Product design engineers must possess a variety of traits to be successful in their respective fields. Product design and engineering entails an innovative approach to problem solving, intuition, and empathy. They must be flexible and willing to adjust both goals and methods readily, among many other characteristics and behaviors.
So what traits are the most important indicators of success? What qualities should up-and-coming product design professionals work on developing before seeking employment, and if you’re a manager, what traits should you be looking for in a new hire? To answer these questions, we asked a panel of product design engineering experts to answer the following question:
“What is the #1 shared trait of successful product designers and engineers?”
Find out what our experts had to say below.
Meet Our Panel of Product Design and Product Engineering Experts:
Alina Senderzon is the Design Principal at ZURB, joining the company after a long freelance streak. ZURB is a popular product design company that works with companies like Netflix, Samsung, Facebook, Walmart, and more to create the best websites, products, and services.
“The most important traits of successful product designers include…”
1. AMBITION: It’s why designers notice bad kerning, analyze how remotes feel in their hand, and see almost non-existent flaws in furniture. They just believe they can do it better!
2. EMPATHY: Being empathetic is a trait designers rely on to make essential user experience decisions early in the discovery phase as much as later on in user testing. They are open to human experiences because they know that their assumptions can — and will — be wrong. They have the humility to admit that they don’t have all the answers. And they listen. They really listen to others’ input before coming up with possible solutions to a problem.
3. NON-LINEAR THINKING: To continue innovating designers come at problems from unexpected angles, then rationalize their way back to a sound concept.
4. PATTERN RECOGNITION: Designers who see patterns in interfaces they design are able to produce more work in shorter timeframes simply because they look for ways to simplify the pattern set to a minimum. An efficient designer will find ways to reuse patterns, which then speeds up development later on.
5. METICULOUSNESS: Meticulous designers are thorough in the way they solve problems. And it runs through all applications of design skills. In prototyping, it’s fleshing out complete workflows. No gaps, no holes, no missing interaction states or forgotten edge cases. In visual design, it’s anticipating how one design decision affects another and plain ol’ good graphic design skills — kerning and all. In code, it’s practicing to write clean code and thoroughly testing it in QA.
6. TENACITY Designers don’t let their failures stop them from pushing forward. When their work is torn to pieces in a client meeting, or their code falls apart on a tablet, designers must be able to pick themselves up and tackle the problem again. And again. Until it’s solved.
Anthony Simola is CEO of Simola Technologies Inc., and author of The Roving Mind: A Modern Approach to Cognitive Enhancement. He was educated at Columbia University and Vanderbilt University.
“The most important traits of solid product designers and engineers include…”
Product engineers and designers obviously have an eye for beauty, pay attention to detail, and are somewhat obsessive over their work. Those are the well-known traits. Additionally, most of them think in a very reductionist way, simplifying things to understand them from the fundamentals. This allows them to hammer out efficiencies and fit things in under the hood when others would think such a thing difficult.
Brian Mitchell is an experienced Engineer and Product Manager with Schneider Electric. With 8 years of professional experience, Brian has worked for Schneider Electric, Eaton, and Emerson focusing on new product development. Brian holds Bachelor’s degrees in economics and mechanical engineering and a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Missouri University of Science and Technology, as well as an MBA in business from Baldwin Wallace College.
“I have seen a variety of successful and unsuccessful engineers in several different industries, and the most successful people seem to exhibit two key traits…”
In my experience, a hands on approach to design is one of the key elements of successful product designers and engineers. Very often, things that look great in a CAD model prove to be clunky or awkward when prototypes are built. Successful engineers have a reputation for building simple mockups that they can hold in their hands and physically interact with. Often, mockups can be as simple as a little bit of cardboard and some scale printouts taped together.
Also key is an ability to imagine themselves as the consumer using the product and experiencing the layout, ergonomics, menu structure, etc. Successful developers go through exercises to try to accomplish tasks that users will regularly perform and ask themselves about whether a layout is logical or intuitive. Standing in customers’ shoes provides designers the opportunity to add value and to create products that will resonate with customers.
Keith Baird is the Senior Application Engineer for Pivot International. Ideation to Creation, Pivot International is the single source provider for product engineering, design, development, and contract manufacturing, with strengths in software development, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and industrial design. Headquartered in Lenexa, Kansas, Pivot International provides the benefits of working with a domestic organization and the financial advantages of international tooling, procurement, and manufacturing.
