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The Dynamic Duo: Product Management and UX

January 21, 2016

Product Management, UX

The responsibilities of Product and UX Design overlap. Embrace the overlap and prosper; deny the overlap and wallow in anguish.

Product Managers and UX Designers have many of the same responsibilities. They talk to customers, find the underlying ‘why’, sketch ideas, test solutions, negotiate requirements, and so on. These interwoven responsibilities can cause both roles to butt heads.

Modern organizations rarely make these divisions of duties explicit. These blurred lines can cause an unspoken power struggle. Design winces when Product sketches a UI idea. Product rolls eyes when Design outlines an MVP spec. The reality is, sharing responsibilities leads to a stronger product and team.

“With our powers combined…”

I’ve been designing software for over a decade now. I’ve worked in many organizations, big and small, agile and waterfall, functional and not-so-much. I’ve worked with many types of designers and product managers. The most successful relationships are true partnerships: we share.

When Product and Design share duties, their impact is multiplied (and they are happy). These roles have rapidly evolved in recent years, especially with the boom of agile development and user experience. By fusing Product and Design together, you get the best of both worlds.

You’re both doing “design”

UX Design and Product are slowly merging into one function. Currently, product is more on the quantitative, product-market fit side of the equation; design is on the qualitative, user interaction side. The entire product team is responsible for a quality user experience – Product and Design are leading the charge.

This merge doesn’t have to be a battle for control. The definition of design is:

“to plan and make decisions about something that is being built or created.”

That accurately describes the conjoined role of both Product and Design. Therein lies the rub:

Designers: Product will make Design decisions. PMs are more than quality-cutting middlemen. They know the customers and product better than anyone, so their perspective is imperative.

Product-folk: Designers will make product decisions. Design is more than well-dressed smugly slathered icing on the cake. They’re user-centered, detail-oriented honey badgers eager to make your product the best it can be.

No two relationships will be the same. Every individual has different skills, ambitions, and communication styles. And every project has different requirements, team cultures, and baggage. Both roles have to adapt and make incremental improvement. Well paired innovators have a history of, well, making history. John Lennon and Paul McCartney are a prime example of two creative individuals who experienced conflict but collaborated in amazing ways for a time. Read Joshua Wolf Shenk’s book about the combined power of a duo in Powers of Two. It explores the chemistry of team creation and how famous pairs have made the creative spark work or let differences completely burn them out. 

Three Step Program

How can an organization warm these two roles into one melded grilled cheese-y sandwich of product crafting deliciousness? Try this:

1) Map the Overlap
Look at your product/project and honestly assess how decisions are made. Plot a Venn diagram like above, or simply list people vs. typical responsibilities. That will help the team visualize who’s responsible for what, and where the overlap occurs.

2) Know Thyself
When it comes down to actual work, what leaves you energized vs. depleted? List which activities come naturally, which you wish came naturally, and realistically where you’re not excited. Be as pragmatic as possible. If you’re lucky, the tasks divvy up cleanly. If not, there’s an opportunity to share and learn.

3) Open a Dialog
Share this article with the Design and Product people you work with to begin the discussion. Seriously, this is not a link-baiting scheme. Simply acknowledging the overlap and starting a conversation will create a smoother, happier relationship.

Product and Design are no longer silos in an org chart. Our powers are combining, forming a new and likely more natural hybrid approach to product development. We’re building better products, making people’s lives easier or more enjoyable, and hopefully having more fun doing it.


For more articles about product management and UX, be sure to subscribe to the Pendo blog. Look for upcoming articles about UX, product success, and more. 


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