Product management for designers - Heart Internet Blog - Focusing on all aspects of the web

Designers are never satisfied. I think this might be true of all designers (being critical of your own work is something design education teaches us), but it is especially true of product designers. We are always looking to improve — our work, our products, our teams, and ourselves. Perhaps this is why so many product designers I know (myself included) are eager to learn more about product management, or become product managers themselves.

At around 10 years into my career as a designer, I had the opportunity to transition into product management at a Fortune 100 healthcare company. I found the experience extremely valuable. I took the opportunity because I wanted to grow myself as a leader, but along the way I realised that in order to build successful products, product designers must understand the work of product management (and vice versa).

What I found most interesting about the role of product management is the type of problem-solving the role requires. As a designer, my problem to solve is understanding, designing, and refining the user experience. As a product manager, my problem took a different shape — balancing business needs, stakeholder concerns, and timeline pressures. It’s a strategy puzzle, where you’re forced to make tough trade-offs to get the best product possible out the door.

If you’re interested in learning more about product management, or looking to make the transition yourself, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned over the past several years.

Design strengths

I found that several qualities I’d developed as a product designer were very beneficial to me as a product manager.

User obsession

Designers know that you have to understand your users. They always question business goals to make sure they align with some real user value. Designers know that we cannot change customer behaviour through fancy animations and gamification, but that getting to the root of a customer problem, and solving it, will build a loyal brand advocate.

Commitment to quality

Designers have a high threshold for quality. A background in design gives you the ability to understand what you’re giving up if you forgo design enhancements, and if it’s likely to impact the user experience. Product managers have to understand tradeoffs, and having some formal training in design helps you understand the tradeoffs you’re making on the experience.

Research

Design educators emphasise the problem-solving aspect of design, in an effort to provide their students with a solid foundation for whatever kind of work may come their way. A designer’s natural tendency to ask “Why”, and to do research, is a great asset as a product manager.

Empathy

Product managers don’t get anything done without the participation of others. To generate consensus and a shared vision, product managers must seek out other’s perspectives and understand their needs. A skill that can be borrowed from design to help with consensus-building is the designers’ focus on empathy.

While these strengths were a huge boon to me as a product manager, I quickly learned that many of my design skills were no longer part of my role, and that collaboration with product designers is essential to successful product management.

Design pitfalls

Here are some things to watch out for if you’re moving from product design into product management.

Focusing too much on design

You have designers for this. If you try to micromanage the design, or just do it yourself, you’ll stifle their creativity at best. At worst, you’ll make an enemy and spend the rest of your time together arguing about things like what colour the footer should be. If you are doing the job of design, then it’s likely that you’re not looking after the product management side of things as you should.

Letting design become a satellite

There’s a natural overlap between design and product, and managing that overlap can sometimes be a delicate dance. Erring on the side of siloing is just as detrimental as micromanaging design. You’ll do your teammates and your product — and ultimately, your users — a disservice if you’re so wary of encroaching on design territory that you don’t collaborate with them at all. If you’re worried about striking the right balance with your design team, tell them so up front. Work together to find a collaboration style that brings out the best in the team.

Not visualising your thoughts

While avoiding high fidelity is wise, so you don’t unintentionally end up doing the design yourself, you’ll have to visualise your thinking somehow. If you don’t, I guarantee what you’re imagining, and the goal you’re trying to achieve, will get lost in translation. I stick to white boarding, because it communicates what I’m thinking about without seeming permanent.

Being scared of the tech

While a PM may never sit down at the keyboard and write the code or deliver a story, it is important to invest in understanding the tech side of things. Especially so for PMs coming through design, as they probably didn’t take many coding or statistics classes. Even if you have the most amazing engineers, you can’t understand the tradeoffs you’re making without understanding the tech.

Letting your stakeholders walk all over you

One of the most important skills I had to develop when I became a PM was managing the business side of things. Product management requires a great deal of diplomacy, and a fair bit of politics. Just because a stakeholder asks for something, it doesn’t mean it’s right for the product. As a former designer, I had a tendency to acquiesce to stakeholders, assuming they knew better. As I grew more confident, I was able to assess when to say yes, when to say no, and when to defer responding one or another at all, depending on what was best for my product — and the product team — at the time.

Collaborating with design

A strong and efficient product management and product design team can produce fantastic products. If design and product management don’t have a healthy relationship, it will show — in shoddy quality, incoherent product, or an unhappy product team.

There are a few areas where product and design work particularly well together, and where their collaboration can accelerate the team’s progress most.

Build a research plan

User research and usability testing is an activity best shared by product management and design. Because the results will meaningfully impact the direction of the product and the look and feel of individual features, the best research plans are the result of close collaboration between product managers and designers.

