Chapter 1: Product design vs. UI design

Join a startup: Season 1

May 1, 2020

You have an offer for the position of a designer from a phenomenal startup. You're already dreaming of joining the big league of designers on Dribbble, Instagram and make your mark in the world. You surely will. And, you are just waiting to get into the action. You may also know that it's going to be tough and challenging.

In this series of several posts, I'm going to share nuggets of observations from my 10 years of experience in the domain around things that you can take care of while you're joining a startup.

Let's start with a simple one: product design vs. user interface design.


Contrary to popular belief, product design is not equal to the final UIs that one would typically find represented on Dribbble (Instagram now). Loosely putting, it could be what went into building the right dining table (height, width, utility drawers, and such) vs. the photo you see on Amazon.

In digital product design, what appears to be an input field may have hours of brainstorming, debates backing up its existence. A pretty looking, curvy line chart may be fancy, while in real life, it may be failing to represent the actual data values.

Let's look at a small example:

Once I gave an interviewing candidate a simple assignment: Create a (color) theme for a quarterly sales dashboard for CXOs. I gave 3 days timeline for the job. The candidate reverted the next morning with a JPEG file with not one but 4 color palettes. When asked about the reason for choosing the specific colors, she mentioned the colors were warm and calm. They also looked aesthetically pleasing when put together in a dashboard. But, she missed an important point.

The quarterly sales dashboard reflects essential data. It also needed to be legible on projector screens since CXOs would also look at the same dashboard with the broader team or board members in a board room (mentioned in the problem statement). Her color palette went utterly indistinguishable in the charts from one another when I plugged it to a medium-range projector screen.

I understand that folks who are starting find an unspeakable pressure to perform well in the world of design - especially since our work demands good aesthetics most of the time. As you are joining a team, spend a reasonable amount of time understanding foundational pillars -- in this case, genuine empathy for the user. More specifically, the target surface of consumption.

It's real users you would be building these designs for -- not a 400x300 box.