December 15, 2021

The State of Product Design in 2021

Kevin Tuskey

The term product design may only be a few years old, but the demand for digital product designers has never been stronger. An effective product designer combines a bunch of skills: user experience design (UX), user interface design (UI), graphic design, customer research, branding, entrepreneurship, business, marketing, strategy, and software engineering.

So now that 2021 is nearly in the rearview mirror, let’s look back at the trends affecting this evolving discipline. I'll cover 5 topics in this article: compare design tools used to create interfaces and prototypes; define the fledgling domain of DesignOps; explain why No UIs are growing in popularity; describe why getting feedback from real people is better than just constructing archetypes; explore which aesthetic patterns are considered current and which are stale.

Figma overtakes Sketch as the dominant product design tool.

With its web-based, collaborative-first foundation and end-to-end prototyping capabilities, the Figma design platform is being adopted by more companies, especially at larger enterprises with mature design systems. It's an appealing alternative to the more fractured standard of using Sketch for design and InVision for clickable prototypes. Adobe XD and InVision Studio have yet to establish a significant market share, and the future of these platforms is questionable.

Sketch’s web-based version is less than 2 years old, while Figma has always been a web-first tool, and it shows. This browser-based approach to design tools makes it so anyone with an Internet connection can use it. Plus, it’s naturally compatible with both Apple and Windows computers. Figma is designed for collaboration among multiple designers or non-designers, with ways to lock certain aspects of the design for certain users. This allows anyone on the team — content writers, project managers, and frontend developers — to jump in, make changes, or give feedback.

DesignOps lets design and engineering flourish together.

About 10 years ago, the advent of DevOps established processes and tools to help developers operate more effectively with less friction. The goal was to shorten the time it took for an engineer to write a line of code and have someone use a feature powered by that line of code.

In a similar way, DesignOps is a collection of services and systems that shorten the time it takes for someone to have an idea to a person using and experiencing the results of that idea, usually in the form of software. Methodologies like Agile and Kanban have optimized the throughput of engineering implementation teams, without considering how those features were explored, designed, and prioritized in the first place. DesignOps integrates the best of Agile software delivery without sacrificing the value of good design. It helps grow integrated, high-functioning design teams that work effectively with engineering teams.

Modern tools like Figma and Sketch primarily help designers and developers collaborate. Other roles, such as product owners, stakeholders, quality assurance testers (QA), and business analysts, also benefit from how DesignOps streamlines collaboration across the team. Prototyping tools like InVision and Zeplin offer developer inspection tools that translate design decisions to developers in an easy-to-consume format. Figma takes this integration one step further — they baked prototyping and inspection tools into the main tool, so 3rd-party tools are not needed.

Design systems are a cornerstone of DesignOps. Design systems communicate a consistent use of brand guidelines, color, typography, tone of voice, photography, illustration, or user interface components so that each team member can leverage the collective wisdom of the group. Without a design system, every new idea must be designed and developed from scratch. That's why teams at organizations large and small use design systems as a part of their DesignOps strategy. 

Sometimes the best user interface is no user interface at all.

With more and more people carrying devices with sophisticated sensors like microphones, cameras, and gyroscopes, invisible user interfaces (also known as No UIs) are going mainstream. Users are demanding convenience like never before, and user experiences are getting so streamlined that, in many cases, they are completely dissolving.

Now, instead of scrolling through a list of songs to listen to, people can just shout a request into the air and smart speakers such as Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, or Apple HomePod will play that track from a catalog of millions from music services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music Unlimited. Smartphones can be unlocked with a fingerprint or a sub-second scan of the trusted user's face. Payments can be authorized with a wave of a smartphone or smartwatch or a tap from the user's finger. Apple's iMac and MacBook Pro computers can be unlocked instantly if the user is already wearing their Apple Watch. This extends outside the office, too. Sensors built into jogging bibs that are attached to a runner's shirt now have built-in sensors to wirelessly detect the moment an athlete begins and ends a race.

Most companies use single sign-on platforms (SSO) to quickly grant access to multiple systems at once. Forcing people to separately log in to each and every business application they use is becoming a thing of the past. SSOs can be paired with multi-factor authentication (MFA) for added security. These extra authorization steps can be streamlined using facial recognition and fingerprint recognition.

Along with this trend of simplicity, chat platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams offer ways to extend their functionality and provide an interface where people are already working. Instead of designing and developing a brand-new interface for an application, you can leverage the existing UI standards in Slack and Teams to build new experiences faster. Working prototypes built on Slack and Teams can test an approach with users and customers before investing further in a custom user interface.

