (the system is the product) but not all product designers are system designers”

System designers benefit from previous experience as a Product Designer”

After considering this a bit, and discussing it with the larger group, I landed on the following image as a possible representation of this idea:

The spectrum of individual designer maturity, from an unhealthy product designer mindset on the far left, to a healthy product designer mindset left of center, to a healthy system designer mindset right of center, to an unhealthy system designer mindset on the far right.The spectrum of individual designer maturity, from an unhealthy product designer mindset on the far left, to a healthy product designer mindset left of center, to a healthy system designer mindset right of center, to an unhealthy system designer mindset on the far right. An unhealthy product designer mindset means the individual overvalues the quality of the parts without regard for the cohesion of the system. A healthy product designer mindset means the individual is focused on solving the problems of the parts, but balances this with the cohesion with the system. A healthy system designer mindset means the individual is focused solving the problems of the system, but balances this with the quality of the parts. An unhealthy system designer mindset means the individual overvalues the cohesion of the system without regard for the quality of the parts.

This is fascinating to me and it aligns beautifully with one of Russell Ackoff’s rules of systems thinking. He said:

The performance of a system depends on how the parts interact, never on how they act taken separately.”

(From this Russall Ackoff presentation on Systems Thinking)

Essentially, he’s saying that in order to have the best whole (the best design system), we must accept some amount of compromise on the quality of the individual parts (the components, perhaps, in our world). The tension between these perspectives is palpable. However, the most mature designers (whether product-focused or system-focused) understand the need for each specialization, granting them a willingness to collaborate toward the common goals of the organization.

How should this impact contribution?

Following this line of thinking, we briefly discussed how a recognition of the unique skills needed for both of these roles should impact our expectation of contribution processes in design system work. Specifically, if the skills needed are different, should product designers be contributing to design systems? Or maybe we should be asking, How far into the contribution process should product designers reach?”

In my experience, this line can be drawn in different places based on the culture of the organization and the maturity of the designers involved. But that’s a question for another day…

In Conclusion

I’ve been considering all of this deeply and I don’t believe the spectrum of design roles should imply that as a designer matures they move from product designer to system designer. I believe both skill sets are necessary to do the best work. And this is precisely why I like the image above. Being a product designer should require some understanding of the bigger picture. Being a systems designer should require an understanding of the parts that make up the system. Where an individual chooses to focus is entirely up to them—where they feel the can offer the most value. But both perspectives are necessary to put good design into practice at scale.

Further reading

Thank you

This little experiment was wildly valuable. Making time to go deeper on tricky subjects like this is necessary for us to be better at our craft. Many thanks to all who participated.

If you missed out this week, sign up for The Question and be ready to answer this coming Monday.

Major thanks to my friend and brilliant design system leader, Michelle Walton, for cohosting this deep dive!

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