Design Basics for Product Managers

Conversation with Udoka Uzoka, co-founder Cubix Labs

In each entry in this “conversation” series I talk to a designer/product manager/engineer on a topic. I want to make basic practical skills education transparent and free.

Today I’m talking to a product manager Udoka Uzoka. He co-founded a NY-based development agency and has managed the development of apps for a number of clients including Canon, Sony Music, Walmart, UNICEF, Nintendo and Heineken.

What’s the role of the PM in design?

A product manager owns the product vision. Their role in design is to make sure the design is solving the problem the product sets out to solve. You have to guide the design team to make sure it delivers the value of the product . Sometimes you are the mediator between engineering and design when designers want to make stuff look really good and an engineers points out that it can be done an easier way. You have to balance that line between what is within reason and what is “too much” for the product. Once the designs are done, you are in charge of making sure all stakeholders in a company are aligned with them.

Designers can be ambitious and drive the product vision to new heights, which is great. However, it’s equally important for the product manager to keep things from getting complicated or suffering from “over-design,” so you have to be the gatekeeper of that.

Design consists of UI, UX and user research and in small startups sometimes there aren’t specialists for every role. As the PM, sometimes you are also helping out with user research/ wireframing.

What should a PM know about design?

A product manager has to know how to communicate with designers and earn their respect. You also should be able to know how to differentiate between bad, mediocre and good design to be able to give feedback.

However there are lots of product roles which do not work with designers and this applies to only design facing product roles. Platform, API, Payments are some areas where this is not applicable.

How does a PM with no design experience learn design basics?

The key thing is to start small and then gradually go on to more complex designs.

Start wireframing simple screens, without the distraction of the UI — it will help you get a grasp of some design basics. What’s good about wireframing is that most wireframing tools are easy to use compared to full suite design tools like Illustrator. There are a lot of drag and drop elements which you can use to layout screens. The ability to create something will also build your confidence.

You can use any wireframing tool. Personally, I like Moqups the best because I like my wireframes to look polished. Balsamiq is very popular as well and is a good tool to start out with.

After creating wireframes and getting good at them you can venture into the UI aspect. The tool I would recommend trying out is Sketch. Once you are proficient with wireframing tools Sketch won’t have such a steep learning curve to it. And again, start with the easy stuff — design forms, headers and simple screens.

Don’t be afraid to copy things. Go to Dribbble, Behance and Muzli and try to copy what you like. As you keep building your skills over time, you will find that design skills are additive and your breadth as a designer will grow.

What are the basic design principles a PM should know?

Here are some basic principles which are helpful for product managers —

  1. User experience forecasting: Put yourself in the position of the user and ask yourself what is the optimal user experience we should expect.
  2. Number of clicks to treasure: This is a term I came up with which describes how many times are you making your users click before they get to the core value of the product. This helps understand the effectiveness of the user experience as well. I like what Moqups does by allowing you to immediately play with their tool without having to sign up so you can understand the value of it.
  3. User patience: This is a measure of how patient your user is — if it’s a utilitarian application like banking, a user has more patience as compared to a social app where they need to see value right away. User patience in UX is a complex derivative that is a combination of the value you provide, the competition and your brand loyalty. Your user patience can also grow over time. Instagram is a great example that even if one part of their UX is not intuitive, I will be patient with it.
  4. Fancy meter: Designs by their nature are crafted to be fancy — don’t confuse this with it being minimalist. or example,Apple designs are fanciful. As a PM, you should have a fancy meter where you can say this is fancy, but it is too fancy (where it doesn’t add value to the overall product objectives). Sometimes you have to make the case for something being more fancy or less fancy and give feedback on it. Something that is too fancy will obviously take more implementation capital which you don’t want as a PM, but the product shouldn’t be underwhelming.
  5. Cognitive demand: A design is a group of elements that tells a story. If you have a design that is cluttered and doesn’t respect principles of balance and proximity, you exert too much demand on your cognitive senses to make out what that story is. It’s very important that product managers can make out what the cognitive demand is of the design rather than just saying “it’s cluttered.”

How can Product Managers speak the design language?

You don’t need to be a designer to speak the design language and communicate effectively with them.

You need to know what you are talking about. Do your research and be prepared. Know the user and the market and have a very clear idea of the problem you are solving.

For example, if you are debating transitions , it’s very helpful to know 1. An application which uses transitions so you can point the designer to a concrete direction to prototype one and 2. Understand the basics of the technologies used to build the transitions.

If the designer doesn’t have any experience with prototyping tools, you can point them to Marvel — which shows you have done your research about it. Talk in pointed and clear terms. For example, discuss fade in or fade out transitions. You don’t need to know how to do it but you need to have knowledge enough to communicate and justify.

Again, it’s not enough to say “I think this transition is better.” You have to say “I think this transition is better because it increases the anticipation of the user, etc.” Give the designer substance to work with and they will take you seriously. Use key terms with context.

Developers constantly want to make things simpler and designers constantly want to make things complex and that’s the tussle between them both. The product manager has to manage sanity in the team between the designer, engineer and the goal.

How do you give UI feedback?

UI is more intangible and cannot be quantified all the time. Typically when you are dealing with UI, it will be grounded in the context of the design and bring the user perspective into the discussion.

Context comes from the users (or user personas) and knowing the market — that’s the basis for assessment of UI. If you don’t have a basis, it doesn’t objectify the assessment and then you are debating opinions.

UI is emotional so as a user, think what emotions you expect to evoke from the users. For example, in a banking app the user wants to access information quickly and should feel safe — convey that point to the designer.

The most important thing is to make sure the design satisfies the functionality of the product and then look at all constraints (could be financial, could be time, the goal can be the MVP) and then figure out the best implementation. Maybe you don’t have an extended timeline to play around with, so use that argument with the designer if they are trying to create something too complicated with the UI.

How do Product Managers develop good taste in design?

Expose yourself to as many designs and applications as you can. Download good apps on your phone and study them. Look at applications that are award-winning and loved by users, subscribe to blogs and design platforms. Keep up with the trends that are current.

Subscribe to some technology blogs or product hunt to check out products people like and have traction, and study them.

Check out some popular designs on Behance, Dribbble and read comments to understand how designers debate nuances in designs.

Study the applications you use in everyday life and see what it takes to design them. If you are using them on a regular basis they have done a good job of designing their products.

I have Muzli installed and whenever I open my browser I see new designs for inspiration.

What are your fav designed apps

  1. Facebook messenger — you get a sense that it’s fun to use vs a utilitarian chat app
  2. CNN app — although I think it can be optimized
  3. True Caller app — for it’s simplicity
  4. Slack mobile app
  5. Shazam

Hopefully this article has been useful for you. Please click on the heart button if you like it and leave a comment with any further questions!

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