Are you interested in a product design career? In this post, we’ll share our conversation with three expert product designers to get some inside perspective on this high-demand field. They share advice and guidance on why this is a great career path, what skills and experience are most important, and how you can advance your career as a successful product designer.
Before we hear from our experts, however, let’s cover some product design basics.
What is product design?
Product design is the entire process of thinking, creating, and iterating products and experiences to solve people’s problems or anticipate user’s needs.
What do product designers do every day?
No two days are the same for a product designer. On any given day, you might be busy collaborating with product managers to set product strategy, partnering with product researchers to understand user needs, or analyzing quantitative data to inform design decisions. You might have sessions with engineers and other designers to sketch new features and improve existing ones. Some product designers even create prototypes to run usability testing and iterate in their designs.
Why are diverse perspectives particularly important in product design?
Successful product design has a positive impact on consumer behavior, great product design makes for world-class experiences, and diverse perspectives make for more inclusive products. As more and more companies are realizing this, they are investing heavily in building high-skilled and diverse product design teams.
Now, let’s hear from Coursera product designers Tatiana Londoño, Adriana Phillips-Guzman, and Alberto Guzmán!!
Each is an expert in their field, and also a member of the Latinx community. As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re excited to bring forward their perspectives as they help shape designs for Coursera’s global platform. With Latin America and the Caribbean making up 8.42% of the world’s population, having diverse perspectives in design is critical to building more inclusive products that can help learners everywhere learn without limits.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey into product design?
I majored in engineering, but it wasn’t until I took a class on product design that something clicked for me. I could finally see a path towards opening more doors for those who had been left behind. Almost a decade after graduating from university, I’m on my fourth job in the EdTech industry. Every single job has taught me something. The EdTech space is full of complexities and opportunities. There are so many people in the world who don’t yet have access to quality education, which makes EdTech a huge opportunity for designers trying to lead the way in an industry that drives life-changing impact.
My career has been full of new iterations—just like the design process! While not every iteration worked, I always learned something new to help me grow. With a visual design major, I began my career teaching design at a university in Cartagena. I was also working at a local newspaper. I met fantastic people in those jobs, but the work climate in Colombia—where we experienced late or missing salaries and a lack of security—led me to apply for a Fulbright scholarship. This allowed me to pursue my Master in Design Management at the University of Kansas.
My time at KU opened my mind to new design methods. It was that experience that led me to value higher education—what it can do, and what it did for me.
I’ve been fascinated by the intersection of technology and people ever since I was really young. I didn’t know much about product design in college until I worked on business operations at an early stage startup where a friend of mine was a design director. I saw how he and his design team worked together to develop a product and how their work blended entrepreneurship, engineering, technology, visual design, sound design, and more.
I decided to formally pursue product design. I went back to school, and also started honing my visual design skills with freelance work for local organizations. After graduating, it took me about six months to get my first full-time design role.
I developed my career at startups, and this allowed me to explore facets of design that are traditionally executed by specialists at bigger companies. Now, at Coursera, I’m in a more specialized role. I am growing my skills and getting exposed to so many different approaches to problems as I learn from other specialists that are experts in their field.
Can you share some tips for being a successful product designer?
Make it an intentional decision to deeply understand a problem before tackling it. Identifying and challenging your internal biases, tackling a problem with open-mindedness, and going to the source before starting to form assumptions should all be part of your playbook. Just as important, you should also have a deep understanding of the systems and technology on which your product is going to be produced.
Every product needs a good foundation. Otherwise, anything you build on top of it will fall apart. So, before jumping into the visual representation of your product, ask yourself:
- Is there the right information architecture to support it?
- Is the data you can provide aligned with the data users expect to see?
- Have you thought of all possible use cases your solution needs to support?
- How would those cases be handled?
The best designers are willing to get down to every detail of a product to create the right solution for their users. They can tell you about the complexities of the backend and the data model that supports it, and how ultimately they were able to translate it into a simple and streamlined solution for users.
