Product Manager and UX Designer — What’s The Difference?

Chapter of the ebook “Product Managers and User Experience Design”

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Winning products are created by visionary, multidisciplinary teams that are able to deliver a stunning experience. Those who have mastered the magic of crafting the user experience are able to smash their weaker competitors.

Sounds pompous, but it’s widely recognized as the undeniable truth. When I was in Silicon Valley for the first time, showing people my idea for the company that will change the world (and it does!) — UXPin and I introduced myself as a UX Designer they said “UX Designer? Where have you been? The whole Valley is looking for people like you”. User Experi-ence Designers were and still are employees in high demand for any tech company — no matter how big or how small. The Tech world cannot live without us. — The UX Design App

And yes, it’s just like fashion, but at the same time this is perfectly reasonable. Today, User Experience Design is often associated with efficient, smart and beautiful products. Products that are simply well designed. This is exactly what the market wants to pay for. This is why Apple became such an important company. This is why Instagram is worth so much. And so on.

This culture-creation task is usually handled either by a User Experience Designer or somebody who’s fulfilling the role of Product Manager (in small startups that’s often one of the founders). Why? Because design oriented culture can only be created by people who understand users and understand the product. While the culture of a organization is the sum of the people in the team, the task of forming and pushing it towards an ex- perience-centered creation should be the specific task of people who fully understand the issue.

The culture of a organization is the sum of the people in the team. Photo Credit:

And if you think about a Product Manager’s role (in general) and a User Experience Designer’s role, you’ll notice that somehow they overlap. Gathering knowledge on user behavior and guiding the development of the product is something that certainly links both roles. And although UX Designers are more on the ‘craft’ side and PMs are rather considered with the ‘management’, both roles can, if not clearly divided, be in unfortunate opposition to each other. That’s a situation that always hurts the product.

I’ve seen it happen, years ago when I was a UX designer in one of the companies I used to work for. A senior UI designer was in a constant battle with the Product Director. They couldn’t agree on anything and they didn’t respect each other’s competencies. Why? Because they were scared to lose ground in the organization. Both wanted to be in charge of product development. Both wanted to deliver an absolutely stunning product. Both thought that their opponent doesn’t understand his own role.

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The Product Director thought the UI Designer should shut up and sim- ply draw the interface based on his wireframes. The UI Designer thought that the Product Director should mainly deal with boring spreadsheets and shouldn’t stick his nose in product development.

This kind of unfortunate fight between Product Manager and UI Designer is nothing unusual. It often happens because both roles have the exact same goal — to do everything that they can to create an excellent product with an amazing user experience design.

The same goal and overlapping competencies — that seems to be the rec- ipe for a catastrophe, right? I assure you that this problem can be solved. This complicated relationship might be taken care of in three different ways:

  • Hiring just a Product Manager and dividing the role of UX designer between him/her and a graphic designer
  • Hiring just a UX Designer and giving him/her the competencies of a Product Manager
  • Clearly defining the role of both and teaching them how to cooperate
  • None of these scenarios is purely good or bad. They all work under certain conditions. To understand which of them works then let’s first consider the common ground of both roles — the practice of User Experience Design.

Product Manager vs. UX Designer

I always advocate in favor of a broad definition of the practice of User Experience Design. One that contains not only UI design, but a whole set of activities that lead to the creation of a great product.

Here’s the definition from my recent ebook UX Design for Startups:

“User experience design (abbreviation UX, UXD) — A discipline focused on designing the end-to-end experience of a certain product. To design an experi- ence means to plan and act upon a certain set of actions, which should result in a planned change in the behaviour of a target group (when interacting with a product).
A UX designer’s work should always be derived from people’s problems and aim at finding a pleasurable, seductive, inspiring solution. The results of that work should always be measurable through metrics describing user behaviour. UX designers use knowledge and methods that originate from psychology, anthropology, sociology, computer science, graphic design, industrial design and cognitive science.
When you’re designing an experience, you are in fact planning a change in the behaviour of your target group. You’ve found out their problem and you’re trying to destroy the burden using design methods.
User experience lies at the crossroads of art and science and requires both extremely acute analytical thinking and creativity.”

