In the dynamic world of product development, the conventional wisdom of ‘Design-first’ is undergoing a profound transformation. ‘Product-first’ is becoming the new mantra, redefining the way we approach innovation and user-centric solutions.

Design, once the driving force behind product creation, is gradually assuming a different role. It is no longer the exclusive visionary but a subset of the larger product ecosystem.

This change represents a fundamental shift in the way organizations view the relationship between design and product development. As this transformation unfolds, one striking aspect emerges — designers are increasingly reporting to product leaders. It’s a significant departure from the established norm, and it’s sparking conversations about how this new paradigm is redefining the boundaries, responsibilities, and collaborative dynamics between designers and product teams.


The Challenges

Lack of Leadership for Junior Designers

One of the immediate issues arising from this shift is the potential lack of mentorship and leadership for junior designers within the newly structured teams. This is akin to setting sail on a complex voyage into uncharted waters without experienced navigators.

This is akin to setting sail on a complex voyage into uncharted waters without experienced navigators
Created with Adobe Firefly

Consider a digital product team tasked with creating a new mobile app. Senior designers, who have years of experience, understand the intricacies of user interface design, accessibility, and user experience. They can guide junior designers in making informed decisions about layout, colour schemes, and interactions.

However, in a ‘Product-first’ paradigm, if senior designers are not actively involved in mentoring junior team members (or not present at all), the juniors may lack exposure to the nuances of design thinking. This can result in the creation of a poor app with usability issues, leading to frustrated users and missed business goals.

Just as seasoned captains are essential for a successful voyage at sea, senior design leaders are vital for nurturing the next generation of designers. They help junior designers understand the value of design principles and their role in creating exceptional digital products, ensuring that the team doesn’t drift aimlessly in the vast sea of product development but instead steers towards success.

Underrepresentation of Design

With the shift towards Design being considered a subset of Product, there’s also a looming risk of underrepresentation in critical decision-making processes. When senior leadership fails to grasp the full value of Design, it can have detrimental effects. This situation can lead to a downward spiral where Design’s importance is diminished. Consequently, without strong advocates for budgets, design rigour, and research, Design may find itself reduced to serving as a mere tool for Product Managers (PMs) rather than a strategic partner.

Underrepresentation of Design
Created with Adobe Firefly

Consider a scenario in the development of a new e-commerce platform. In a ‘Product-first’ environment, there’s a push to launch the platform quickly to capture market share. The PM, under pressure to meet deadlines and prioritize feature development, might view Design as a means to make the platform visually appealing and not much more.

Without adequate representation, Design might not be included in key discussions about user experience (UX) and customer journey mapping in this context. As a result:

  1. Inadequate User Research: Designers may not have the opportunity to conduct user research to understand the target audience’s pain points and needs thoroughly. This omission can lead to a product that lacks user-centred features and experiences.
  2. Superficial Visual Changes: Designers may be reduced to making superficial changes to the platform’s appearance, such as tweaking colour schemes and fonts. They are unable to influence more significant decisions related to information architecture, navigation, or functionality.
  3. Missed Innovation Opportunities: The absence of design in decision-making processes can hinder innovation. Unique design solutions that could set the platform apart from competitors may be overlooked in favour of replicating existing industry standards.
  4. Negative Impact on Brand: Neglecting design’s strategic role can impact the brand’s perception. A poor user experience can lead to frustrated customers, potentially damaging the brand’s reputation and reducing customer loyalty.

In this scenario, Design, without proper representation, becomes a “paintbrush” to beautify the product rather than an essential driver of user satisfaction, brand differentiation, and ultimately, business success. To mitigate this risk, organizations must recognize the holistic value of Design and ensure it has a seat at the table in crucial decision-making processes.

Product Metrics vs. User Understanding

In the digital product development landscape, there is often a tension between the data-driven approach favoured by Product teams, focused on metrics, and the human-centred approach brought by Design, emphasizing a deep understanding of user needs and behaviours. This contrast highlights a critical balance that must be struck. Without this understanding, customers can receive weak experiences, leading to diminished business retention rates.

Product Metrics vs. User Understanding
Image Credit: Pixel Tie

Let’s consider the development of a social media platform as our digital product example. The Product team, driven by metrics, aims to boost user engagement and maximize daily active users (DAUs). They rely heavily on metrics like click-through rates (CTR), time spent on the platform, and the number of posts shared.

On the other hand, the Design team brings a user-centric perspective to the table. They conduct user research, including user interviews and usability tests. Through these efforts, they gain insights into users’ desires for a more meaningful and authentic social media experience. These insights reveal that users are growing fatigued by the constant flood of content, feeling overwhelmed and disconnected from their online communities.

Now, consider two scenarios:

Scenario 1: Metrics-Driven Approach:
In this scenario, the Product team focuses solely on metrics, introducing features like infinite scrolling and content algorithms to boost CTR and session times. However, users experience burnout and isolation, leading to declining retention rates.

