Behind the Wheel with Product and UX

Four things UX needs to know about product management


My kids aren’t yet old enough to learn to drive. But I picture myself in the passenger seat, years from now, and imagine what it feels like to teach them. I’m sure it’s terrifying, but that’s not what I mean. What’s it like, I wonder, to watch someone go through the same motions I went through, the same learning curve, the same growth process.

Product management is, in the digital space, learning to drive, but they didn’t just get their learner’s permit. While the field is still gelling, Product Management isn’t strictly new. That said, it’s influence on our work emerged in technology in the last 5–10 years. I’m the designer sitting in the passenger seat, watching things unfold.

In all fairness to the PM, even from the passenger seat, it’s easy to see how much has changed in web design since the advent of UX. Shifts in the business gave rise to new roles, new players, and new influences. I sense strong opportunities between product management and design, but we haven’t yet settled into a plan for sharing the car just yet.

To help me understand product management better, I interviewed about a dozen people in the space. As with any kind of user research, patterns emerged, but it was just as instructive to see where product managers diverged in their thinking. One area where they diverged most is in the role of UX. Here’s what I learned from them:

1. Product managers love agile

For all designers’ whining about short time frames and lack of context, product managers love the regularity and routine of agile frameworks. The agile philosophy emphasizes communication, organization, and execution, all in the context of meeting user needs.

The complexity of products depends on contributor communications, but also the ability for contributors to understand what’s important to each other. Products stumble when team members become too preoccupied with their own work, tasks, and outputs, without considering the relative impact on others. The routine depends on people playing specific roles reliably, without compromising open, face-to-face communications.

Product managers are often measured on how much they ship. However they got there, product managers rely on agile frameworks to get their products shipped.

What you the designer can do

  • Learn to work in an agile framework, even if it goes against the grain of your design process. Agile doesn’t sacrifice everything about design, and it fosters collaboration. Adaptability makes you valuable, but also gives you some sway when you want to do things outside the agile framework.
  • Experiment with refactoring your favorite design techniques to work in agile. If you love collaborative sketching, perhaps find a way to arrange a design studio as part of a sprint or in a sprint planning session.
  • Find out how you’re doing. Transitioning to agile can be tough. What can you do to be an even better contributor? Ask your colleagues and your lead what could be smoother. Use these conversations to highlight how design sometimes needs to extend beyond development frameworks to benefit the organization.

2. Product managers combine quarterback, coach, and owner

In the early days of web development, information architects often served as a central hub of project information. Translators between underlying models and user-facing interfaces, information architects found themselves serving as conduit and mediator between various teams. The baton has been passed to product managers.

Perhaps this move has come from product conception moving in-house, and someone needing to own the long-term vision of a product, not just the near-term project goals. Product managers maintain a picture of the product’s final state in their head. One product manager told me that he doesn’t have any actual pictures of this final state, but he knows, almost instinctively, what he wants the product to do.

But vision is just a small piece of their puzzle. They also have their roadmap and backlog, everything they’ve planned and they know they need to do. Sure, product managers keep documentation of these things, but many of the people I spoke to implied they need to embody these artifacts. Consistency, by way of clear priorities, allows product managers to succeed.

When I asked one product manager what keeps them up at night, he said:

Product managers don’t have worries, they have frustrations.

Their emotional state isn’t governed by anxiety, but by a lack of control. They remain hamstrung by legacy organizational structures, separating key functions (like marketing or development or even design) into autonomous areas. Product managers crave centralizing these functions under product. Their view of the world is that everything is in service to the product.

What you the designer can do

  • Get feedback on your status reports. Product managers thrive on knowing where, when, and how, which allows them to make crucial decisions. You’ve taken the step to update them, now ask them what else they need from you.
  • Engage both sides of the product manager, the one interested in the day-to-day feature updates and the one interested in the product vision. Show them that you can operate both at a tactical and strategic level. One product manager I spoke to admired their UX person for expertly keeping a foot in both worlds.
  • Challenge product managers to provide access to crucial information for design. Your aim isn’t to make them feel badly about their lack of knowledge, but instead help them see the broader information needs of the design process.

