Product Designers Should Forget About Coding. Learn Product Management Instead.

Henry Wu
Henry Wu
May 31 · 10 min read

As a product designer, you’ve probably ran into this conundrum multiple times in your career. Should you learn to code? This topic has been covered pretty extensively. But I’m here to tell you there is a skillset that is of even greater value for the product designer tool belt.

Product Designers should learn Product Management.

If you develop a product management mindset, you can speak to the needs of the business while defending your design work. You can influence the product roadmap and help prioritize work based on user impact, a perspective gained from you already being a product designer. You can help the business and the user by deciding whether it’s the right time to trade certainty for speed.

Ultimately, it all helps you grow as a product designer.

Why it’s important to develop a product management mindset

By now, UX is so mainstream that product managers, engineers, and the rest of your org has probably been asked to build empathy and to consider the UX. Everyone is being asked to solve for the customer — and they should be. Naturally, UX can be very inbound, as quantitative and qualitative data flows into the UX org from all corners. But UX can also be very powerful for outbound influence to neighboring orgs like product management and engineering. The type of influence I’m referring to is different from the traditional outputs of a designer (mock-ups). Specifically, with the product management org, your perspective as a designer adds value to product decisions and prioritization to ensure your team is solving for user needs in a way that connects to business goals. Gone will be the days of being handed a solution and being asked to “make it look awesome.”

You’re better equipped to have these conversations and make product decisions (with your team) by having awareness of your company’s operating goals — something your product manager is keenly aware of.

As a product designer, you have to be a champion for users by empathizing with their needs and struggles. However, your product manager is likely empathizing more with the needs and struggles of the business. When it comes to making big or small product decisions, depending on the maturity of your product or business, sometimes you have to trade uncertainty for speed or vice versa. And a better understanding of your business goals helps you and your product manager come to that trade-off decision quicker and more efficiently.

Here’s an exaggerated example: At your Food2U food delivery start-up, you’ve been designing the most innovative meal customization feature ever seen before. In your research sessions, your users love this feature because it’s able to surface up nutrition value for all kinds of food and integrate the data with their health app. Your team spends months developing the machine learning model for this feature, and you continue to develop the UI to account for all food variations. Your team released closed betas, and are continuing to make iterations to the product to ensure that its 100% pixel perfect before releasing it to the masses. One day, Food2U’s funding ran out, and you‘re left wondering why you no longer have a job.

You see, while you were making the UI perfect in your closed betas, your product failed to bring in any actual revenue for the start-up. This likely could’ve been prevented if your team were willing to make the trade-off of shipping smaller pieces of the UI (just the pizza customization feature) instead of shipping a more feature-complete product. Doing so could’ve help your app start extracting revenue out of the market while collecting data to help further develop the start-up’s business model.

As a designer, there’s no better feeling in the world than knowing your design is solving problems for your users. But good designers should also understand the operating costs associated with keeping the lights on. Having the mentality of a product manager helps you understand why you need to react quickly to solve for the business and in turn continue to solve for your users.

The example above is similar to this visual from Brandon Chu’s Ruthless Prioritization:

If you chose to go with the option above, your company will go bankrupt before they start earning revenue. Instead, the team should be prioritizing the highest return on value work that’s achievable whilst balancing business objectives and user needs.

Skill up on what data product managers leverage to make good decisions

How product designers get better buy-in by learning product management skills

Your job as a designer is to discover and balance constraints in order to solve a problem. Knowing what keeps your product manager up at night is also a constraint to work with and helps build empathy. Often times, what keeps your product manager up at night is the business value of your product and the best solution adds value to both the user and to the business. Learn more than just the surface level of this role by understanding their needs, goals, and how they think.

Developing a product managers’ perspective helps you negotiate and communicate more effectively with your product manager because you develop empathy and are able to speak about their goals and motivations. Your blended considerations have further value coming from the perspective of two mindsets as you can argue on both sides of the proverbial coin.

To craft a more compelling proposal, you must be able to tie your product designs back to some form of business metric. That’s usually in the form of either acquisitions, monetization, and retention.

Questions you should have an answer to with your product include:

  • How many new users are we acquiring per month?
  • What’s the retention rate of those users?
  • What’s the revenue stream this month? How has that changed from last month?
  • How does my product affect acquisition or retention?
  • How does my product help the business make money (monetization)?
  • What’s the business growth and retention goal for the month? Quarter? Year?
  • How do we plan on getting there?
  • How does my work tie back to these business goals?

Here’s an exaggerated example: Your team delivered a first iteration of your Food2U app out to the market. It’s got some usability bugs, but it’s starting to capture marketshare and bring in revenue — let’s say $100 a month. Your app only has the pizza customization feature at this time. Your product manager has an itch to get into the sushi market (acquisition) with a projected revenue stream of an additional $10 a month by devoting the next four sprints to launch the sushi feature.

However, your research indicates the biggest drop-off with the pizza purchase flow was due to usability issues with how users understand the delivery fees — an issue that will still exist if the sushi feature is shipped. With your analytics tool (from tracking this sales funnel), you predict a $20 increase in revenue per month if you fixed this issue. You estimate the work will only take two sprints.

Armed with this knowledge, you convince your product manager to prioritize fixing this usability issue since the start-up is able to generate more immediate revenue whilst expending lesser immediate effort. This also has a downstream effect of creating a more successful launch into the sushi market.

Skill up on how product managers negotiate

How product management skills help you be a trusted advisor

Amy Buckner Chowdhry, the CEO of AnswerLab, believes being a gatekeeper is the wrong approach for influencing. Instead she came up with the concept of being a trusted advisor to help teams move forward with continuous momentum instead of stalling (from constantly saying no).

As product designers grow in their career, a general ask is for them to be more strategic and influential — this is certainly true for HubSpot. One common mistake they make is becoming more of a UX gatekeeper to influence the product development process. It’s natural to say no to anything that may have a negative effect to the UX process which in turns negatively affects the customer experience. However, learning to think like a product manager gives you the mindset to not only negotiate and collaborate on the product development process and decisions, but it actually helps you be more of a trusted advisor and less of a gatekeeper.

In the mindset of a product manager, saying no to attractive ideas (for any reason) may read as unwillingness to accept new or diverse viewpoints which potentially adds friction to the growth of the business. Amy’s advice as a trusted advisor is to build trust by saying yes. Saying yes helps you be solution oriented and not an arbiter of process. You become an indispensable partner and not a constant adversary. By saying yes first, it helps you build rapport and credibility which in turn helps you have further influence with your teammates. So instead of saying no, consider how your team can continue to move forward. Plan out how your team may validate an idea and consider the milestones it’ll take to get there. And if you must say no, leverage data that is important to a product manager to make your case.

How product management skills help designers plan product visions

Product designers are intimately aware of the iterative process when it comes to product development. In a vacuum, it’s easy to plan how your product goes from a skateboard to a car through the iterative process. In the real world, you often have to balance out unforeseen (and often unplanned) constraints. But a good team is still capable of moving forward in the correct course. That’s why it’s imperative to plan your North Star (sometimes known as Product Visions), even if it’s a bit fuzzy. What a North Star does is help create guardrails (sometimes known as principles) which allows your team to make a decision on attractive ideas, prioritize the work to move in the right direction, and keep a pulse check on your users while not losing sight of your overall business objectives and your user.

This is especially true if you’re working at a company in a scale-up phase. Companies at this stage are often nurturing their core platform while attempting to expand deeper into emerging markets. They often draft product-market fit artifacts to help create their roadmap. A product-market fit artifact is a well-vetted hypothesis on what products and features are likely to capture new markets to increase revenue streams.

Often times, there are business decisions made around product-market fit with the executive team with new defined goals. Awareness of those goals makes it more imperative to strategically plan out your user research to drive for the most market value with your product to meet those goals. That awareness also develops a balanced voice to help influence the overall product strategy and roadmap — a quality that makes you a better designer than those who don’t.

Here’s an exaggerated example: Say your general manager or the executive team of Food2U has vetted and decided to capture an emerging cookie market. As the designer for the food customization feature, you realize there is opportunity to continue refining the process for the pizza customization feature from ground-level research (which is already a healthy driver of app usage).

However, from the research of the product-market fit, the cookie market can bring in a significant amount of new revenue lift. If the product/feature is done right, and if it’s shipped quickly enough, your app can start capturing this market right away so it’s more revenue in the pocket. It’s projected to be significantly more than what little improvements to the pizza customization function could bring in. With this knowledge in mind, it’s probably wise to start UX research, planning, and reprioritizing around the expansion of your product to immediately capture this cookie market, but while also considering longterm term pizza and cookie UI overlap and congruency.

As a designer, being a part of the planning and visioning process helps you be more strategic about how you deploy research and design resources. It’s also a skill to have as you grow your design career into a leadership role as you’ll likely be planning and hiring for said design resources.

All great leaders also need to motivate their team to ensure they are productive and driven. The best way to lead a team is by giving them a mission, and all great missions start with a well thought-out vision that includes how you and your team will make an impact.

Skill up on how product managers develop a vision or how product managers create a North Star

Here are more product management skills you can start leveling up today

  • Ruthless prioritization
  • Skill up on quantitative analytics
  • Drive cross functional communication and planning
  • Understand go-to-market strategies
  • Business metric/growth based decision-making

If any of this makes you think “but that’s what a product designer is supposed to do,” then you’re exactly the type of designer we’d like to hire! Please reach out about product designer roles and other opportunities we have at HubSpot.

Is there anything missing? Do you disagree? Please comment below and let’s talk about it!

HubSpot Product

Lessons from shipping at HubSpot.

Henry Wu

Written by

Henry Wu

Product Design Lead @HubSpot // a thinker and a problem solver // a dog's best friend // passion for tech, design & good eats

HubSpot Product

Lessons from shipping at HubSpot.