Scenario 2: Balanced Approach with User Understanding:
Here, the Product and Design teams collaborate, integrating user insights. They prioritize features that enhance user well-being and meaningful connections. While initial metrics may not soar, the platform builds trust, leading to sustainable growth in engagement and retention.

In conclusion, the balance between Product Metrics and User Understanding is crucial in digital product development. Focusing solely on metrics-driven decisions can lead to short-term gains but may harm long-term retention rates and user satisfaction. Incorporating deep user understanding, as brought by Design, can lead to more sustainable and user-centric product growth.

Limits of Experimentation

While experimentation is a valuable tool for optimizing digital products, it’s not a panacea that can solve all issues. Some challenges, like flawed information architecture, require the expertise of practitioners trained in user experience (UX) methodologies to address effectively.

Take a popular e-commerce website as our digital product example. The Product team wants to increase user engagement and boost conversion rates, so they decide to run A/B tests on various elements of the website.

Scenario 1 – Experimentation-Driven Changes:
The Product team aims to enhance user engagement on an e-commerce site. They run A/B tests, tweaking elements like button colours and CTAs, leading to short-term improvements. However, they miss the critical issue of a complex website structure, leaving users frustrated.

Scenario 2 – UX-Driven Improvements:
Collaborating with UX experts, the team identifies and solves the underlying problem — flawed information architecture. Usability testing and user research guide them to restructure navigation and simplify categories. While not yielding immediate metrics spikes like experimentation, these changes greatly improve user satisfaction and conversion rates over time.

Experimentation is powerful, but complex issues like information architecture demand UX expertise. A balanced approach, combining experimentation with user-centered design, often leads to sustained digital product success.


Recognizing Unique Design Strengths

The value of design
Image Credit: McKinsey & Company


Innovation comes from understanding the transformation your customer is trying to achieve. While the Product team often concentrates on determining what features to build, Design operates on a distinct wavelength, seeking unconventional pathways to help users reach their objectives. The critical distinction emerges when we differentiate between product research and user research.

Product research revolves around ensuring that the product aligns with user preferences and expectations, essentially confirming if the offering fits the user. In contrast, user research delves much deeper. It aims to unravel the user’s underlying intentions and aspirations. User research seeks to understand what drives the user, their pain points, and the transformation they seek in their journey.

Accessibility and Inclusivity

Design has a unique role in making products accessible and inclusive, ensuring that they cater to diverse user needs.

Accessibility and Inclusivity
Image Credit: Darren Wilson

Moreover, design isn’t just about meeting the minimum standards of accessibility; it’s about creating welcoming and empowering experiences for all users. This includes acknowledging diverse perspectives, cultural nuances, and varying levels of technological familiarity. Designers aim to make products intuitive, adaptable, and accommodating to users with a wide spectrum of needs.

Emotive Impact

Emotive impact is a profound and often underestimated facet of design’s influence in digital product development. Beyond functionality and usability, design has the remarkable capacity to stir emotions, forging a profound and lasting connection between the user and the product.

Design achieves this emotional resonance through two key elements: aesthetics and user experience (UX). Aesthetics encompass the visual elements of a product which can evoke specific emotions, such as trust, excitement, nostalgia, or even serenity. UX plays a pivotal role. The way a user interacts with a product, the ease with which they navigate through it, and the delight they experience in doing so can elicit powerful emotional responses.

The power of emotive impact lies in its ability to foster deeper user engagement. When users form emotional connections with a product, they are more likely to become loyal customers, advocates, and even brand ambassadors. Emotionally engaged users are not just passive consumers; they actively invest in the product, provide valuable feedback, and contribute to its growth.

Systematic Thinking

Designers are the architects of coherence in the complex landscape of digital products. Their unique strength lies in thinking systematically, where every facet, feature, and detail of a product is considered not in isolation, but as an integral part of a harmonious whole.

Base Design System by Uber
Base Design System by Uber

At its core, systematic thinking addresses the interconnectedness of elements within a product. It examines how a button’s placement affects navigation, how colour choices influence user perception, and how content hierarchy guides user engagement. This holistic perspective extends to various levels of design, from micro-interactions to macro-level user journeys.


Design plays a pivotal role in humanizing technology, bridging the gap between complex digital interfaces and user-friendly, relatable experiences. In an era where technology permeates every aspect of our lives, design injects empathy and humanity into the digital realm.

Humanization through design is about crafting interfaces and interactions that resonate with users on a personal level. It involves intuitive navigation, empathetic user journeys, and a keen understanding of user behaviour and psychology. Designers strive to create experiences that feel less like interacting with machines and more like engaging with a helpful, understanding companion.


By recognizing and articulating these unique strengths, designers can become effective advocates for their roles in the evolving digital product landscape. This recognition not only fosters better collaboration between Design and Product but also ensures that user-centric principles remain at the heart of product development.ital experiences for brands and people, with your business’ needs in mind. If you like the way we think and would like to work with us, contact us and we’ll get back to you shortly.

Further Reading


Founder & Creative Director at Pixel Tie. Rémy has a particular enthusiasm for all things digital and interactive. He is also a Serial Bread & Cheese Eater, Mountain Biker & Proud Philatelist.

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