3. Product managers confront hard problems

Developing products can sometimes feel like running through a laundry list of feature requests. Most day-to-day work is at the feature level, answering questions about the what, who, and why. They approve designs and manage the moving parts affect each other.

But a product is more than the sum of its features. It has impact throughout the organization and, ideally, throughout the market. Product managers must maintain a sensitivity to the ripples their product makes, the demands it places on the organization. Sometimes those impacts translate not to small tweaks but instead to major re-structuring. A product in the market attracts feedback, and product managers learn what

One product I helped design depended on our solving a wicked problem. We didn’t take it to final design, but that wasn’t the need. The product manager was very happy with the outcome: Our collaboration yielded a new application architecture.

What you the designer can do

  • Identify and solve wicked problems. Your perspective and expertise on design techniques are crucial for surfacing, understanding, and addressed issues with structure or concept.
  • Work with the product manager to determine how much is enough. You don’t need to take wicked problems through high fidelity prototypes, because your product manager may need only a solid view of the underlying structure.

4. Not every product manager sees design the same way

Product managers, as a whole, are as puzzled about design as everyone else. Individually, however, everyone has a strong opinion. Like many debates in our industry, this one has been reduced to a binary choice: UX either reports to product, or they sit outside the product organization.

In the first model, a product manager has a UX presence on his or her team, and that designer is focused specifically on that product. The designer fits into the agile framework like any other contributor to the team, operating in sprints, for example, churning out their piece of the product development puzzle. While the picture of efficiency, it creates tension when there are design needs outside the product development process, like a style guide or more generalized user research.

In the second model, UX behaves as a service, assigning designers to projects as they come up. This model gives designers a broader perspective across the organization and supports their efforts to attack problems not directly tied to a product, but introduces other risks. They acutely feel the friction of trying to fit a square user-centered design peg into the round hole of agile. Perhaps they grow frustrated because it’s unclear who owns the “final design” of a product.

Most of the product managers I spoke to actually experience a hybrid, where UX is its own group complete with senior managers, but has designers permanently assigned to product teams. Based on the product managers’ accounts, however, these hybrid models don’t alleviate the tensions described.

The most optimistic approach I heard was from one product manager who used the word “partnership.” While organizations are trying to figure out the managerial relationship between PM and UX, the truth is that the product wants two parents to nurture it in important and different ways.

What you the designer can do

  • Talk to the product manager monthly or quarterly, regardless of how you fit into the organization. Ask questions about how to divide up responsibilities and what you can do to be most effective. You may not agree on everything, or work out all the details, but you’ll set the right tone.
  • Bring a different perspective to the conversation. Don’t just be the voice defending design methods–these messages are easy to ignore. You’re not necessarily the voice of the user, as many product managers see that as their role. The product wants many different perspectives, so find a new one: the user in a difficult situation, design quality, the administrator.

Product management has, no doubt, much to learn from the user experience field, but product managers are distinct, having unique concerns and perspectives. Design in the digital age continues to go through its own growing pains: where do we fit in the organization? what counts as UX? how much research is enough? do I need to learn to code? why is that still a thing?

For as much as they are distinct, both product management and design have shared values. They regard these values from unique perspectives, and the product benefits from this happy tension. Mutual respect provides the foundation for difficult conversations that arise when their approaches diverge.

Whether you think product management and user experience design are essentially the same, or two completely different fields, the notion of product is changing how we approach design. My conversations with product managers yielded one important and universal conclusion: Thinking of the product as the beneficiary of multiple perspectives with shared values gives the team unified purpose.


Are you a product manager? What did I miss from this list?
Are you a designer? How else do you work with product teams?

Thanks to Nathan Curtis for the edit, christian crumlish for the kick in the pants, and the dozen Product Managers I interviewed.

Published in #SWLH (Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking)