Product management and product design have a significant amount of functional overlap. Both roles require a deep connection and understanding of the target user and the ability to ideate and champion product visions. In high functioning teams, the common goals and skill sets enable product managers and designers to work closely and streamline communications. In small startup environments, a single person may take on both roles at once. To be successful, design leaders should be aware of the common conflicts between these two positions and effective ways to resolve them.
In less well-oiled product teams, the division of labor and decision-making authority between product managers and designers can be a point of continued debate and friction. According to conventional definitions, product managers are responsible for the overall commercial success of a product while designers are responsible for ensuring a good user experience with the product. Another commonly stated distinction is that product managers optimize for the execution of an idea (the why & how) while designers optimize for the expression of an idea (the what).
The challenge is that commercial success cannot be arbitrarily separated from user success, nor can the expression of an idea be performed without considering execution. Consumer-facing products often see a high correlation or causal relationship between the revenue growth and the quality of the user experience, whereas B2B product success is often driven more by the excellence of sales operations, business development, or competitive positioning. Similarly, the optimal expression of an product idea may be the best immediate solution for potential users, but also be technically infeasible or have an unsustainable underlying business model.
Since product managers are responsible for overall success, final decisions regarding features, priorities, and product direction often fall to them. Designers can feel resentful when their well-researched user-centric recommendations are overridden by a product manager who appears to be de-prioritizing the user or making decisions based on gut feeling or uninformed opinion.
Problem 1: Not understanding the role of product management
Product managers are typically trying to ship a reasonably good product in a reasonable amount of time, not the perfect product at an undefined point in the far future. Being effective requires that they be domain experts on their market, champions of a clear product vision, and effective coordinators of efforts across design, development, marketing, sales, finance, operations, and the company’s executive team. This involves constantly communicating with different roles and stakeholders, making complex tradeoffs, and organizing work effectively.
What appears to a designer to be a “gut decision” could be a well-considered, nuanced choice by the product manager that balances user experience against technical feasibility, stakeholder requirements, scheduling, or other important factors the designer is not aware of. While successful and senior product managers are able to succinctly communicate the rational behind their decision-making, designers who understand how their product managers work can ask better questions and provide better support to their team.
Problem 2: Not considering big picture tradeoffs
A user-centric focus can be taken to an unproductive extreme if a designer does not keep an eye on the big picture. Often, a change that is bad for the user in the short-term may be better for the business, and arguably the user, in the long-term. A user will not have a good experience if the company behind a product cannot generate enough revenue to keep operations going or to attract top talent.
Great design work requires focus and detail orientation, a strength which can unwittingly turn into a weakness if designers are not careful about their biases. Visual designers often strive for pixel perfection at the expense of execution speed and can have difficulty identifying and accepting “good enough” designs. Julie Zhou, a design leader at Facebook, also observed that designers also have a tendency to prioritize the needs of individual users over the needs of a system. For example, an individual user may be put off by an “invite your friends” prompt early in their onboarding process, but overall the network of users derives more value from Facebook if everyone has more friends and is more interconnected.
Problem 3: Not clarifying the problem or goal
Designers have a deep urge to solve user problems. This desire sometimes leads them to jump towards solutions and show off what they have designed rather connect their work back to market needs and strategic business goals.
As a design leader who has lead teams at Facebook and IDEO, Luke Woods has seen his fair share of both effective and ineffective product teams. Setting meaningful goals “is one of the most important things a leader can do,” says Woods. This is especially true in fast paced cultures like Facebook’s where individuals are expected to exhibit ownership of work and solve problems autonomously.
“Teams are most successful when they identify a clear goal. The best goals are quantifiable and measurable, but also qualitative so that you understand the spirit of the goal and are not just gaming numbers.” Once a solid goal is in place, then a team can build a strategy and execute against it. Woods observed that teams with unclear goals exhibited more churn, disagreement, and wasted work.
Problem 4: Not having robust feedback loops
While clarifying goals or problems may seem like an obvious step, doing so effectively is not that easy. When product managers are told they own the problem while designers are told they own the solution, a common tendency is to default to a waterfall model where a product manager hands off a functional requirement for a designer to create static mocks which are in turn passed to a developer to execute, losing the dynamic feedback loop between problem definition and solution generation.
Exploring solutions helps teams further clarify and define problems. For example, a product manager may start with a user story or need that is not fully fleshed out, such as “User must be able to login”. To design the optimal experience, a designer needs to know more about the problem, such as whether the target user has an aversion to using social logins or is a senior citizen who only uses the website a few times a year. Teams which are most effective at generating meaningful solutions for users tend to spend as much time on problem definition as on solution design, as each iteration of solutions proposed helps clarify the exact nature of the problem.
Part of ensuring strong feedback loops between product management and design entails getting everyone “out of the building” and observing real users. In the ideal world, product managers should be just as close to users as designers, but in reality this is challenging given their full plate of responsibilities. Designers can alleviate this by intentionally inviting product managers to participate in field research, user interviews, usability studies, and customer feedback sessions.
Problem 5: Not using the language of product management
Product managers communicate in the language of prioritization and execution. Designers, who tend to think more holistically and from a user-centric perspective, often have a difficult time ranking granular user stories or features against each other. For example, designers have a tendency to think that all aspects of a feature are important for driving a user experience and that omitting any component is a deal breaker. “If a designer says everything is important, a product manager might think nothing is important,” cautions Woods. A more effective way to communicate would be for designers to clearly list which features they want included in a release and to identify the few which are non-negotiable or extremely important.
Another communication challenge designers have is to translate design values into values the product manager will understand. For example, designers often complain that a design or a feature is not “consistent” because it does not appear visually cohesive. Designers may value visual and aesthetic consistency, but product managers might not see it as a priority. Instead, what a designer might say is “Inconsistent design will take longer to implement because it does not leverage existing UI and visual standards or components we have already built.”
Problem 6: Not showing the evolution of design decisions
Creativity is a messy and organic process. Designers, as creative people, often work in mysterious ways which befuddle other disciplines. Knowing this, an effective design leader creates a space for designers to explore and be creative while also communicating the process to stakeholders and colleagues.
Mia Blume, who has led design teams at IDEO, Square, and now Pinterest, has seen firsthand the value of communicating the exploratory and messy nature of design work. When Pinterest was rolling out a new feature called Interests, a nuanced categorization scheme for Pins which affected the entire product’s architecture, Mia designated a physical room where designers would pin up their exploratory work and thoughts. While printing out digital designs and putting them up on a wall may seem awkward, the process turned designers’ ideas into visual, tangible assets that allowed non-designers to understand what designers were thinking and also see all the disparate design directions at once. Bringing people to that room helped them understand how messy yet valuable creativity is.
“Sometimes leaders don’t want to be involved in mess, but still want to know when you present your recommendation that you have explored options. You are putting a lot of pressure on them to make the right decision, so the onus is on the designer to show what is best,” advises Blume. When she conducted UI reviews with Jack Dorsey at Square, she would pin up all the directions the design team explored, in a row, with the final recommendation at the end. The two would quickly cover the explorations and stop at the preferred solution. If Dorsey had questions about other directions, the reviewers could easily backtrack and discuss why other directions were less optimal. This built confidence for the leadership team that the design team had rigorously considered a full expression of possibilities before settling on a solution.