Every extra step in a user flow can mean the difference between a customer choosing your product over a competitor's product. Reducing clicks within a conversion funnel — or eliminating the funnel altogether — creates experiences customers will enjoy and pay for.

Get feedback from real people instead of relying on personas

Personas are a good first step during research. Identifying personas at the beginning of a project can help the team better understand the audience and make sure no key group is overlooked during the discovery process.

In our experience, those archetypes have limitations and are often tainted with implicit bias. SingleStone prefers to go beyond personas and find real people to interview, observe, and test design options with. A more intimate relationship with the people who will be using, buying, and influencing your system is a hallmark of Design Thinking, a way to create innovative products people will love to use.

When getting access to customers is a challenge, we recommend using services like UserTesting to record the reactions people have to design prototypes. We sometimes use guerilla research techniques like setting up a table at a high-traffic area at a college or city intersection. Gift cards and free coffee can be all it takes to convince people to talk to you and share their reactions. Friends and family members are also a good source of free feedback.

Documenting how people react to a design using a recorded video clip or audio clip can supplement numeric results you’ve gathered from surveys or polls. This combination of qualitative and quantitative feedback from real people can present a compelling case for the best direction to take your product.

That design looks so  2020. 

Product design is just like any other field of design or art: new aesthetic trends emerge as practitioners react to what's already been created. Here are some patterns we see related to the aesthetic aspects of experience design.

Dark mode, an inversion of the usual pale, or light background interface that has been the default on computers for decades, is gaining in popularity. Recent updates to macOS and iOS let users change the entire look and feel of the operating system. Now applications are also letting users decide whether they would like to use a dark mode or light mode. Some applications like Slack give users even more flexibility to select from a range of preset color schemes or even create their own custom palette of colors.

The minimal user interface style called "flat design" still dominates, although many high-profile designs from companies like Apple are adding slightly more dimension to designs for interfaces and icons in the form of gradients, shape highlights, and shadows to what had previously been starkly two dimensional. "Flat design" has been around for years, and it was a reaction to "skeuomorphism," which simulated the physical interfaces found in the real world like ripped paper or leather stitching. The style "neumorphism" was a short-lived trend that attempted to combine the restraint of "flat design" with some of the realism from "skeuomorphism." The resulting "neumorphism" style resembled soft, extruded plastic, where interface components seem to extend from a flexible cover extending across the screen.

Designers are using new methods to achieve a bit more dimension and imply spatial depth in interfaces. Elements are given translucency to reveal what items are underneath that item in the interface's stack order. To avoid distraction, the area underneath interface elements is blurred to soften the hard edges of the content underneath. Elements can now more easily be given intricate overlapping blend modes such as "overlay," "multiply", or "darken" using code to match visual treatments graphic designers have historically applied using Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator. Color attributes are increasingly being declared in HSLa values: defining color through a combination of hue (the tint of the color), saturation (the vibrancy of the color), and lightness (the degree of lightness or darkness of a color).

Rebrands of popular logos and corporate identities are increasing using sans serif typography for letterforms, resulting in a more homogenous landscape. Recent redesigns by Google, MasterCard, Verizon, and Uber have smoothed out and refined some of the quirkier characteristics of their early logos. Sadly, some charm has been sacrificed as these brands aspire to be more authoritative, refined, and trusted in the marketplace.

Nostalgia for the 1980s is in full swing, and there is an upsurge in the vibrant, fluorescent colors that were trendy almost 40 years ago. Color palettes are brighter than ever and the color is a louder design element than in years past.

Today illustrations are used more often than stock photography to show a diverse set of people working together or to communicate how a process works. Free illustrations frameworks such as Open Peeps and Blush let you customize the people illustrations in nearly infinite ways, and it's never been easier to represent diverse, inclusive groups of people in your product imagery.

What's next?

Although this article focused on visual, process, and technology trends, there are far more issues affecting product design while the world is still coping with a global pandemic. There simply wasn’t enough space to discuss topics such as effectively working remotely; diversity, equity, and inclusion; dark design patterns and the ethics of product design; data visualization and trustworthy data journalism; accessibility and usability; privacy and data transparency; short-form video; designers who code; and more. 

As we work to improve the practice of product design in the months and years ahead, I’m eager to see how the field grows and adapts. Feel free to message me with your take on the state of product design in 2021, and let me know your thoughts and predictions for 2022! 


Kevin Tuskey

Director of Design
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