How 6 product designers tackle friction with product managers

Tarif Rahman
Published in
12 min readMay 31, 2018

At successful product organizations, product and design teams work together like a perfect couple. But even for the most picture-perfect couples, friction is inevitable. The product manager-product designer duo can be particularly guilty of contention thanks to high-stress scenarios and major product decisions. If you’re a PM finding tension in your relationship with your design team, you might not be communicating with your designers enough.

We chatted with six super-talented product designers to find out the most enjoyable and not-so-enjoyable parts of working with a PM, and the communication strategies they think PMs should implement to reduce friction with their designers. Advice from these designers ranges from defining the heck out of your problem, to looking beyond direct competitors for design ideas, to squashing design assumptions by interacting with real-live users.

These product designers aren’t just here to make your product pretty; their advice will help you better understand and connect with your design team. Here’s who we spoke with:

  • Catt Small, Product Designer at Etsy
  • Alvin Hsia, Experience Designer at Airbnb
  • Lydia White, Product Design Lead at Tumblr
  • Janko Jovanovic, Senior User Experience Designer at Contentful
  • Sanette Tanaka, Product Designer at Vox Media, Inc.
  • Diógenes Brito, Product Designer and Engineer at Slack

Catt Small

Title: Product Designer
Company: Etsy
Industry: E-commerce
Tweet at her: @cattsmall

What do you enjoy most about working with a PM on a product’s design?

PMs have a strategic mindset with a heavy focus on where the product is headed. And that’s great because, as a product designer, I’m thinking about the user’s perspective and how that fits into the business line. So when we get together, it’s much better for the direction of the product.

What is the main source of friction when working with a PM on a product’s design?

The biggest source of friction I’ve found is giving designs the time they need to be refined, but also ensuring we’re meeting timelines.

There’s this attachment designers get where we have this amazing thing we’ve considered, but often this ‘okay’ state gets released. It sometimes is better to just get something out and then improve upon it. So it can be a positive, but you have to actually iterate upon things because sometimes those ‘halfway’ designs release and they never get looked at again.

What are some tactical things about product design you think all PMs can do to better communicate with designers?

PMs should go into projects without assumptions. Based on larger numbers, one can say, “Oh, on average this is how people are.” But when you talk to individuals and gather qualitative data on people’s reasoning, you realize the many different user segments. It can be harmful to think of your users as a monolith. Once you abandon that way of thinking you can become a better, tactical strategist.

Also, participate in a design sprint. After we did a design sprint for a project, everyone was just more excited about design — especially the PMs. You’ll feel a lot closer to your designers and find it easier to communicate.

What’s one communication strategy you think PMs should adopt?

Asking more questions of designers. The best PMs I’ve worked with have asked of me directly instead of planning for me, or speaking for me, or saying “Hey Catt, we figured out this thing, now make it look nice.” It leads to this feeling of autonomy and ownership.

In your opinion, a PM can make a product designer’s life easier by…?

Trusting them. Trusting that where product designers are coming from is a place of genuine care for the users. And trusting that we have a special expertise that somewhat overlaps with product management but has its own perspective and is just as important.

Check out Catt’s design work here.

Alvin Hsia

Title: Experience Designer
Company: Airbnb
Industry: Travel & Hospitality
Tweet at him: @alvinhsia

When working with a PM on a product’s design, what’s the most enjoyable part?

I enjoy working with my PM to create the one-pager ahead of a project. Being super clear about why you’re doing something and how it improves the user experience and/or achieves business objectives helps guide decision-making down the road.

On the flip side, what is the biggest challenge when working with a PM on a product’s design?

Thankfully this hasn’t happened in a while now, but my biggest pet peeve is when a PM says something along the lines of, “I did all the wireframes and now I just need you to design it.” It’s totally OK to give specific design feedback and whiteboard together, but when a PM is spending a ton of time in prototyping tools, that’s usually a red flag.

I can see how that’d be frustrating. How do you alleviate situations like this?

