What Designers can Learn from Product Managers

Answer: how to pull off business formal. Part 1: the power of the blue-gray color palette…

Just kidding.

It’s obvious to state this, but there is a heavy overlap between great makers of products, regardless of their title. Great makers have vision. They think deeply about the audience they’re building for. They paint a compelling vision that inspires. They are follow-through people.

At the same time, interviews for designers and PMs are not the same. A quality that is a sidenote for a design candidate may be a make-or-break requirement for a PM candidate, and vice versa. There is much the disciplines can learn from each other. Since I work with some of the best PMs in the industry, I wanted to share some of my learnings over the years gleaned from their PM Handbook of Success:

Thoughtful framing of a problem is essential.

It’s tempting for designers to jump into solutions and start showing off what they’ve designed. But if you don’t start with why you’re even bothering to work on this in the first place, you may well be barking up the wrong tree. What problem are you trying to solve for people? How will you know if you’ve succeeded? (Sometimes I’ll hear terms like consistency and simplicity thrown around as justification, which strikes me as generally poor framing because nobody ever says “oh I can’t use that app, it’s so inconsistent” or “this app isn’t simple enough for me” — already, those terms point towards solutions rather than focusing on the actual problem people are having.)

A typical PM presentation for “why should we do X?” tends to be thoughtful (and if it is not, then it is a red flag on the performance of the PM.) There’s usually a good articulation of the goals and how success will be measured. There’s generally research, data, or other analysis supporting the claims. Counterarguments are thought of in advance and directly addressed. You get a sense that good, robust preparation was put into the proposal.

And of course, this makes perfect sense because the mere fact of needing to put together a presentation (or a product brief or a spec or whatever the PM deliverable is) means that the PM had to sit down and actually write the thing. She had to put into words the framing and the argument for why we should do what we should do. It’s pretty hard to do that without thinking deeply through the problem.

As it turns out, making a deck or transcribing thoughts into writing are great forcing functions for getting to a thoughtful framing, and are tools to adopt into your arsenal for when something needs some serious thinking before you dive into design solutions.

Force yourself to get into the habit of framing up any design you do with what problem you’re solving for people, how you’d know if you were successful, and why your solution is an effective way of solving that problem, and not only will your work be better and more focused, you’ll find it’s easier to get everyone else on board.

Communicate directly and succinctly.

The bar for being a good communicator is much higher for PMs than for designers. Consequently, on average, PMs tend to be better speakers, writers, presenters, and meeting-runners. Observe and learn from their skills. Obviously, preparedness is key (see above.) But so is quickly getting to the heart of what you’re trying to communicate. One tactic I’ve picked up is to ask myself the following before any meeting or conversation:

  1. What do I want the outcome to be?
  2. What can I ask for that will get me to the outcome I want?

If you communicate these two things directly, there’s a good chance you’ll save yourself time while giving other people a clearer understanding of what you care about and how they can best help you.

You don’t need to spend a lot of time providing context unless you are not getting the outcome you want. Similarly, you don’t need to play interpretation games. The most precious resource we have is time, so clear and succinct communication goes a long way.

Break up a big thing into smaller steps to create an actionable plan.

A hallmark of a great PM is the ability to execute, otherwise known as making shit happen. It’s like being handed a treasure map with an X 3000 miles away, over scary woods and sputtering bogs and slippery peaks. How do we get there?

A helpful tactic PMs use is to break apart a gigantic problem into subsequently smaller steps and milestones that all of a sudden feel eminently solvable and have few or no dependencies on anything else. Instead of freaking out about the scary woods and the sputtering bogs and how impossible this whole quest seems to be, how about we just pack our bags first? Cool, bags are packed. Let’s head out to the next village by foot and once we’re there, celebrate with some beer at the pub! Sweet, feeling good! Next up is taking a day to hike to the edge of the woods. Once we’re there, we can gather firewood to make a bonfire and take turns telling stories. And then the next day, we’ll send in two scouts to map a clear path through the woods and give the rest of the group details on how we might traverse them…

The equivalent designer journey is coming up with a compelling North Star vision — an aspiring design direction that’s a little further out — and then figuring out “how do we do it?” Break down the vision by the different problems it’s trying to solve, and by figuring out which problem is the most important to tackle first. Keep the different problems and solutions as independent as you can. I’ve embarked on crazy ambitious redesigns before, and let me tell you, trying to change too many things at once is not a recipe for success because if something isn’t working, you end up in a zone of frustration where you’re not sure which change is the culprit. Taking inventory of the changes, categorizing them into buckets, and trying to validate the hypotheses of each independently is a much smarter tactic.

Optimize for the bigger picture.

Designers tend to be a focused bunch. To be deep in the details, to push for quality and craftsmanship, to make somebody believe you truly cared about her and the experience she is having — that requires a deep level of focus. And yet, building great things for people takes more than just a good user interface. PMs think about this balance all the time, and designers who similarly look at the bigger picture tend to be more effective.

That means taking the time to understand the business, and designing solutions that help the company remain sustainable to focus on its long-term mission.

That means caring about the healthy functioning of the team— whether there is the right mix of talent across different functions, whether morale is high, whether there is a sense of trust and camaraderie. It may not be your direct responsibility to hire a peer or rally the team or spend time mentoring someone in need, but if you care about getting anything done and done well, the team is something you must contribute to.

That means being reliable, and being the kind of person that your teammates like working with.

The balancing act is a delicate dance. Represent the values you believe in, but don’t let it come at the expense of progress on the bigger mission of what you and your colleagues are here to do.


If you enjoyed this, you may also enjoy: How to work with PMs and How to Work with Designers.

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