Planning, measuring, building, validating — that’s a pretty broad set of actions, but this is what, I believe, must be done to create a stunning UX Design. As you can clearly see UX exceeds prototyping and wireframing and is more of a product development strategy. In fact, I’ve heard from a couple of well respected UX Designers that currently Product Development and User Experience Design are almost the same and in the lean future they actually should become the same. UX Designers are expected to understand business objectives (couldn’t agree more!), be really team-oriented (collaboration is crucial!) and guide the product through iterations (we should be great at measuring behavior and acting upon results!).

This scenario suggests a unification of the roles of PM and UX Designer. That’s a possibility, but not necessarily a probability for all kinds of compa-

nies and all kinds of projects. Let’s go through it step by step.

UX Designer — The Lone Ranger

In certain kinds of organizations a UX Designer might be the Product Leader, who combines business, design and team-leading competencies.

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A UX Designer stays constantly motivated to fight for the good of users, since she/he knows the most about their problems and knows how to em- body the solution for these user problems in the interface of a product.

For small startupish teams a UX designer and a Product Manager can be the same person. A UX designer should have a very good understanding of business goals, user needs and should be focused on delivering an amazing product. The product is created through ongoing, efficient collaboration with other specialists.

If there’s not a lot of dealing with stakeholders, marketing is done guerrilla style, sales are limited to simple activities, the financial side of the product is rather obvious, strategy doesn’t need to be adjusted to corporate strategy, etc. and there’s no need to bring on board an additional person.

A small team can deal with most of the problems on their own. In fact, this is how we used to work at UXPin in the early days. I was working both as a UX designer (research, prototyping, usability studies…) and Product Manager (scope planning, customer development, execution…). Honestly, it was quite efficient in a tiny team of 4, but absolutely not acceptable in a company of 20 people.

Product Manager — The Product Leader

I’ve seen many startups and, unfortunately, some bigger companies, that were doing OK without a UX Designer on board. The more the PM in the company was on the product and less on the manager side, the better the product was.

Why? If you don’t have a UX Designer on board, you absolutely need a Product Manager who wants to work with customers, is obsessed with good design and knows how to push the culture in the right place.

In this scenario the design tasks are fully handled by the graphic designer, who can only succeed if he/she is working closely with the PM.

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Again this is rather a temporary solution for a small team. Soon the speed of work, ambitions of the team and the need to grow, will force you to hire a full-time UX Designer and do things properly.

UX & PM — the design duet

Finally, if you’re lucky enough to work in a mature organization, you prob- ably have both UX Designers and Product Managers on board. The chance is that you’ll be able to super-efficiently craft the best design in the world, while the organization will be transforming itself into an experience-centered machine that grows thanks to the accelerating satisfaction of users. The biggest challenge is to build a design duet that will be working togeth- er to create a stunning product. To do that you need to clearly divide both roles.

The division that works excellently for UXPin and a couple of other compa- nies is as follows:

  • UX Designers — embody the vision of the company in the interface based on knowledge of user behavior while always bearing in mind business objectives. A UX Designer is focused on assessing the expe- rience of users, discussing a possible solution to their problems and designing it as a result of discussion with the team
  • Product Managers — are masters of execution, who are obsessed with shipping the perfect product with the perfect timing. They facilitate cooperation between people with different skills. PMs help to translate user problems and requirements into tasks. They support the User Experience Designer’s work and emphasize its importance
  • Both roles are closely connected to the product, but UX Designers work on the expression of the idea, while Product Managers optimize the execu- tion of the idea.
  • Having great people in both roles — that’s the idea of product team heaven.

Read more in the free ebook “The User Experience Guide Book For Product Managers”.