Product designers and product managers are critical partners in building and improving the product. There are three key benefits when product managers and product designers have a shared context and a strong partnership:
1. Product designers can help reframe the user problem
Often, there are many dimensions to a user problem, but it can be hard to figure out what aspect of it to focus on. As solutions experts, product designers can help product managers reframe a problem in a way that can make it more solvable.
For example, they can help a product manager reconsider a problem. At PandaDoc, Tara, Senior Director of Product at Bill.com, was working on improving product performance. Loading large documents was taking a long time. The product and engineering teams needed to decide where to focus their time: speeding up document loading or elevating the customer experience during the wait.
The original plan of attack was to have the two teams work together quickly to improve load speed. When discussing this in a full team meeting, a designer caught on to the fact that improving load speed wasn’t a speedy initiative and would require more time to execute properly. So they suggested focusing on customer experience upfront because they could more quickly add progress bars and delightful animation than they could improve the uploading speed.
By opening up the floor to speedier, non-technical solutions that weren’t previously considered, they bought the engineers more time to focus on improving performance without sacrificing quality.
2. Product designers bring more solutions to the table
A strong relationship also empowers the product designer to bring more low-fidelity solutions to the table for any given problem, increasing confidence in what the product team eventually brings to market. The more options explored before making a decision, the higher the chance of landing on the best path forward.
“Without a product designer thinking about alternative solutions, you’re going to be blind to other possibilities that could have been explored.”
— Bruno Bergher, VP of Product, Metabase
3. Product designers can bring an idea to life in the inception phase
Product designers can also be critical in helping an idea come to life through visual storytelling, which might be what the leadership team needs to approve certain projects.
“A lot of people know that something can be explained more easily with visuals, but not everyone can tell a story visually. Designers are really good at that.”
— Bruno Bergher
While at GoDaddy, Tara, a product marketing manager, and a product designer scoped a new user interface layer. The potential for this project was very impactful, but it was conceptually very challenging to explain in words. The designer was able to use visuals and a long-term product vision to help the team secure approval to move forward.
“Without the product designer, that project would have never been approved.”
— Tara Wellington, Senior Director of Product at Bill.com
However, it can be hard for product managers to figure out how the relationship is going with product designers and what they can do to improve it. Given how critical the product design and product management relationship is to the success of the product, it is important to ensure product managers have a strong and healthy relationship with their designer.
In this article, Tara Wellington and Bruno Bergher will share how to:
- Identify if there is an issue in the product management and product design relationship
- Build and strengthen your relationship with a product designer in four ways\
So let’s get into it!
Meet The Contributors
Bruno Bergher is a software person focused on bringing people together to consistently build great products. He's built teams in companies large and small, with a continuous focus on collaboration and craftsmanship.Learn More
Tara Wellington is on a mission to help small businesses thrive. Small businesses have been a connective tissue throughout Tara's product career - from GoDaddy to PandaDoc and now at Bill.com, where she leads their CX platform. Tara loves to explore nature with her husband and two kids, especially in their home state of NH.Learn More
5 Red Flags That Help Identify A Collaboration Issue
Bruno and Tara identified five red flags that often indicate an issue in the relationship between a product manager and a product designer.
1. Product managers saying, “The design team is moving too slowly.”
When PMs believe design is moving too slowly, it often represents a miscommunication (or lack of) expectations and priorities. For example, at Metabase, Bruno had a product manager come to him complaining that a product designer was taking nearly two weeks to come back with a mock up of something. Bruno asked the product manager if the product designer knew this project was necessary, but not something worthy of too much investment. Upon reflection, the product manager realized they hadn’t communicated that, so it would have been impossible for the product designer to know that two weeks was considered too long.
2. Product managers saying, “The designers are adding too much scope to the project.”
Similar to taking too long, this can signal that the product manager and product designer need to be aligned on the importance, goals, and phasing of the project. For example, a product manager might be trying to solve a specific piece of user feedback with a patch solution or optimizing for short-term metrics, while the product designer might be thinking about a whole new user experience or product vision.