Know your strengths and learn how to use them in your design process. Successful product design is best achieved with a design team effort that leverages individuals’ areas of expertise. So, it’s important that you bring not just your specific product design skills, but also the natural abilities you’ve always had, and your unique experiences. This will help you find your design voice and bring it to life in your work.
Show Your Work. Don’t be afraid to start sharing your designs, even when you don’t think they’re good enough. Design is about iteration, and it’s important to hear what’s working and not working. Also, having worked with people from such diverse backgrounds, I’ve grown to appreciate that different perspectives can help improve designs and open new ideas.
Keep an open, curious mind and invite others into the process. Our jobs are more about finding the right answers than having the right answers right off the bat. This is done best when you break down organizational silos and work together with non-designers.
It’s also super important to have a strong perspective and develop the confidence to share that. Early in your career, it’s easy to assume that your role is just to execute on what a company wants you to design. But, if there is something you believe really sacrifices the user experience of a product, it’s important to speak up and have that hard conversation as early as possible.
Finally, I’ve found that it’s important to build empathy for your cross-functional teammates so you can understand the roles they play in the UX.
What career advice would you give for those who are interested in getting into product design?
Focus on communication skills. A big portion of the designer’s job is to communicate. Whether you are doing a user interview, convincing stakeholders of a certain direction, presenting your work, or doing a pairing session with a developer, communication is a key skill we rely on all the time as product designers.
The process of becoming a better communicator for me has involved multiple facets. I had to feel more comfortable in my own skin, learn to appreciate my own point of view as valuable, get over the fear of speaking in a second language, and finally learn to structure my speech in a way that is optimized for impact.
I’m being vulnerable here because I want to assure those who might be doubting themselves that although a big portion of the job as a designer is to communicate, you don’t need to be born naturally into it. Just like any other skill, it can be built and perfected, and even the most skillful communicators are still learning new things every day.
Read. When you’re done reading, read more. When I began working as a product designer, the first thing I did was read three books about it. I was determined to be the most prepared person in the room, and the books I read prepared me for that. It worked so well, I haven’t stopped.
Get into projects and communities that will grow your skills. One of the most rewarding things I did after moving to Boston was to volunteer for Make a Mark Boston and work with Moms as Mentors. I made connections, grew and applied my skills, and soaked in the positivity of what I was doing. Making connections is huge. Most good opportunities come from people you already know. I’ve also joined the UXPA Boston Board for the same reason.
Start designing ASAP! There are a lot of layers to design and it can get overwhelming, but what’s most important is starting somewhere, wherever, and not being afraid to ask for help and feedback. Like I said earlier, the job of designers isn’t necessarily to have the right answers right off the bat, but to find the right answer. Finding the right answer gets easier when you detach yourself from your designs and allow the feedback to inform how you move closer to your solution.
So much of design is simply becoming more sensitive to details in everyday things that you hadn’t perceived before. But it’s hard to build that muscle without getting your hands dirty!
What are some of the challenges you faced as a Latinx product designer, and how did you confront those challenges?
Women’s representation in tech is low, and Latinx representation is lower. I often find myself in rooms where I’m the only woman, and almost always the only Latinx woman. I was too conscious of this earlier in my career. I could see how articulate some of my teammates were, and I thought it was impossible for someone who learned English as an adult to ever be like that. There was also the cultural context I came from, where as a Latinx woman I was encouraged to be quiet and to defer to men. Overcoming my impostor syndrome took lots of self-discovering and self-empowerment. It wasn’t until I believed I had something important to say that others started to believe it, too. Some of these people eventually became mentors and advocates who helped me polish my skills and who gave me a platform to showcase my best work.
When I started my career, I was the only Latinx woman on my team. I didn’t feel listened to or respected. Oftentimes, I was interrupted by my teammates and I felt like I had to shout over people to get attention. That didn’t match who I was as a person or as a designer. At one point, I was told I wasn’t being promoted because of my “language barrier,” which was code for having an accent. I had to lean on my support system and find a better fit for me. It took a toll on my confidence at first. But I found a place that respected me and helped me grow my confidence again. I learned to take my space and make my expectations clear. It was the first time I was comfortable with bringing my authentic self to work.
