As a design manager, one of my priorities is helping product managers work effectively with their UX counterparts.
Here I’ll provide a few tips for PMs, based on my experience working within product teams in a SaaS environment, on how to get the most out of your UX designers.
Collaboration between PMs and UX designers can be a beautiful thing. There are a lot of ways that these two disciplines naturally compliment each other. Together they build better products.
There are also certain challenges that may arise when PMs and UX designers work together. Here are a few I’ve noticed.
- Sometimes there can be confusion around who makes certain decisions. E.g. Who makes the call on what gets included in product features, and at what level of detail?
- Sometimes there isn’t enough collaboration on long-term, big-picture planning. As the complexity of a product increases over time, the user experience can suffer, for example when small incremental changes do not build toward an overall vision of product experience.
- And sometimes UX designers and PMs can simply be out of sync, and as a result work inefficiently and across purposes.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? What can we do to avoid it?
A common approach to product collaboration is a team structure called the product triad. The basic idea is that a lead PM, Engineer and Designer from each product division share the role of making product decisions. Each member brings their unique viewpoint, and as a result, the overall product outcomes are better and development is more efficient. For reference see Teresa Mendes’s YouTube series on the Product Trio.
But simply adopting the triad model with your team doesn’t solve the inherent challenges of collaborative work. Let’s explore this further by looking at the unique differences between UX and product management.
Let’s start with a question. What is a UX designer anyway? Engineers also do design. Are they designers too? Isn’t design just problem solving? Aren’t we then all designers? Maybe so, but let’s try to find a definition that shows a helpful distinction between design and product management.
I’d like to propose the following three unique characteristics of a designer to help show what UX design brings to the product trio.
- Designers do conceptual work that is distinct from building (Glen Parsons, The Philosophy of Design, pp. 23)
- The designers point of view is that of the user and they are primarily concerned with the user’s experience of the product
- Designers have a tendency toward a holistic product aesthetic (e.g. they tend to think big-picture)
Point 1 above shows how designers are different from engineers. Designers are trained to stay within the conceptual world and to rely on the experts at building, not only to provide constraints but also to contribute ideas that open up new design possibilities.
This reveals an overlap with PMs, who also work in the world of ideas and concepts, and who also rely on others to execute on plans (including the designers). This overlap can sometimes make responsibilities unclear.
For this reason, it’s important to have an agreed upon process for design related decisions. I personally think it’s best to make the more difficult product decisions in a process of open discussion as a product triad. From experience I’ve seen this work well in terms of getting good results, and having each discipline team feel engaged. That being said, other decision making models have their benefits too. I think the important thing here is that what ever model is used, it is understood and agreed upon by the team.
Point 2, about the UX designer taking on the perspective of the user is core to what UX is all about. The UX designer’s primary purpose is to advocate for the user in the product and to ensure that the user is provided with an experience that aligns with the brand promise. So anytime you, as a PM, need user data and/or need more of the user’s perspective to make a decision, you can rely on your UX person to provide this. And if they don’t currently have the data you need, they will have the expertise to know how to get it (e.g. working with the research team to run a study).
Point 3, about the holistic product perspective is also important when it comes to getting the most from design. Because of a designer’s training to think holistically, you can rely on them to fill in the gaps for you and identify when a particular feature in your product vertical may not be helping the overall user experience across the entire product. To this end, you can ask your designer to help you visualize the long-term vision for your product area in a way that helps you communicate with your other stakeholders.
One further unique value that UX designers can bring to the table is in the area of facilitation. UX designers are trained not only to design but to facilitate co-design. In fact, much of design training is about designing within the context of a team. This is one area that a PM can lean on their designer. E.g. you can have your UX designer run your team’s collaborative meetings when you are either coming up with new ideas or trying to refine existing ideas. Design is trained to do this in a way that encourages participation and arrives at good solutions.
So, as a product manager, you can get the most from your UX designer by relying on them for a big-picture plan for the user experience of the product, to articulate the perspective of the user, and for their ability to get the full design potential out of a team by leading collaborative processes.
And of course, the regular stuff too → drawing boxes and arrows :)
How does this sound to you? What’s your experience as either a Product Manager or UX Designer? What tips do you have?