Rise of the Product Managing Designer

The design team at Skillshare does a lot more than just design. We’ve learned that to be as effective as possible we need to break out of our traditional role and own much more of the overall product process.

Not to say that the world does not need product managers, but by equipping our design team with skills like a deep understanding of business, operations, and analytics we’ve been able to create more impactful products at a higher velocity. Below are a few core competencies of a product managing designer.

Understand your company’s business needs and goals.

Product managers tend to have a handle on the big picture. They understand the inner workings of the business, its goals, and the focus of each team.

Without this understanding, it is nearly impossible to judge a good product idea from a bad one. Even worse still, you will be rendered unable to anticipate the repercussions of your decisions unless you consider how it relates to the larger whole.

It is critical for Skillshare’s design team to have a comprehensive understanding of the ecosystem and how each project will affect it. We do this by syncing on strategy with everyone who might have a stake in the game early and often. This happens well in advance of the formal design process. By aligning with the relevant teams, we are quick to understand how our strategy will be helpful or hurtful to them. For example, syncing with the content team on the tools they use to create classes informs what strategies we ultimately push and enables us to move forward confidently.

The Skillshare design team has gotten very good at choosing what strategies to pursue, and perhaps even more importantly, what doesn’t look like it will work, before we ever start designing.

Design doesn’t matter if it never ships.

Product managers are judged on their ability to get things out the door. This means they’re relentless when it comes to minimizing scope and sticking to a schedule in order to maximize their impact. They’re also great at taking a complex strategy and breaking it down into manageable chunks.

Because our product managing designers are responsible for strategy as well as timeline, we rarely design features that would take more than a week to build. That’s not to say we don’t work on big projects. It simply means that we invest upfront in working through how we can break a project down and get smaller pieces out the door (prioritized by impact). We quickly and effectively ship the “must-haves,” but will often deprioritize the “nice-to-haves.” This is a fact of life for a small product team, but the benefits far outweigh the negatives: 1) smaller releases are easier to QA and support, 2) much easier to iterate and 3) reduces product debt with bloated features that no one uses.

This way of working provides a strong sense of accomplishment for the product team. It also helps boost momentum companywide, since progress builds energy and keeps people excited. At Skillshare, we send a companywide email every time something ships out to the site. We believe it’s important to celebrate the wins.

Own the metrics and feedback.

Product managers tend to be an analytical bunch. Once something hits the site, they immediately start assessing its impact to see if the new feature in which they have invested so many resources is working properly.

Product managing designers need to be the same way.

At Skillshare, this means setting the right goals (realistic and measurable) at the start of a project during the strategy and alignment phase. We then loop back around immediately once something has launched and measure its effectiveness. We also keep a close eye on all other feedback sources, such as engaging with angry (or happy) tweeters or gauging user reactions with the help of our support team. Taking initiative to actively monitor results and then being proactive about updates is the only way to make a smart path forward.

This may all sound obvious, but it’s easy to ship work and forget about it. If you don’t actively reflect on your successes and failures, you will never learn what works and what doesn’t.