When product and design teams work in harmony, great products happen.
"There's a big difference between making a simple product, and making a product simple."~ Des Traynor, Intercom
Achieving harmony, however, is not always easy. Maintaining that harmony? Even harder. Friction is inevitable, particularly due to the high stress nature of how major product decisions are made.
Product managers walk the fine line of managing teams and all the human traits of creatives. At the same time, PMs are also on the hook for delivering world-class customer experiences through usable, simple solutions. Remember, the mandate of your product's designers extends far beyond just making your product “pretty.”
Their role embraces all of the following:
- Problem solving
- Active participation
- Collaborative partnering
- User advocacy
- Data use
So how can high-performing PMs facilitate great design? We chatted with product designers from Etsy, Airbnb, Tumblr, Contentful, Vox Media, and Slack to find out. Here’s what they wish you knew.
What product designers wish all PMs knew
Interchangeability is not a thing
It may sound simple, but many PMs see designers as interchangeable. In reality, most are masters of a few core areas of product design, and those areas of expertise differ between designers.
It smooths relationships, collaboration and efficiencies when our PMs take the the time to speak with their designers to learn about their specific areas of expertise and to understand their strengths and working style; are they best suited to research, visuals, the user experience, code, interactions, or motion for example, and then matching them to those deliverables.
Research and testing outweigh early assumptions
When PMs make assumptions about users and start to think about the “average user”, qualitative insights on people’s reasoning is lost, and consideration of the many likely diverse and colourful segments is overlooked.
Research is critical. Data and evidence should be driving all decision-making. When data is lacking, you’ll find that the loudest voice in the room tends to push the decisions through. This often negates and even completely ignores the voice of the users.
Research also removes noise. While something may, indeed, look wonderful on Facebook or Linkedin, and while we can and should learn from industry leaders as they have A/B tested everything ad infinitum, what they have done may not necessarily be right for your users. Nor will simply adopting what they have done foster innovation on your part.
User advocacy and a design mindset
The best PMs come from all kinds of backgrounds. One thing they have in common is that they have - one way or another - been exposed to or educated about user-centric design or design thinking.
The minutiae of design must be understood by PMs. This includes, but is not limited to; the absolute need for an unrelenting focus on the users’ perspective, the need for continuous research, prototyping, user testing to give your users features they will enjoy using, and much more. PMs who take the time to become educated in these areas create a win-win situation for themselves and their designers. A valuable end-user experience is born out of a marriage between a strong strategic vision and a sharp focus on outcomes.
What makes it great to work with PMs on product designs
Great PMs have a strategic mindset with a heavy focus on where the product is headed - a strong vision with an understanding of the importance of user advocacy. Great product designers are constantly thinking about the user’s perspective and how that fits into the business line. When great PMs and designers get together, this mix of focus provides solid direction for the product.
Integral to this is the ability to collaborate, push one another respectfully, and figure out the right questions to ask together. This engagement enables clarity of what is being done and why - how it improves UX or achieves business objectives - and fosters co-creation and co-ownership when it comes to strategic planning. Working together towards a shared goal creates strong working relationships and helps to keep everyone focused on what matters most.
How great PMs facilitate great design
Define the problem
Great PMs clearly define the problem from both the business’ and the users’ perspective. At the end of the day design needs to solve for both. It’s true that design works best when given a problem to solve instead of a specific execution. Specific executions tend to be narrow in scope which is not the optimal approach to addressing the overall problem.
Great PMs also make sure that that problem is ALWAYS clearly defined. It’s not uncommon for revisions of the base problem to happen, nor is it uncommon for rumours, real and imagined, to surface about changes for some cross-functional reason or constraint. Reiteration or redefinition of the problem statement, and what the team is working to solve, should occur at least once a week in one of the team standups. Great PMs also understand the impact of reprioritization on design items already in flight and work with the designers to see if they can still make them fit.
Great PMs create structure for the entire team (engineering, research, data science) to ideate and solve together. When everyone can see where they fit and the role they play from the outset, they are far more likely to buy-in to the process, the project, and the outcome. They feel invested and the PM has already effectively established a spirit of co-creation, co-ownership, and a shared end goal.
Solidify process and ownership
There is frequently a lack of uniformity in how different PMs work, including who makes a decision, who needs to be flexible, who makes the plan, and so on.
Great PMs sync early on expectations from both sides to come to a mutual understanding of what the PMs think their job is, what the designers think their job is, and how they can best work together from a place of co-creation and co-ownership.
The sync will be full of questions from both sides around the following concepts:
“What is your process?”
“What do you expect from a designer/PM?”
Responses may include:
“Here’s what I expect.”
“Here’s where I think we can communicate and check-in.”
The point is to make explicit the things you would normally not even think to say aloud and you would naturally assume, because assumptions in a world where art meets science is a dangerous thing.
Defining the decision making process in this manner prevents it from looking like a black hole. This is especially important for designers who may often be operating in the gray area. Make sure your designers fully understand what sort of decisions they are able to make on their own. What level of consultation is required? What is the DACI/RACI? Your job as a PM is to guide your team through questions like these.
Great PMs know how to give great feedback to their designers. From the design perspective, the golden rule is that every product decision is intentional and can stand-up to scrutiny. Designers give feedback by asking questions. The types of questions they ask may include:
“Have you considered… ?”
“Why did you… ?”
“What happens if… ?”
This investigative approach invites conversation and helps them contextually understand what has been created. Likewise, great PMs critique design by asking questions.
Asking questions of designers is not limited to feedback, though. Great PMs encourage co-creation and collaboration by asking more questions of their designer from the planning stages.
Great PMs participate. They join design sprints. They get involved and become invested in the creative process. They expect their designers to include them, to bounce ideas off them, to ask for feedback, and most importantly, to explain things to them when they ask questions. Participation is a two-way street.
Great PMs are not afraid of over-communicating. In fact they ascribe to the premise that more is better than less, but they do it appropriately in a structured manner that doesn’t fill up inboxes, Slack channels, or calendars with needless noise.
Allow freedom and breadth
Great PMs give specific design feedback. They whiteboard with their designers and they participate. What they don’t do is spend excessive amounts of time in prototyping tools and go to their designers with something like this; “I did all the wireframes and now I just need you to design it.”
Give everyone space to do the work they’re great at.
A healthy attitude on both sides is one that embraces prototyping and user testing. Designers should be willing to explore multiple solutions even if they believe they’ve found the “right” one. PMs should be able to discard previously held assertions in light of new evidence, and should let the designers do their job so that they can focus on the more strategic, higher level management of the vision.
Honor design integrity
Designers are invested in their designs, and they frequently have wonderful ideas that cannot make it into the first release due to time constraints. In their eyes, what they have produced is just an “okay” state. They understand the need to get something out the door, but what they rail against is the fact that the mindlessness of the project engine doesn’t leave room for iterations, and those “halfway” designs never get looked at again.
Great PMs scope in time to allow for post V1 release iterations based on initial data and learnings to get to a more “acceptable final” design state. The end result is inevitably better for everyone.
Great PMs trust their designers. They trust that their designers are coming from a place of genuine care for and interest in the users and solving for their problem. They trust that their designers have the skills and expertise to do their jobs. They understand that expertise somewhat overlaps with product management, but they also trust that it has its own perspective, and is just as important.
One way to manage friction between PMs and designers is through alignment. Our customizable roadmap templates can help get everyone on the same page - and keep them there.