My early career was very grounded in fear. Fear of slowing my team down. Fear of having “bad” ideas. Fear of getting my design work steamrolled. Fear of getting uncovered for not being a real designer—whatever that means.
Looking back, I wanted to be seen and heard, but that requires levels of vulnerability that I wasn’t comfortable with when I was in a room full of people in a foreign-feeling work culture that I was always trying to adapt to.
Over time, I found communities and mentors that helped me to learn from those that had navigated similar obstacles and to feel heard by people I felt comfortable being my absolute full self with.
Why is it important to have more diversity and representation in the product design space?
So many reasons! If you are to build a product that will truly reach a global audience, you can’t design it in a vacuum. Access to technology, connectivity, and even cultural conventions affect how a learner consumes educational materials. These are all things we can teach ourselves to empathize with, but there is nothing more powerful than having a member on our team who has lived through it and can provide firsthand experience that will bring the solution to the next level.
Another important reason for diversity and representation is that there is power in the resilience that underrepresented groups bring. I have seen it over and over again. People who had to go through a lot to get where they are, are extremely disciplined and resourceful. I see it every day in the Latinx community, which is filled with innovators. We have a saying in Colombia: “If we don’t know it, we’ll invent it.” I grew up with this mentality. My house was the ultimate museum of hacks. Everywhere you looked, you could see the inventions my parents came up with to make up for the lack of resources.
People empathize best with experiences they understand. A wider variety of perspectives and experiences makes for a more empathetic product design team, which will result in a better product. In my role at Coursera, I can empathize with those trying to get an education in a developing country because I’ve lived that experience.
The key to nailing a user experience lies in deeply understanding the problem your audience is facing, which requires tremendous empathy and curiosity. It’s important to have a product team that is as diverse as the audience it serves in order to ground the team in empathy for what’s really going on in the lives of the people you’re trying to help.
We want to thank Tatiana, Adriana, and Alberto for sharing so much of their lives, insights, and experiences, and we hope their perspectives have been valuable as you consider your own future in product design.
If you’re interested in learning essential skills to advance your product design career, we recommend exploring the Google UX Design Professional Certificate program. UX is a critical part of product design, and user experience (UX) designers focus on the interactions that users have with products like websites, apps, and even physical objects. It’s an excellent program for anyone eager to build job-ready skills in this rewarding field.
If you’re a product designer interested in furthering Coursera’s mission of transforming lives through learning, then good news! We’re hiring product designers––we’d love for you to apply here.
About these experts
Tatiana Londoño is a Senior Product Designer focusing on the educator experience. Her main focus is on designing the tools partners use to create and manage courses. Her passion for education has made Coursera the fourth EdTech company she has worked in as a product designer. Prior to Coursera, Tatiana led product design for the learner experience of Khan Academy. Tatiana is passionate about scaling education with the power of technology to reach every corner of the world. Close to her heart are under-resourced communities, like those in her native Colombia.
Adriana Phillips-Guzman is a Senior Product Designer focusing on the learner experience. Her area of focus is the mobile experience design for native apps, visual design, and brand building. Aligned with Coursera’s mission to provide equitable global access to education, she is focusing on finding ways to make it easier for international learners to continue their education using our native apps. Prior to Coursera, she led key e-commerce experiences at Wayfair. In her current role at Coursera, she is combining her passion for helping others through education with the creation of experiences that enhance people’s lives.
Alberto Guzmán is currently a Senior Product Designer at Coursera, focusing on the payment experience. He builds self-service tools that Coursera learners use to understand and take action on their Coursera transactions. Prior to Coursera, Alberto led design at a hospitality startup called Pared. Alberto is moved by the opportunity to use technology to empower people to create and grow.