I find the healthiest way to resolve product design disputes is to prototype and user test. As a designer, you should be willing to explore multiple solutions even if you’ve found the “right” one. As a PM, you should be able to discard previously held assertions in light of new evidence.

What’s one tactical thing about product design you think all PMs should learn?

Know when to bring in user research. If you don’t have a researcher, get one. If you really can’t get one, come up with a research plan together. When evidence is lacking, decisions can easily be made by the loudest voice in the room. You can save a lot of time and energy by talking to real users.

What’s one strategy you think PMs can adopt to better communicate with product designers?

It’s important for PMs to keep the team progressing against goals, which requires scoping and prioritization. Sometimes this means saying “no”, but the best PMs will say, “Yes — love that. Now let’s figure out how to get there.” Of course you won’t get to everything, but you can get a rough estimate of impact and effort along key milestones.

Complete the phrase. PMs can make a product designer’s life easier by…?

Creating a structure for the entire team (engineering, research, data science) to ideate and solve together. It gets buy-in across all functions earlier on and people end up feeling more invested in their work. Magic happens when art and science come together.

Check out Alvin’s design work here.

Lydia White

Title: Product Design Lead
Company: Tumblr
Industry: Social networking
Tweet at her: @lydiawwwhite

What do you like most about working with a PM on a product’s design?

I would say the best relationships I’ve had with PMs are very collaborative. The whole idea of working together to push each other and figure out the right questions to ask is probably the most enjoyable part.

Can you give us an example of when you and a PM had clashed over a product design? How did you you resolve the situation?

Design works best when you’re given a problem to solve instead of a specific execution. In the past, I’ve been given a specific execution that’s narrow in scope, versus addressing the overall problem. That can be problematic because when you execute on that and even if you propose other solutions, there’s a stubbornness to execute a certain way.

To resolve this, it comes back to seeing data and seeing results. Being able to know more through user testing, A/B testing, etc. lets you gauge what was working and judge from there.

What’s one tactical thing about product design you think all PMs should do to better collaborate with designers?

PMs should expand their world of references. This might be because I work at a social networking site, but it seems like every other day I’m asked to do something because someone saw it on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

Certainly you can learn from these industry leaders, as they’ve A/B tested each button into oblivion. But it doesn’t mean it’s right for our users and it certainly won’t help us innovate. I appreciate when PMs expose me to new things (another app, physical product, or even a way of thinking) that help us approach our thinking differently.

Do you think there are strategies PMs can adopt to better communicate with product designers?

Oh, yes! Communicate often. Over-communicate everything. Document everything. Hold kick-off meetings when you’re starting a project that clearly defines what the problems are. Go over what central blockers might be, what are we trying to sell for our users, what do we already know, etc. And when reviewing things, have a clear idea about the goal and feedback.

A PM can make a product designer’s life easier by…?

By clearly defining the problem. And the problem not only for the business, but what it is we are trying to solve for the user.

Check out Lydia’s design work here.

Janko Jovanovic

Title: Senior UX Designer
Company: Contentful
Industry: IT
Tweet at him: @jankowarpspeed

What’s your favorite part about working with a PM on a product’s design?

I really enjoy the concept of co-ownership when it comes to strategic planning. At the end somebody has to make a call, but if we work together towards a shared goal, I think it makes life easier for both sides.

What is the biggest obstacle when working with a PM on a product’s design?

I think it’s challenging to determine who makes a decision, who’s flexible, who makes the plan for it, and so on. I think PMs feel comfortable making those decisions, but UX people can wear multiple hats and often that overlaps.

How do you solve for that overlap?

Again I will go back to co-ownership. To me that’s the one that worked — not with everybody though. It can be hard to communicate your point of view to PMs, but if you get them to understand the benefits of UX, that’s definitely helpful when sharing goals.

What’s one tactical thing regarding product design you think all PMs should learn to better communicate with designers?

I really believe that PMs who want to be good at their jobs should be educated about user-centric design or design thinking — especially if they’re not coming from that design field. I have a PM here that has an HCI background; it’s so smooth to work with him. I feel that there are a lot of online courses that are not that expensive that can help with the basics.