“It’s difficult to decide which trait is the most important for a successful product engineer. That depends on…”
What your relationship is to the product design task, and depending on where you fit in, the perception of which trait is the most important changes.
For example, if you are a senior manager, your definition of the most important trait might be the ability to meet time and cost constraints. If you are the designer or engineer, perhaps you are all about the product, easily losing sight of the time and cost constraints. After all, you want your product to the greatest ever. If you’re the customer whose product is being designed, you want to feel that the designer has fully understood your needs and is sensitive to them, so perhaps this is defined as empathy. We could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.
I think the most valuable trait for the successful product designer or developer is to understand this dynamic and be flexible in your approach, because each situation is fluid and requires the different skills of listening, being detail-oriented, and creativity, all while being aware of costs and time overruns. This would include managing those expectations with your customer — either internal or external. So your ability to be a success will truly be a result of how well you are able to adapt and overcome the challenges presented before you.
Hwee-Boon Yar develops and sells iOS, OS X apps, and complementary server services, including (now defunct) SimplyTweet and Regex for OS X. He launched top-ranked paid apps in the iOS app store. He also has extensive technical and pre-sales experience in the search and information retrieval enterprise market.
“The top trait of successful product designers and engineers is…”
Being able to ship products. This is not a single skill, but rather being able to glimpse what is more important, compromise, selectively cut corners where it least matters, and deliver a working product, all while meeting the deadline and producing work that still looks and feels impressive. Developers, in particular, who posses this skillset are sometimes known as 10x developers. While technical skills are essential to achieve that goal, soft skills to sell and negotiate the (often-reduced) scope of the product are also critical.
Jason Amster is the Chief Technology Officer of BeenVerified.com, the leading consumer public data provider.
“The top traits to look for in developers and engineers are…”
Hunger and dedication to the craft. In hiring engineers, I look for the ability to understand the whole picture, but that they are also capable of focusing deeply on different technologies or projects. From a character perspective, the ideal person is someone you can trust to get the job done because they know what they’re doing, but are also humble enough to ask for help when they are in uncharted territory.
Michael Smith is the CEO of Raster, a mobile innovation firm specializing in mobile app development and smart tech products. Smith’s background is in design and user experience as it relates to interactive media. He started his career in the dot-com world of the late 90s. Throughout his career, he has architected hundreds of software systems and through Raster helped launch hundreds of tech-based startups and tech-based enterprise initiatives.
“The most important trait for a successful product designer is…”
Empathy. Great designers have the ability to maintain an unbiased perspective and display an extensive mental range when it comes to understanding the needs and use-cases of their audience. They take their own assumptions as simply that, assumptions, and set out to (dis)prove them before making important design decisions. This, in my experience, is what separates the good from the great.
Harshit Chaudhary is a web designer and developer at WiseCalvin.com.
“An important trait all product engineers must have to be successful is…”
Having the ability to take responsibility. He should be able to deliver measurable results for each of his features/ products introduced, and at the same time analyze and recommend on behalf of the team. He should have the ability to dig for user insights on how his features affected your users and find room for improvement.
Daniel Hindi a Technology veteran has over 16 years of experience building technology stacks for leading companies across a wide variety of industries. In recent years, Daniel has been focusing on start-ups, helping to develop a concept and bringing it to fruition. Daniel is currently serving as the CTO of BuildFire, which he joined after his role at Flywheel as Vice president of Engineering. In this role, Daniel headed all development using cloud and mobile technologies. As chief architect of these technologies, Daniel provided his many years of experience in developing scalable systems and managing local and remote development teams.
“There are three key behaviors that successful engineers and designers should master…”
1. Prioritize: Many developers see a system as a mountain and get overwhelmed. If they see it as a large pile of small, manageable rocks then they are able stay focused. Everyday, focus on the top three things you need to accomplish and knock those out. Do this and you should be progressing well even in an environment where priorities change daily.
2. Challenge the Spec: Too many developers are conditioned to just do what you are told, so they will receive a spec doc and just put their head down and get to work. This is robotic and may cause bigger problems if there are communication issues. Engineers/Developers need to have a dialog with the spec writer. Many times the writer doesn’t even know there is an option accessible to them that may be far better than their spec suggests.
