The Eternal Tension between PM and UX: Who Really Owns Product Design?
In an ideal world, Product Managers and UX Designers are two dancers in totally synchronicity with each other, their relationship full of synergy and harmony. In the real world this relationship can exist; but often it does not. When tensions arise between PM and UX, who has the final say? How do we diffuse these disagreements to the betterment of the Product?
In my experience, there are two major classes of disagreements. The first is very simple: the PM does not agree with the design being proposed by UX. The second is more nuanced: the PM agrees with the design, but it is very expensive (i.e. it will consume a lot of development resources). Let’s look at each in turn, but in reverse order.
Dealing with Scarcity
It is the job of the Product Manager to represent the business, including cost of development and time to market. If either of these elements fail, it is the PM’s neck on the line. So I consider it very much in the PM’s jurisdiction to scale back proposals from UX that do not meet the business needs.
I will say that how much the business chooses to invest in UX-specific work is a fundamental question that should not necessarily be answered by a lone PM. The organization should have a framework and strategy around how good it wants its UX to be. Cost-related decisions should be made within that framework. (Everyone always says that they want a great UX. But the truth is that businesses have different tolerances towards how much they intend to invest in this area; unfortunately it is very common for these tolerances to be hidden and possibility not even acknowledged).
For businesses that want a decent UX but are not trying to hit it out of the park every time, using an MVP mentality can work well. What is the minimally acceptable UX that will meet our needs and our users’ needs? If you work in agile, then you can quickly adapt if you find out that your MVP is wrong. It is very important though to point out that if every decision boils down to at MVP UX, then the UX will be bare bones, and your UX team may have low morale. You have to spend more than the minimum at times in order to deliver quality, when it comes to Design.
I have considerably less sympathy for the Product Managers for this category. Why have a UX practice at all if you are not going to take the advice of that practice? If, as a PM, you want detailed input into every design decision, then perhaps you have the wrong job! There are many times that I have wanted, facetiously, to suggest to someone that they ought to be applying to the UX team for a position.
As I have stated earlier, I very much believe that in a healthy PM-UX relationship, there is give and take, and the PM’s input to Design is taken very seriously, as is development’s. But when the relationship is not a well-oiled machine, you have to look at each contributor’s Role in the team and cede decision-making authority as appropriate. I know this can be very difficult to swallow, but I advocated for just this approach in the first class of disagreements, where PM gets to take the lead.
Overly Fraught Working Relationships
There are times when a specific PM and a specific UX Designer are constantly at loggerheads with each other, on both classes of disagreements. The two simply cannot figure out how to dance together. In this situation, the PM needs to take stock of the situation and decide: who has the problem: is the PM not allowing the UX Designer to do her job? Or is the UX Designer not competent?
I would use the elimination method to establish this. The product manager needs to try to make an honest assessment of the source of the UX. If the UX is being robustly tested and validated, then this does not leave a lot of room for PM to have a valid claim that the UX work is not good. In a fast-paced, resource-starved environment, Design work is often not validated through robust means, and that leaves a great deal of subjectivity. I would advise the PM to seek the council of senior members of the UX Team or some independent third party with expertise specifically in Design. The PM needs to entertain the possibility that he is the problem, and that he might need to take a step back when it comes to Design decisions of both classes. Of course the problem could very well lie in the UX Designer, in which case very frank and difficult conversations need to be had at the management level.
Let’s come back to the initial question posed by the title of this piece, Who Owns the Design of the Product? I believe that it is co-owned, with the benefit of the doubt being given to UX on specific detail-leveled decisions, and with the benefit of the doubt given to PM when it comes to making investment-level decisions about how to spend scarce resources.
The Other Half of Your Job. About UX’s burden to use soft skills in dealing with others. You may wish your UX Designer was more like this.
Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High (2011) K Patterson et al. How to have difficult conversations in fraught situations.
How to Run Product Portfolios. A good introduction to planning under scarcity.
The Design’s In the Details. The importance of details for a great UX.
What is Strathearn Design?
My consultancy helps businesses have more successful UX initiatives. A good user experience has become a baseline expectation, but inside a complicated business with competing priorities it can be difficult to execute . I can help with that.