How to Identify a Truly Talented Product Designer

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how to identify a truly talented product designer - pragmatic institute

What should you look for in a product designer? Whether or not you’re directly involved in hiring, it’s valuable to understand what makes a strong product designer. This is especially true if you’ve successfully made the case to bring on a design resource for the first time and it’s time for your team or organization to consider candidates.

Keep in mind, there is no one-size-fits-all model for product designers. For example, the design capabilities required for a digital product differ from a consumer packaged good. The strengths and work experiences you should look for depend on your design needs and the metrics you want to move (as outlined in part one of this series). That said, at Pragmatic Institute, we believe the best product designers share a few values and characteristics. 

A Rigorous Curiosity

A great designer has developed a deep curiosity about people and a passion for understanding users. What does the user want to achieve, and what’s standing in their way? What decisions and actions does the user need to take with the information at hand? What are their pain points, thoughts and feelings? With whom do they collaborate?

If a candidate for a design role asks a lot of questions about your users and market problems, that’s a great sign (if they focus solely on the product, that’s less ideal).

A Sense of Empathy

A powerful sense of empathy is invaluable to both product managers and designers, who need a firm sense of the reality customers live in today to understand what they truly need to tackle problems and achieve goals. Designers must be able to step into the user’s shoes when imagining potential solutions. That’s why empathy is one of the five mindsets of design thinking, and it’s activated through user research. 

A User-Centric Workflow and Strategy 

A candidate for a design role should be able to share their strategy for translating framed market problems into multiple potential solutions and prototyping those ideas. As they show you work examples, they should explain how their process led to that outcome. How was their work influenced by their understanding of the target user and their goals? Did they incorporate feedback from others along the way? Did they craft a narrative for how the user will approach the product?

A truly talented product designer not only wants to tighten the feedback loop with product management—regularly asking for input on work in progressthey also want to pull in market feedback whenever possible, from users, potential customers and evaluators. 

A Desire to Collaborate

While the ideal model for a product management and design partnership will differ by organizationaffected by working styles, business environment, personalities and project prioritiesa great product designer wants to collaborate and serve as a strategic partner. As always, the key is meaningful collaboration that sparks communication and idea sharing.

If you’re hoping to elevate cross-functional collaboration across your team for buying into and deciding on solutions, look for a product designer with facilitation skills (there are many!). Then, they can bring people together, plan and lead ideation and evaluation sessions, and share outcomes.   

A Knack for Communication

Communication skills (and people skills more broadly) play a role in all of the above, but they’re particularly vital when refining a solution. While a product designer doesn’t need direct experience going to the market, they should be able to share prototypes at various levels of fidelity and apply that feedback to iterate on solutions. They need to be able to tell the story of the solution, communicate the benefit of a solution and present it in a way that others can understand.

This is something you can watch for in an interview. As Pragmatic Institute Design Practice Co-Director Jim Dibble says, “When designers present their work to you, are they taking you on a real estate tour of the interface or are they telling you who the intended user is and how they would step through things to accomplish what they need to accomplish?” 


Read the previous piece in this series, “How to Make the Case for Hiring a Product Designer” and the next one, “How to Onboard a Product Designer to Your Project.”

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Erin Thibeau

Erin Thibeau

Erin Thibeau is a marketing manager for design at Pragmatic Institute. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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