Understanding product management as UX designer

Why product managers are essential and what UX designers can learn from them.

The decline of the traditional product manager?

A few month ago I was chatting with a senior product manager. Although he did not have an background in design, he told me:

I guess in a few years time there will be no classical product managers or product owners. Teams will only consist of (UX) designers and developers who work on a strategic topic. And those teams will perform so much faster and user-centred than our current setup: PO, UX, dev.

At that time his statement sounded to me quite reasonable and time would tell us. Last December Peter Merholz then wrote a controversial article “There is no such thing as UX design” in which he stated that UX design is just a synonym for good product manger practices:

Provocative statement: The entire “field” of user experience emerged for one reason — to accommodate, and overcome, poor (or non-existent) product management practices. — Peter Merholz

In other words: If user experience designers have the right practices at hand why even make product development more complex by having the role of a product manager in teams.

So the product managers statement seemed to have a famous advocate. But often the real world does not seem to work that way.

Looking at the job market out there there is a huge request for both product managers and UX designers. Teams still seem to need both roles to feel complete and companies are willing to pay two paychecks. But why?

Status quo

If we look at the roles and where they are located within the company the most recited structure would be the following:

IDEO: human centred design, http://primeuser.blogspot.de/2010/03/ideo-human-centered-design-toolkit.html
  • Desirability: Mostly addressed by UX designers within the company
  • Feasibility: Developers’ area of expertise. Consults product manager and designer on feasibility of designs. Mostly product decides how much effort they want to invest (ROI).
  • Viability: Product managers area of expertise since she knows about the companies business model and interests of stakeholders

Furthermore the illustration indicates that all innovation should come from the users’ desires as it is the only things that ultimately leads to a viable business.

UX product managers utopia

Let’s imagine for a while that Peter Merholz and the product managers statement was true. How would a “UX product manager’s”day look like?

Desirability of product

I guess we have no problem here. This field is very familiar to us. We are in our comfort zone thanks to our education and experience. Dedicating our time to find out everything we need about user needs and problems. We would decide on next steps based on user insights and always build our design arguments around the user.

Feasibility of product

Some of us have some knowledge in IT, some of use have not. Some feel more familiar talking to tech guys than others. Many of us do that on a regular basis. With enough communication and dedication we have managed to speak the same language. Nevertheless that does not save us from trade-offs we must make to ship something to our customers. So we have done the research, we tested the interaction concept, we even have involved the teams’ developers but, arrgh, there are dependencies to another team. So off we go to clarify requirements and somehow fail to attend the latest research session. So we might start to feel an itch in our stomach that we are not doing our job right. But just saying that product managers are now needed would be an argument of resources and maybe the tech guys could figure out the problem themselves.

Viability of products

There are many problems in the world and I am sure many of us would like to solve them all. Especially when we have found out about a specific user pain, most designers urge to address the pain. The product managers job is to see if solving the pain is economically valuable for the company. In UX-PO-Utopia this would now be our job. I guess for quite an amount of designers this is a big stretch. But we would know that the stretch is necessary so that the company does not and up with a hobby instead of a business. Nevertheless I have come across a variety of designers who feel really uncomfortable about business models and the economic side of things. It just does not feel right to even think about those things if we were taught to be user focused — but not overcoming this attitude does not serve UX designers well.

The pain within us

To really get to a point where designers would be able to become UX product managers we have to overcome the fear and the pain of talking about viability and business. Just as good product managers have come to understand that it is beneficial for the business as a whole if they learn about user centered methods like design thinking, user research etc. and listen to users, a good designer can no longer just work on the desirability of things. If the discipline of UX really wants to grow into a design leadership role in a variety of companies (not just the fancy design startups like Spotify or Soundcloud) then I guess we should stop talking about the “evil” business and start improving our skill set. Only then we eventually are able to turn from “just” designing products to product design leadership.

Promote the right tools

Develop, design and test tools that bridge between organizational systems. Product managers do that all the time. Designers could try out design methods like Job Stories, Hypotheses Driven Design or Design Thinking not only for communicating ideas but also to create a common language for Tech, Marketing, Sales and even the CEO. Keep a “What can I do to help other roles in achieving their goals?”-mindset. Most designers are skilled communicators but seldom use that feature to improve other roles’ life.

Learn about systems in your organization

I feel that it is very valuable to learn about different roles and systems in an organization and what motivates them. Try to “design” interactions as you would with an user facing feature. Know where to put in the most effort. Understand that sometimes an organizational system has to make tradeoffs so that the company as a whole can improve. For more information on that topic I can only recommend “The Art of Action” by Stephen Bungay. Try to become a designer that bridges from activity to real user facing action.

Understand your business (model)

Not every business is the same. Designers are tempted to argue with the fine details of Apple products or the great user experience of AirBnB and I am convinced that it is a noble goal to one day work for such a company. But most business do not rise and fall with the beauty of the details. Some business have to create an experience like a marketplace (maybe because they are, see craigslist) others use a tremendous amount of pervasive design elements that make the interface feel overloaded with information (booking.com). But behind all this stands a business view that we must understand to eventually get a seat at the table. For instance, have a look a the Business Model Canvas and try to mock the business that you are working for. Try to understand the difference between a marketplace, an e-commerce shop and a subscription model and how that affects your customers’ experience.

In the end designers do not have to become UX product managers and I am not a wild advocate to do this since I see a lot of value in dedicated product managers but our discipline will eventually be heard more often by C-levels if we improve our understanding of the organization and the business. Maybe then your company is willing to make the organisational changes you feel that are necessary: