Follow these insider tips to create a productive and collaborative relationship between Product Managers and UX Designers, whatever the software development challenge.
UX Designers and Product Managers – it’s complicated. They have the same objective (to bring a great digital product to market) and many of the same competencies (among them intimate knowledge of users and user research, and familiarity with the product and the competition). In fact, the majority of start-ups, and some larger organizations, will combine the two roles into one mega UX-Product Demi-god, combining everything from wireframing an interface to carrying out market research and business analysis. Some commentators have even advocated for the merging of both roles, noting that finding information on user behavior and steering the development of the product are both key responsibilities of Product Managers and UX Designers.
What’s the problem?
The putative similarity of the roles is precisely the problem when Product Managers and UXers are thrown together and told to bring off an awesome project. Identifying who does what, who owns what and who answers to who can, if not managed smartly, become big obstacles on the road to software project success. It’s essential for both to work out not only how they relate to each other, but also how they both relate to everyone else on the team. Only then can the project really take off.
Product Manager and UX Designer – spot the difference
So what sets Product Managers and UX Designers apart from each other? We’re fans of the leftfield superhero explanation given in this UserVoice blog post, in which a PM, like Batman, “understands the situation on the ground… and creates practical tech solutions to problems”, whereas UX Superman “brings a powerful set of abilities and empathy. He embodies more holistic ideals and experiences, which are important for the long-term success of the world and for shaping people’s feelings about how their problems are being solved.”
Or, if superhero metaphors aren’t helpful on a professional level, this venn diagram might be.
To put it simply, a Product Manager is responsible for a product’s success in the commercial market, and they manage that process from project start to finish and beyond to ensure continued market share. UX is a key part of that, but not all of it.
In order for the two roles to work together effectively despite the cross-over, it’s imperative to lay out some ground rules before asking Product Managers and UX Designers to work together. We dug a little deeper and spoke to Justinmind’s very own Victor Conesa (Product Manager) and Sergi Arevalo (UX-UI Designer) to find out how they make it work behind the scenes.
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How to work together
Define your roles, and don’t skip the details
This is rule number one when it comes to avoiding problems between UXers and Product Managers. Even if there are areas of cross-over between the two, both professionals will be happier working within a clearly defined remit and with an established place in the chain of command. This great Powerpoint from Patrick Neeman and Stephanie Bergman at Pragmatic Marketing breaks down the points of similarity and departure between the two roles; areas that fall into the grey central section of the venn diagram, such as defining user stories, should be nailed down the the scope of work and adhered to if you don’t want a Game of Thrones style power struggle.
Justinmind’s Sergi and Victor both give this paramount importance when setting out on a project together.
“Of course there’s some cross-over between the roles, so it’s super clear that each member of the team has to understand his role and define those responsibilities in order not to step on any toes. They’re both in the same team so have to work toward the same goals.” Sergi Arevalo
But don’t be afraid to be Lean
Especially in smaller teams or on high-pressure projects, the PM and UX should be able to willing to lend a brother a hand. If the clock is ticking and the project needs help, the first person able to give that help should do so; any PM who crosses their arms and says “hey, that’s not my job” needs to be reminded of their ultimate goals, and vice versa. As Melissa Perri points out in her interesting first-person take on the topic, sometimes “it’s not about roles, it’s about skills“.
Learn from each other
We’ve accepted that there will be moments of tension in the PM-UX relationship. But Sergi points out that these are actually the moments that the PM and UX can really learn something about the product, and about themselves as team members. “When there’s a problem, there’s discussion; and when there’s discussion, there’s a shake up. That can really open your eyes, and you analyze the situation and make the most of it.” In fact, Sergi thinks it would be a bad thing if these tensions didn’t arise sometimes: not only would it mean that the Product Manager and UX Designer weren’t learning from each other, but also “if there’s no discussion, that means that someone’s just agreeing to everything, and means they’re not really interested.”
Product managers should step back and define the what, not the how
Often, Product Managers seem to be the bad guys here. Comments about their high-handed attitude are common among UXers, as are complaints about “power trip” tendencies. But are PMs really all megalomaniacs? Victor rebuffs that, instead pointing out that at the end of the day it’s the Product Managers who have final responsibility for the outcome:
“Sometimes the relationship can be a bit like a marriage – you have to listen to each other and compromise. But sometimes, the Product Manager has to pull rank. They’re the boss after all and, if things go wrong, it’s their head on the line.” Victor Conesa
The accusations of high-handedness can arise, admits Victor, when Product Managers mistakenly interfere in the how, instead of sticking to the why. “Product Managers should butt out of what colour a button is or stuff like that,” he clarifies. “They need to focus on the functionality and scope.” Sarah Deane, writing in The Huffington Post, points out that if PMs start getting involved in the nitty gritty of design and interface “they are not really letting you do UX design (i.e. connecting the dots of how everything works together). They think that they just need someone to implement what they say.”
Talk through user flows together
The solution to work blocks like this? Victor says that prototyping works for him and Sergi when they’re quibbling over the details. “With a prototype you can actually see what the solution looks like and you can test it out to get the best solution.” When the Product Manager limits him or herself to communicating the requirement then the UX Designer can prototype up a user-centric solution; both should then sit down with this prototype and talk through its functionality. Using an interactive prototype at this stage in the relationship can help create a sense of shared purpose, rather than two individuals sweating over the small stuff.
If you can’t work it out, ask the user
If UX Designer and Product Manager find themselves in a stalemate situation regarding how to solve a problem, then turn to the user. After all, they’re the ones with the final say on how successful this product is going to be. If the PM favours Solution A to a problem, and the UX Designer solution B, instead of either pulling rank why not leverage an empirical methodology and resolve conflicts through evidence. Try out guerilla testing and ask people in the office to give you feedback; get in touch with your target customers and run some group tests; mockup A/B tests in your prototyping tool and see which solution carries the day. Whether PM or UX eventually gets to be ‘right’ becomes irrelevant – everyone has learned something new about the product and you’ve got evidence on which to base any further decisions. Check out this post for some unorthodox ways of doing user testing.
Although Product Managers and UX Designers might have a reputation for disagreeing, on one point Justinmind’s Sergi and Victor are in agreement: the relationship between the two roles is according to both, similar to “a marriage” and “having a partner”. “You have to respect the other as a professional,” says Sergi, “and let them bring their skills to the table for the good of the product.” Victor has a similar final take on working together: “your objective is shared – to end up with a great product – so you find a way to get there.”
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