3. Handle Stress: Especially in startups, you have a constant pressure to deliver with ridiculous deadlines. However , if you focus on the day’s top three items (see first point), you can laser in on what needs to be done and remove other distractions. If you have input on the requirements (see point two), you feel a sense of ownership so it becomes more of a challenge than a task. Lastly, learn to ride the wave. When you have good days, make sure you decompress. They are rare and far in between, so don’t waste them. When the time comes to ramp up again, you should have recharged for the next challenge.
George Ramonov is CTO and Founder at Qurious, helping teams make faster smarter decisions in meetings with Qlockwise. He trained in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at UC Berkeley. He cares about artificial intelligence, algorithms, game mechanics, and design thinking.
“The top trait of successful product engineers is that…”
They never cease to learn. They’ve learned how to learn, and they’ve learned to love learning. They look for ways to enhance and accelerate their workflows, try new things, and remain aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Whether it’s a new framework, a new design trick, or a different way to view the same problem — successful developers, engineers, and designers embrace these new tools.
Karen Huller, former technical recruiter, is a Certified Professional Résumé Writer, Adjunct Professor of Career Management at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, Chief Career Strategist at Epic Careering, and Founder of JoMo Rising, LLC, a workflow gamification company. Mrs. Huller teaches technical professionals how to optimize their career and income trajectory.
“What makes a designer or engineer successful in a small company or startup can vary greatly…”
From what it takes to succeed in a Fortune 500, though even larger companies have to learn to expedite product development to compete at the pace of technology evolution.
More companies, large and small, are adopting software development methodologies such as Agile to accelerate product delivery, which requires more collaboration between the business, development, and testing. Feedback from many recruiters and employers searching for this talent claims that the combination of people skills and development skills is a rarity. It does make sense that the better an employee can listen and communicate, the
better a product will turn out.
Speaking of agile, agility has become increasingly important with the acceleration of technology evolution. While a larger company can be slower to steer in a new direction due to the innate resistance to adopt change, a product team who can start and finish development of an initial layer of a new product can help a company demonstrate the improvement that is being sought, which can also accelerate progress. More traditional product teams who work on large, long-term projects can grow frustrated by investing years on products that are never released due to business and technology changes. We are seeing more and more large companies adopt a shorter development lifecycle, making agility and adaptability highly valued traits.
Detail orientation, of course, is a highly valuable trait, but so is big-picture thinking. The more a designer, developer, or engineer can understand the business application for a product, the better they can contribute to greater functionality and intuitive human interface design.
Michelle Burke is the Marketing Manager for Future Insights, host of the world’s top conferences for designers and developers of the web, mobile, and internet of things with an eye on the future of the industry.
“Product designers and engineers are all slightly different and unique in their own ways, but must share one common trait…”
Flexibility. This means flexibility in ideas, roles, product changes, and even the job. Technology is changing faster than anyone can keep track of, and what is a great product and development idea today can change overnight. Being flexible will keep candidates for a job strong and help them throughout the exciting roller-coaster of a career.
Jacqualyn Lindo began as a independent graphic designer trying to help small business entrepreneurs do what they love. After several years of learning that there is more to design than making things pretty, she joined Plexuss.com, evolved into a product designer, and now strives to bring hospitality into user experience.
“The most important trait of successful product designers, developers, and engineers is…”
The ability to keep your team inspired and hungry for better design.
By doing daily research on top designs and best practices, I can share the vision of what we could be with each feature on our site. Beauty moves people to do great things, so when I show my team something beautiful, they want to do their best to build it. When the whole team works to build something they can love, the whole product turns out to be a success.
Kara Noreika is the co-founder of a women owned digital services company, Tamberra, in Tampa, FL. She has been known to jump up and down with excitement after solving a complex problem or launching a successful feature. With over a decade of experience, this has lead to some worn out flooring.
“As a web developer, I find that the most successful developers are…”
The ones who know how to put their egos aside and assess each tool, idea, or solution provided to them, no matter the source. The moment a developer thinks they know everything and can’t be bothered hearing others out is the moment they start to lose credibility as an expert in their field.