3. Product designers not asking questions about the context.
To be a successful duo, the product manager and a product designer have to build a shared context of what they are working on. Often, product managers can miss the importance of answering questions around context and be dismissive of questions. If this happens repeatedly, then the designer won’t feel comfortable continuing to ask questions. As a result, the first iterations of design will very likely be missing core pieces of understanding the user problem.
4. Product designers saying, “The requirements are not detailed enough.”
When product designers are complaining about the right level of detail for requirements, it signals that the design team is being treated like a “service organization” where the product manager is responsible for the requirements and then there is a “hand off” to the designers to design it. This type of breakdown leads to far less quality work, underutilizing the solutions prowess of designers and risking a lack of coherency across features.
For example, when Tara was at GoDaddy, she had a relatively technical project with a new team. Instead of whiteboarding with the designer and creating an end-to-end experience, the designer only wanted to work off the requirements and delivered screens that did not connect to one another. Tara realized that the team previously had a culture of treating the designer like they were part of a service organization, and that had really demotivated the designer.
5. The product manager prescribes solutions to the product designer.
“The scenario product designers dread is a product manager wireframing something and saying please make this pretty.”
— Bruno Bergher
If this is happening, the relationship between the product designer and product manager is fundamentally broken. It shows that the product manager either has no idea how the product management and product design relationship should work, or it signals a complete breakdown in trust that the product designer is able to build enough context and develop meaningful solutions. This is one of the fastest ways to demotivate a talented product designer.
How To Build & Strengthen The Relationship
If, as a product manager, you are noticing any of these things, it could be the right opportunity to evaluate the relationship you have with the product designer on your team. However, even if you don’t recognize these signals, there is a lot of work you can do upfront to ensure a strong relationship moving forward.
Tara and Bruno focus on four key things they see product managers doing in the best working relationships:
- Develop an understanding of product design
- Get to know your product designer
- Share enough context
- Build a mutual understanding
1. Develop an understanding of product design
Bruno and Tara emphasize that a core part of a successful relationship between a product manager and a product designer is empathy and respect. Product design skills and responsibilities can have a strong overlap with product management, but product designers often bring a different point of view. Understanding the differences, in both skills and approach, can help product managers lean into similarities and leverage differences.
Product designers are motivated by user experience
While product managers are often measured on metrics, product designers are more often motivated by creating the best possible user experience. Product designers often go beyond just focusing on whether or not people are using the feature, and ask: while it may get the job done, is it actually pleasant to use this feature?
Product designers have a high-quality bar
Product designers tend to take a lot of pride in their work and take the time to sweat the details. They also have rituals in their organization where quality is examined in detail, and consistency as a whole is checked and enforced.
“They have immense social pressure to deliver quality as defined by Design; most designers have to bring their work to a design-only design review where their peers critique them.”
— Bruno Bergher
Product designers operate on a macro level: long-term goals and end-to-end experiences
Many product managers will have quarterly product goals they are expected to hit, which leads to selecting projects that can help optimize a metric within that time period. Contrastly, product designers are systems thinkers and are looking at the whole. They often are stewards of the brand and need to ensure that the user experience is consistent throughout a product rather than unique to a specific feature.
“Balancing short-term metrics with long-term goals like customer satisfaction can be a challenge. But ultimately if a product manager can recognize and respect this balance, it helps the health of the product manager/product design relationship and the overall quality of the product.”
— Tara Wellington
The product designer’s current work is how they will get their next job
Unlike product managers or engineers, product design interviews include a portfolio review. In this portfolio review, they can be judged on their output in isolation from the technical and timing constraints that were happening during the actual product development process. The product manager, who has a major influence in the projects the team takes on and what ends up live, thus has a major impact on the portfolio.