As a product manager, I would begin by working with the product designers to create a research script. We would begin by discussing what we’d like to learn that week. Then we would choose our methods — prototype testing, actual software testing, card sorting, interviewing, etc. Once the goals and methods are squared away, we would get into what specific questions or tasks will be most effective. Usually after that first run, the product designers refine the details, then share it with product management for any last-minute feedback on the final draft before going into research.

Stakeholder interviews

When interviewing stakeholders, product managers have a tendency to either sell the product, or promise to put things on the roadmap. Designers are a step removed from the stakeholder, so having them present in these sessions can bring a helpful sanity check when the time comes to incorporate feedback into the backlog. Generally speaking, I still lead the session, though I do send my stakeholder interview script over to the design team for feedback beforehand, and I synthesise with them afterwards to get their perspective.

User science

Qualitative and quantitative data go hand in hand. Many product managers tend to favour analytics, while designers are passionate about user research. By working together to gather this data and understand how it all plays together, you’ll deepen your understanding of user needs and behaviours. This is a great opportunity to bring in engineering as well, as they often have ideas of analytics or telemetry to implement that others may not think of.

User story writing

User stories are one of the key tools in translating an imagined product into real, working software. They’re also an opportunity for much confusion and disagreement between product management and product design. Creating a good cadence for collaborating on user stories is essential.

If you’re the product manager, try adding a new feature to the backlog by writing out the goal portion of the story only (As a, I want to, So that), without any acceptance criteria. Get a few stories queued up this way, then take some time to talk through the stories with the designers. If necessary, do some whiteboard sketching about how you all think the story will be implemented, and bounce ideas back and forth. Then let the designers sit with things a while, and once they have a design they feel good about, come back together to discuss. Ultimately, you’ll end up with well thought-out stories, and your engineers will thank you for not throwing in last-minute edge cases during estimation.

User story acceptance

For units of development that have a user interface, I always tap a designer on the shoulder for a second opinion. While I’m looking for functionality, value, and meeting the acceptance criteria, a designer is often more focused on visual details. If something small is missed, it’s much more likely to get fixed before acceptance than to get prioritised on its own later. Ask your designers for a visual check of any stories involving high-fidelity UI work. Hell, ask them to check every story for acceptance! A second pair of eyes never hurt anything, no matter how detail-oriented you are.

Marketing

Whether you’re working with a separate marketing team or handling this yourself, a designer is a key asset when coming up with a marketing plan. The marketing of your product is part of the experience. If there’s a disconnect between how your product shows up in the marketplace and how users experience it once they’ve tried it out, there will be cognitive dissonance and it will hurt your product. Designers are focused on finding these inconsistencies and reconciling them.

Align on goals

Every good product has goals. Write yours down, make them clear and measurable, and post them in a place where the whole team can see. Any time you find the team is in conflict about the solution, refer back to the goals. Often it becomes clear that one direction more clearly aligns to the goals, and if the whole team agrees on the goals, then the conflict isn’t about whose idea is better, but whatever solution gets the team to the goal.

Making the transition

If you’re a designer thinking you’d like to make the transition into product management yourself, there are ways to set yourself up for success.

Find a team that is collaborative

If you can work regularly with your product manager, you’ll learn a lot just by observing what they do. It will also give you a chance to see all the aspects of product management, and how it works at your company. The role varies a lot from company to company, so just reading the books and articles won’t give you a true sense of what the job is like.

Read books about product management

Get an understanding of the theory. Three books that are pretty commonly recommended as good places to start are The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, Inspired by Marty Cagan, and Sprint by Jake Knapp.

Find a mentor

Identifying someone who has skills you’d like to learn and setting a goal to learn from them will help you formalise your path, and give you someone impartial to bounce ideas off and work through struggles with.

Learn the business

Pay attention in those stakeholder meetings! If you’re not invited to them, ask to be included! You don’t even have to speak up. Just hearing the conversations that happen with stakeholders and product sponsors will teach you a lot about the different perspective PMs bring to the work.

Get out there

Attend conferences, meetups, and workshops. Our industry changes so rapidly that we have to stay on top of our professional development, and often the latest techniques and frameworks are shared at conferences or meetups.

Ask for feedback

Find people you trust to be honest, and explicitly ask them to tell you how you’re doing. Both good and bad! It may take a while to form a relationship where others feel comfortable being candid this way, but it’s hugely worthwhile to have someone check in with on how you’re doing. I recommend having a few folks you can ask on the fly. Take what they say openly — don’t defend or react. You are welcome to disagree with feedback you’ve asked for, but it’s bad form to start an argument about it. And be prepared to give them feedback in return.

Whether you decide to transition into a product management role or not, understanding the job, and how product managers think, will make you a better designer, and help you get the best version of your work out into the world.

You can connect with me on LinkedIn. I sometimes retweet people smarter than myself on Twitter as well.

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