Robert Pieta is Co-Founder and Engineer at PorterKey, a smart iOS keyboard. He wrote his first iOS app in 2008, and many more since. As a student, he graduated in five semesters from UIUC with a computer science degree and highest honors.
“The top trait of successful product designers, developers, and engineers is…”
Insight. Take any successful product and ponder: Why was this product successful? Was it insight into the market? Insight into a platform? Insight into user needs? No matter the particular area, a product’s success can always be traced back to the insights designers, developers, and engineers had to make it possible.
To take a very commonly known company, Slack. Why has Slack become the fastest company to reach a valuation of $2 billion? So many others have tried to make work-focused communication apps. What made Slack different?
Before launching, enterprise communication options looked very similar. Bland messaging, AOL-style interface. No one had the guts to tweet short product tutorials like this: “Distracted by bold channels? Don’t want to leave, but just wish they could be a little quieter? Mute ‘em!” Slack didn’t look like enterprise communication and didn’t feel like enterprise communication. The designer and developer insight? People communicate! Not robots or faceless employees. Slack was fun because people want to have fun. Slack was exciting because being excited is better than bored. Slack entered a dull space and created a product with the “colors of a video game” as the MetaLab CEO put it (MetaLab designed Slack!).
This insight took guts and risk to execute, but it paid off. Big time. It seems obvious, but insights don’t have to be complex. Insights just need to be genuine, and of course, correct!
Julie Austin is an award-winning inventor, futurist, innovation speaker, and member of the World Future Society. She’s an internationally known thought leader on the topic of innovation, and CEO of the consulting firm Creative Innovation Group. She’s been a keynote innovation speaker for corporations such as Procter & Gamble, Novartis Pharmaceuticals, Northrop Grumman, and Cognizant Technology Solutions. She’s also been featured in the books Patently Female and Girls Think of Everything.
“As an inventor with a NASDAQ-winning product that’s sold in 24 countries, I would say that the top trait of successful product designers is…”
The ability to see combinations. Being able to combine wildly different ideas from different industries is the key to coming up with radical new products that didn’t exist before.
John Turner is CEO/Founder of UsersThink, a tool that delivers user feedback on demand for website landing pages, helping to increase conversions and improve usability and UX.
“The top trait of successful product designers, developers and engineers is…”
Empathy, the ability and willingness to learn and understand another person’s situation and viewpoint, is both incredibly rare and also hard to develop. But when someone has it, not only are they more likely to fix tense situations that occur among any group of people building something, but they’re also more likely to figure out solutions and approaches that will result in the best output, with as little frustration and hassle needed to get there.
LSE Information Systems alumnus, Nick wrote his dissertation on SaaS infrastructure and then created Crozdesk, a marketplace for web applications. Before founding Crozdesk he worked for several tech startups, consultancies, and engineering companies in Germany, UK, and Asia. His expertise lies in UI / graphic design, frontend development, and IT architecture.
“Successful product designers, developers and engineers must have…”
A knack for detail. Problem solving skills are also key to these roles: being meticulous about figuring out problems, and persistent about solving them, is definitely a top trait.
Fari Liang is the founder and developer at Ratafire, making crowdfunding free and social. Liang recently graduated from NYU, where she studied computer science and philosophy. She loves writing, design, music composition, and New York.
“The top trait of ninja-level product designers, developers, and engineers is not necessarily a trait, but…”
In coding, Ninja is more of an attitude. The same applies to design. The top trait of successful product designers, developers, and engineers is the execution, not the imagination of this series of actions: find the question others can’t see, and then learn to solve it without giving up. Unsuccessful product designers, developers, and engineers first wouldn’t be able to find the question themselves, and then they wouldn’t believe it is both possible and a must to learn new skills when solving it, and finally, they give up at the first sight of bugs. Therefore, you can see it takes a lot to be a successful one, because one has to first have the idea where to look, and pick the most important question to solve, and then has to be unafraid to upgrade oneself in terms of knowledge, and finally, has to be extremely patient.
Ben Levitan is a Wireless Cellular Telecommunications Expert offering consulting and expert witness services.