2. Get to know your product designer
When product managers understand how the product design role is different from product management, it can help frame and contextualize interactions between the two. However, no amount of reading about what product designers are like can replace a conversation between the product manager and the product designer.
Just as everyone’s definition of product management is different, everyone’s understanding of the product manager and product design relationship is different. It is important to establish where each of you are coming from as a way to then figure out where you want to go.
Bruno suggests an open conversation between the product manager and the product designer. To start, the duo can leverage a few questions:
- What do each of you think your responsibilities are? This will help each person understand how they believe they should be participating in the product development process. While most people like to find a clear dividing line, the best relationships benefit from overlapping responsibilities. That means the duo can leverage, challenge, and benefit from each other as long as it’s clear they are not trying to undermine one another.
- What do each of you need to be successful in your role? This question can help each person understand the implicit and explicit pressures and goals the other is facing. It can be helpful to be very clear on how you are evaluated, what success looks like in your function, and what personal goals you have for a specific project or set of projects.
- What are parts of your jobs the other might be able to help you with? A great product manager and product designer relationship is often complementary, and knowing where the strengths and weaknesses lie can help the other person lean in to be supportive. For example, a product manager might struggle with communicating to stakeholders, and a product designer can help strategize and structure the best way to communicate new ideas.
There is not one “right way” to work together; you have to figure out what works best for each relationship. Even within the same company, product designers can be very different from one another, so it is worth investing time in getting to know each one you work with.
3. Share enough context
To be most effective, product designers need to have the same levels of understanding in order to make the most of their work. Product managers may not share enough context with product designers, as they often filter out information that might not seem critical or seem obvious.
The short answer to the question of what context a product manager should share is all of it.
A product designer should have just as much context as the product manager. Although this is easier said than done, so it can be helpful to start with a few non-negotiables:
- Goals of the project
- Definition and measurement of success
- Testing plan
- Known constraints
Goals of the project
Sharing the goals of the project is an important way to make sure that the duo is working in the same time-frame and towards the same outcomes. The reasons why these goals matter to the business and the user is a critical step for understanding. Sharing why these goals matter to the business helps the product designer understand where the product manager is coming from. The goals and the importance of the goals to the business, can help the duo figure out the importance of the project.
At Metabase, Bruno saw success in adapting the notion of appetite to determine how much design effort a product manager is willing to invest. The product manager might suggest a project is a two-day task or a two-week task. However, this is not an assessment of effort or a deadline; rather, it’s an assessment of end value. A product manager shouldn’t actually tell a designer to take two days to do something, but this value assessment initiates the right conversation about scope, clarifying objectives, and relative importance.
However, it is important not to only speak in terms of value to the business. The product managers that are most successful at communicating context with their product design counterpart share why the project goals matter to the user. Set context by talking about user needs and pain points, rather than product features and requirements.
Definition and measurement of success
Defining and measuring success is another critical point of alignment that should be done as soon as possible: how will we know if we hit our goals? If this is not addressed early on, later in the project, there can be tension due to unclear expectations.
- Objective: Is this work focused on short-term metric movement or long-term strategic impacts?
- Business outcome: What are the north star metrics, or overall business outcomes, this work is aiming to impact?
- Project metrics: What specific metrics can and will be measured to indicate success? What is the time frame for measuring those metrics?
The definition and measurement of success will inform the testing plan, which is another key element to align on.
One area that can be tricky to navigate towards the end of the project is determining what needs to be tested. While testing is a great tool that can help optimize performance, it can also be a distraction to the project and an area of contention between product managers and designers.
The testing plan should be highly connected to the objective of the project: are you aiming for short-term metric movement or long-term impact? Certain tests and ways of improving confidence around decisions are more appropriate for different objectives. Product designers can help product managers think through other ways to increase conviction in a particular path if this discussion happens up front in a project.
