According to Captain Kirk, “Intuition, however illogical, is recognized as a command prerogative.” Would Spock call that illogical? Maybe. But that is part of what made Kirk and Spock such a great duo throughout the Star Trek series and movies. There is logic and emotion tied to what they do, with both of them representing either side, sometimes to an extreme, and other times surprising us.
But that is often what they needed to make their missions successful. Quick, emotional decisions vs. deliberate, thoughtful action. The push and pull.
Product managers and UX designers make up two of the three key members of a product team leadership trifecta (the other member being a technical lead). Most times, the overlap between the UX designer and the product manager will be significantly higher than with the technical lead or engineer, so finding the right balance in the relationship is critical. We talk about this in a recent podcast episode you can find here.
With that in mind, what can we do to better support each other, deal with issues, and ultimately build the best products and user experiences for our businesses and our customers? How can we create the right push and pull?
The Ideal Structure
Ideally each product, user experience, or vertical (depending on the size and focus) would have a dedicated product manager and UX designer. For larger companies or products, we could break this down to smaller components where product managers and UX designers focus on large features within the product, but the concept is the same.
This allows the right level of focus on identifying the right problems to solve, the right ways to solve them, and the right business opportunities to pursue from a product perspective.
Dealing With Less-Than-Perfect Scenarios
Unfortunately, we have to play with the cards we’re dealt. And often we don’t get to have a dedicated product manager or UX designer for every opportunity, customer journey, or even product.
You’ve probably been there. You may be there right now. As a product manager, you may not have a dedicated UX designer for your team. I’ve experienced that scenario throughout my career as organizations are usually slower to adopt user experience design as a formal practice. Even now as I’m building up the UX team at our company, we have more product managers than designers and likely will for a while.
Here, it’s critical for product managers, and everyone on the product team, to step up and own as much of the UX as possible, filling in gaps and extending the abilities of the designers wherever possible. The ultimate goal is to infuse design thinking into everything we do, so this is a step along the way, albeit without all the necessary support, but since we’re designing a user experience regardless of whether it’s intentional, we might as well be thoughtful and deliberate about it.
In an even more extreme scenario, a team may not have a dedicated product manager or product designer. While someone will fill those roles, it is critical to the success of the product, the success of the user, and the success of the company to dedicate the right mind share and the right people to those tasks. Product management and UX design are not part-time jobs for anyone. Helping leaders see that and understand the value so we can move toward more ideal scenarios is key.
Regardless of the structure, whether ideal or less-than-ideal, the best user experiences and business value come from combining forces. Like joining our powers and using our planeteer rings to summon Captain Planet (you’ll have to look it up if you missed the Captain Planet cartoons of the early 90s), we can create incredible things through a focused, joint effort.
Generally, product managers bring expertise in valuation, prioritization, and business process. Product managers should be well-versed in all aspects of their product, their industry, their users, and their business, but most product managers are especially adept at wrangling the business and user problems and finding solutions and value. It’s the core of product management and why many of them are doing what they are doing.
UX designers bring a different, and much needed, perspective to product development. By focusing more on the user experience, they ensure that the product isn’t just solving a problem, but is doing it in a desirable way. UX designers come into the craft from a variety of backgrounds, but their focus on the overarching user experience, the interaction, the visual design, makes the product not only functional, but appealing.
None of this is to say that product managers don’t want appealing products or that UX designers aren’t focused on business needs, but product managers and UX designers tend to have differing areas of expertise, slightly different focuses, and different perspectives.
This push and pull within the product makes it great. If you focused solely on making a product valuable to the business, it may be profitable but it would likely be a terrible product. And if you focused solely on making a product visually appealing and a great experience for users, it would be an excellent product, but may not be valuable at all for the business. So we need to combine forces, find the balance, and create the right dynamic to create excellent experiences.
UX Designers Supporting Product Managers
How can UX designers better support product managers? We all operate under significant constraints. Almost no product manager wants to go to market with a crappy product or a crappy UX, but often there are tradeoffs that they are considering within the business, for stakeholders, and for users. So understanding those constraints is useful in better supporting product managers as a UX designer.
Product managers are often under technical, business, and time constraints, among many others. And while none of those are excuses to cut corners, we often have to made a tradeoff in one place to gain ground in another, at least for a time. Without the full picture, that may appear equivalent to shoddy work, but context is key, which is why understanding the scope and building trust is paramount.
When I was working as a product manager on a key product for our company, we fortunately had a UX designer that embodied these ideas. She understood the business and its needs. She had a good grasp of the technology. And she understood many of the time limitations we were often under. So when I came to her on a particular urgent request, we didn’t have to do the rounds. She was able to help the development team with designs and user flows that satisfied an urgent business need that they got to work on quickly.
Product Managers Supporting UX Designers
For product managers, you need to trust your UX designers. Trust that they have good reason for the choices they are making and have the data and research to back it up.
Product managers are naturally very opinionated, especially about their products. Whether it is the language on a page or the placement of a button, the PM will have an opinion. But a talented designer will do you one better. She will have the research to tell you why the language should be a certain way or the button placement should be in a certain location.
Feel free to ask and to verify. But do it in the spirit of trust and collaboration.
A few years ago I was working with a team who was debating the question of button placement. The PM felt it should be in one location based on their experience even though the designs had it in a different spot. So the designer did some usability testing and found that the button placement performed best as he had designed it.
Definitely question. Definitely test. But have trust.
Keys to Success
When it comes to successfully working together, the best product managers and UX designers in my experience have all done a few things that have made a massive difference for their interaction and their teams.
Define Your Roles
When working together, especially as a product manager and product designer, it is critical to define your roles and your interaction. Have a conversation about how you will work together, what you will focus on, how you will interact, etc. How you work together will be critical for your team’s success, so take some time to figure it out. Everyone is different and every relationship will be different with different strengths and different needs.
As a product manager, I loved design and spent significant time on mockups, prototypes, etc. Partly out of necessity because there was more work and not enough designers, and partly because it was an area of interest for me. That was a discussion I had regularly with the designers I worked with. Other product managers don’t focus as heavily on those things, so having that understanding is important. Some designers are far more technical and venture further into the realm of product management, wanting to understand the business and technical aspects of products more than other designers, who focus more heavily on visual or interaction design. Neither is right nor wrong, but having a shared understanding of this is important.
Once you’ve defined your roles, you need to collaborate constantly. You should meet together regularly to calibrate and ensure that you are staying in sync.
Ideally the product manager and UX designer will work in lockstep. But like I mentioned above, the circumstances won’t be ideal. So you need consistent communication.
As a product manager/UX designer duo, how often are you meeting together? And I don’t mean how many meetings are you in together. How frequently are you actually sitting down and meeting one-on-one to discuss your products, work in progress, upcoming priorities, etc? The most successful interactions I’ve had were when I was doing this regularly with my UX counterparts.
Finally, allow yourselves room to evolve together. Just as you will iterate on your product, iterate on your relationship and your roles. Things will change, and you will need to change as well.
That is why the first two keys are so important. Once you’ve created a shared understanding of your roles and are communicating frequently, you will be able to change and evolve as needed, both for your product and for your business.
Early in my career, I was working with a designer on a few small products for our company. I wanted to get more into design, but the organization had a pretty strict process for everything. However, we both realized that we wouldn’t get much done if we followed that process and that we wouldn’t learn much either. So we found the areas we could flex the rules a bit, and as our business needs changed, we could help move things along as well. It became an incredibly productive partnership as we both learned and evolved.
Product managers and UX designers aren’t Kirks or Spocks in my experience. We all bring some level of emotion and some level of logic. But it is that push and pull that creates the right dynamic for success.
By working together as a team, a product manager and UX designer can combine forces to create the best product and best experience for users and their business. The circumstances will never be ideal, but by defining your roles, collaborating and evolving together, you can create the magic that will make world-class products.
My personal musings on a variety of topics.