From Designer to Product Manager (Part 2): Challenges You’ll Face

Emma Townley-Smith
Aug 5, 2018 · 3 min read

Since my very first Medium post on this topic, I’ve set aside an hour each week for coffee chats with designers aspiring to be PMs. We cover a lot of familiar ground (Am I technical enough? Will I still get to do some design work?), but over time, I’ve noticed a couple of unique conceptual challenges that designer-PMs face:

‘Build an MVP’ is not always the answer

Designers who become PMs latch on quickly to prototyping and Minimal Viable Products. It’s familiar territory for people accustomed to user research, concepting, prototyping, and testing. It’s easy to say: “let’s MVP it!” in response to every proposal. It rarely generates backlash from a cross-functional team, and it does fit the normal PM vocabulary…

But often, the best answer to support your team’s learning is not to build anything at all. It’s to talk to current customers, create an external survey, or reason through your priorities to see if this input even belongs at the table. Maybe customers don’t want a social sharing feature — but you could learn that from a survey question before spec’ing out the associated engineering work. You have to stay focused on what you’re trying to learn, not what you’re trying to build.

Your responsibility is to your company’s bottom line

Your responsibility to your company is fundamentally different as a PM vs. a designer. As a designer, you’re allowed to be a bit ideological — to strive for a ‘perfect’ design craft-wise, even if the incremental value-add to the end-user is small. Sometimes you need to push for something extreme (“tear the UX down and start over”) to negotiate backward to what is needed (“let’s redesign the onboarding flow”). It’s your responsibility to ask if this is what’s best for the user experience in every situation, and someone else is responsible for the details of realizing your vision (tech feasibility, cost, etc).

As a (good, principled) product manager, you’re no longer able to advocate for changes on the basis that they “should be better, according to your craft.” If the onboarding flow meets industry standards for conversion rates, and isn’t a bottleneck for paying users, then your attention should be focused elsewhere — even if there’s something in the onboarding flow experience that irks your UX sense. You have to prioritize based on what is best for the business overall (probably: profit), not based on the priorities of a single craft that contributes to the business’s success.


I maintain my conviction that designers make great PMs — but like all product managers, they are susceptible to traps that end up bending good product management principles. While PMs are often heralded as builders/shippers, the best product managers know how to exercise restraint and compromise appropriately. It’s our duty (no matter our background) to stay focused on improving the company’s understanding of the customer and the market in order to create great products.

Path to Product

A community of early-stage and aspiring product managers sharing stories, insights, and product critiques

Emma Townley-Smith

Written by

Design-driven Product Manager (@Livongo; @CapitalOne; @omadahealth; @stanforddschool). Love learning how people and products work.

Path to Product

A community of early-stage and aspiring product managers sharing stories, insights, and product critiques

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