A PM can make your life as a product designer easier by…?

Apart from educating themselves, by being involved in the creative process. In many instances PMs don’t want to be part of the creative process, which is such a waste.

I think it’s also on our plates as designers. We can’t expect that they should just know what they should be doing. We should be inviting them to a design studio, asking for their feedback and explaining things to them.

Check out Janko’s design work here.

Sanette Tanaka

Title: Product Designer
Company: Vox Media, Inc.
Industry: Media
Tweet at her: @ssktanaka

What’s the most enjoyable part about working with a PM on a product’s design?

A good PM can be a designer’s best ally in making the product’s design as good as possible. I really enjoy working with PMs who have a strong vision for the product and understand the importance of advocating for the user.

Can you provide an example of an instance when you and a PM butted heads over a product design and how you resolved the situation?

I once worked with a PM who settled on a product solution very quickly. The solution wasn’t bad, but it hadn’t been subjected to a design process, and I didn’t feel that we had done enough explorations to back the solution.

I raised my concerns, but we were already too far into the project to backtrack. We eventually agreed to build in extra time for testing and iterating on that solution. It wasn’t ideal, but we made it work.

What’s one thing about product designers you would want all PMs to learn?

This sounds basic, but you’d be surprised how many PMs see all designers as more or less interchangeable. Depending on the company, product designers can be responsible for research, visuals, the user experience, code, interactions, motion, and so forth.

PMs should take the time to speak with their designers to learn about their areas of expertise in order to understand their strengths and working style.

What’s one communication strategy you think PMs should adopt when working with product designers?

The top communication strategy I think all PMs should learn is how to give good feedback to a designer.

The golden rule of design is that every product decision should be intentional. So designers give feedback by asking questions (“Have you considered… ?” “Why did you… ?” “What happens if… ?” ). This invites conversation and helps us learn the context of the other person’s work. Likewise, PMs would do well to critique a design by asking questions.

Finish the thought. PMs can make life for a product designer easier by…?

Setting a clear vision of why we’re building a product, and what problem we are trying to solve.

Check out Sanette’s design work here.

Diógenes Brito

Title: Product Designer & Engineer
Company: Slack
Industry: SaaS
Tweet at him: @uxdiogenes

What do you enjoy most about working with a PM on a product’s design?

Well, it’s a pretty different experience depending on who you’re working with and where you’re working, but in an ideal world it would be focusing more completely on design-specific problems and less on cross-functional communications and project management aspects.

What do you find to be the biggest challenge when working with a PM on a product’s design?

The lack of uniformity in how different PMs do their job is the biggest hill to climb. There’s a lot of syncing up on expectations from both sides and figuring out what they think their job is and what they think my job is and how we can work together.

So how do you climb this hill?

By having an explicit conversation early on. Asking questions like: “What is your process?” “What do you expect from a designer?” And then stating: “Here’s what I expect.” “Here’s where I think we can communicate and check-in.” It’s about making explicit the things you would normally not even think to say aloud and you would naturally assume.

What’s one tactical thing about product design you think all PMs should do?

When evaluating designs, PMs should go back to the goals upfront. That way the stage is set for the right kind of feedback, in the right order. That’s something I think PMs can use additional training for, so that they can get good design out of designers.

What strategies do you think PMs can adopt to better communicate with product designers?

I always look to see if there’s a single place to go to determine what the deal is with the project and what’s upcoming. I think making things concrete and laying them out where everyone can see is important for PMs to do. I should be leaving every meeting with an understanding of the next steps.

I also look for clear information about decision-making. What sort of decisions are we able to make on our own? Are we expected to consult with everyone before making a decision?

PMs can make a product designer’s life easier by…?

Making sure that the problem and why we’re doing it is always clear to everyone. Especially if it’s been changed recently from above or there are rumours about it changing for some cross-functional reason or constraint. That has to be always super, super clear.

Check out Diógenes’ design work here.

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