If and when it makes sense to look at A/B testing, there are two things a product manager can avoid, that will both improve the usefulness of the tests and increases the designer’s buy-in to the testing plan:
- Avoid testing something the product designer has no control over or has already been tested. Anything that tests the design system should be out of scope unless the project is explicitly testing the design system. That is a product-wide system that will not be changed for one specific feature, so the results of the test are not actionable. It is also important to realize designers are experts in their craft, and some design elements are well-known to be effective for particular products and industries. Testing well-proven design elements can be very demotivating to a product designer.
- Do not put test results over user experience. Sometimes, a product manager or even a company becomes so hyper-focused on short-term gains and local optimization that they can lose the perspective of what makes the product enjoyable to use. Realizing the limitations of tests and finding other ways to build confidence around an idea can help mitigate this. For example, product designers and product managers could work on three options to test with users before moving forward with one to do more targeted A/B testing.
Constraints are something that should be continuously shared as soon as they are discovered. The two most important constraints to share are technical and timing constraints. Oftentimes, product managers will have early conversations with engineering. It is helpful to share the outcomes of those early on.
“A common failure mode I see is a designer anchoring on a solution that is not feasible.”
— Bruno Bergher
Product managers also have visibility into non-fungible deadlines, such as when engineering resources will be available (or not) or if a feature needs to launch before a certain event. Being transparent about why a time constraint exists, regardless of if it’s internally or externally imposed, starts a healthy conversation about the work.
When constraints change, as they often do, the product manager should communicate as quickly as possible to the product designer.
It is important to consider this list of context to share as just a starting point. Many product managers might also work at companies where there is documentation around sharing context, and that too should be considered just a starting point.
4. Build a mutual understanding
Knowing what to share as context is only part of the puzzle. Product managers shouldn’t just be handing off information, they should be engaging their product designers as thought partners in building a mutual understanding of the problem space and goals.
There are different approaches you can take based on when the product designer is able to start working on the project.
Scenario 1: Product designer is available to start at the beginning of a project
The most ideal situation is having a product designer and a product manager start on a project at the same time. By doing discovery and research together, they start from the very beginning with a shared understanding.
Scenario 2: Product designer has some, but limited capacity to engage during project inception
The product manager and product designer should identify time-boxed ways for the product designer to get involved.
“Product managers should be thinking about how to spot the opportunities to start to bring product designers on board, to give them context on what’s happening so they can start to internalize, and maybe even provide feedback and guidance on ways to explore the problem.”
— Bruno Bergher
A great way to get a product designer involved early on is to invite them to a user research call, so they can start to hear the problem directly from the user. One tactic to identify these opportunities, in partnership with the product designer, is to always spend some time during your 1:1 meetings with the product designer talking about budding projects and ideas you’re looking into. That provides both of you the opportunity to brainstorm together.
Scenario 3: The product designer has no capacity at the start of the project, so they join later
If a product designer is not able to engage at all in the project inception, the product manager and product designer need to have live time together to build context. While together, it is important that the product manager does not dismiss questions or simply say something is out of scope.
“As a product manager giving context, it’s your job to share more and effectively until the product designer is starting to nod along.”
— Bruno Bergher
Tara finds that the best way to ensure context is being internalized is through an activity, such as building a user journey, whiteboarding key flows, or joint wireframing sessions. The particular activity will depend on the type of project, but then the duo is in a situation where they have an opportunity to test their understanding.
“When you build something jointly, that’s when you build pressure on the other person’s understanding. That’s when you run into things you didn’t think to ask.”
— Tara Wellington
When the product manager and product designer have shared understanding and context, the rest of the product development process becomes noticeably better.
A Strong Working Relationship Can Create Magic
When nurtured and intentional, the relationship between product managers and product designers can be some of the most rewarding.
“The relationship between design and product is the most fun part of my job.”
— Tara Wellington
Both product managers and product designers bring the necessary skills and approaches to challenging user problems. When they are able to understand one another and build shared context, they can leverage one another to create meaningful products.
To learn more about ways you can uplevel as a product manager, check out Reforge’s collection of programs, including Mastering Product Management.