“When it comes to determining the best traits among the most successful product designers, developers, and engineers…”
I’ve spent a lifetime as an engineering professional and hiring them as a manager in various cell phone companies. You can tell if someone is good because they have an innate curiosity to figure out how things work. At interviews, they are interested in your product or service and want to figure out how it works and will ask questions. They are enthused when you are explaining it and possibly even in disagreement as to the approach you take. As kids, they took their toys apart. (As teens, they didn’t have girlfriends because they couldn’t figure them out. )
It’s more of a mindset. Some people are very artistic. Some are very people oriented. Engineers are curious and logical. They’ll want to see the inter-workings.
A great example of finding these types of people was when the British were looking for Code Breakers. They had a contest to see who could solve difficult crossword puzzles. Those who were inclined to be logical and want to figure things out took the challenge. These are the people that were hired at Benchley Park.
Dan Sagmiller has spent 17+ years as a professional programmer, has two published books, and teaches a Lynda.com class. Additionally, he serves as an advisor to multiple groups and is speaking at MKE DOT NET in November.
“Any designer worth their salt must know that…”
AB testing is invaluable. That means showing half your users a different design and seeing which gets better results. The idea is that we don’t actually know the future. We need to try multiple ways and see a user’s response. Even if a designer puts huge amounts of effort into fully designing a website, there is a good chance that it will need to be tweaked and altered to something significantly different once in the field.
Programmers face the same issue. Waterfall or Agile. Waterfall is great for business, so they say how much money we need, and when will it end. But a common waterfall reality in a changing environment is: The first 90% of the code amounts for the first 90% of the development time. The remaining 10% of the code accounts for the other 90% of the time. Per Tom Cargill of Bell Labs, iterations or breaking the project into smaller chunks and focusing only on the most valuable parts will often result in realizing parts of the requirements that aren’t actually required. Get a functional/testable product out the door every two to three weeks, and those features will typically be far more bug-free. Since the client gets to see and test the product early and often, they can tell you when you are on the wrong path, just as early (unlike waterfall, where you typically find out at month 10 of a 12 month project).
JJ DiGeronimo is a speaker, author, and thought-leader for Women in Tech and Girls and STEM. As the president of Tech Savvy Women, she empowers professional women and consults senior executives on strategies to retain and attract Women in Technology to increase thought and leadership diversity.
“The top trait of successful product designers, developers and engineers is…”
Understanding the business value of the end-user, which is often the customer for which they are developing the product. Many lose track of the real business value when arranging timelines and product functionality, which can affect downloads, team, and sales.
Robert Manigold is the Ambassador of Awesome at Code Koalas, where he develops both relationships and people.
“From a leadership perspective, the most important traits of product designers, developers, and engineers is…”
To be able to maintain focus and prioritize tasks in the midst of constant distraction and evolution of their product, project, or task.
Chris Redrich is a senior product manager with a proven track record of shipping award-winning SaaS products. He is passionate about building products people love to use. Chris helps startup founders turn their ideas into high-growth companies.
“The most common trait of successful product designers, developers, and engineers is…”
Empathy. Empathy for users is the must-have skill to develop solutions that solve customer pain.
Designing and building incredible products is more than assembling pieces, it requires a very deep understanding of your customer. The only way to do this is to set aside your own assumptions and get to know them as people.
It is very easy to blame customers for problems with your product. Successful product designers, developers, and engineers will seek to understand the customer, their pain, and emotional response to address the problem.
Rich Kahn is the founder and CEO of the digital advertising firm eZanga.com.
“Specifically for developers, the top trait for me is to…”
Find someone who learned development prior to college or structured coursework. They have a higher aptitude to learn by themselves and to troubleshoot issues in language development more so than what is taught on an institutional level. These ‘self developers,’ in my experience, are better able to handle language development on their own, and it makes it more likely that they will keep on changes and trends than a school-taught developer.
Katie DeCicco is the CEO and owner at Celebration Saunas, Inc.
“I have found that the most successful product designers, developers, and engineers have…”
A compulsion to solve a problem and find the solution for my specific needs. Great engineers live by, “Where there’s a will, There IS A WAY,” and, “If it can be thought of, it can be made.” They understand that anything is possible and will move heaven and earth to find it. Great, adaptable engineers understand that the process is less important than the outcome and that many steps around, under, over, or through any obstacle foster surprising ingenuity and lead to great discoveries.