A Designer’s Perspective on Working with Product Managers

Guest Post by: David Pasztor

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A product manager just stopped by the desk of the designer on a lazy Thursday afternoon. The designer showed him something, and they started discussing a new feature’s design loudly. The manager used wide gestures to show where he wanted to move certain elements. The developers sitting nearby just watched the show for the first time, but after a while they stood up to join the party one by one. Soon the whole team was standing behind the designer’s screen shouting new ideas and tips about the layout, the colors, the icons, the fonts and everything else. The designer just took a deep breath and hid his face behind his hands. He thought it will be an easy Thursday.

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I’ve been in this situation while I worked with various product teams as a designer. I also know how much effort these team put into finding out how to work with developers. Unfortunately design is a completely different world and what works with devs does not work with designers. So after growing our design team at UX studio from 2 to 20 people, I share my learnings with you about how to work with designers.

How to give designers tasks and keep them motivated?

Just like engineers, designers are also problem solvers. We like to get painful user problems to solve. You can ask me to change the color somewhere or put a button on a screen, and I will probably do that, but I really like to get challenging problems where I can do my research build prototypes, do user tests, and come up with a solution that will raise our product to the next level. So give designers bigger challenges like: “We should redesign the sign up flow to decrease drop-offs” or “add a new reporting module to this business app, so users can easily present their results”.

Designers and UX researchers will be motivated if you give them important product issues to solve. Frame them from the user’s perspective, and tell them why the given problem is worth it to be solved.

Also give them free hand with the solution and enough time to go through their process. Many people think design is just a quick task before development, which is not true in many cases.

When you give them a task, the best designers will always ask back instantly “why?”. Not because they don’t trust your judgment, but because they will ask for every small detail and background information that will help them during the design process.

What to expect from a design team?

Designers can help product people a lot. Let’s take a look at all the things we can do to make your life easier.

The role of design is to build a bridge between humans and technology, so a design team’s most important goal is to get to know your customers really well. That’s why we have UX researchers working besides designers, because good design needs a lot of research. The design team has to bring new insights from your customers all the time. They have to know and communicate what are their pains and needs. The design team should also deliver insights from your products or prototypes. They have to tell you what people understand (or don’t understand) in your product, where do they get stuck, and what are the annoying usability issues. This is essential to design a product that works well.

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Agile development doesn’t just mean faster turnarounds and sprints. In an agile product team everyone is aware of the customer’s problem we solve, and everyone can make decision and react on issues. Design workshops, like persona, jobs-to-be-done or customer journey workshops can help the team to get a better understanding of customer’s pains and needs. These workshops are fun, and they are also useful to align the team and get everyone on the same page. You can expect your design team to facilitate these workshops when you start developing a new product or reach a bigger milestone.

Designers can help with validating new feature or product ideas. The best designers always adjust the sophistication of their work to the given design phase. When they work on a new feature, they start with paper sketches to communicate ideas quickly, then they do clickable prototypes to test different solutions with real users. These are low-fidelity materials, the goal is to get feedback quickly. But when time comes to development designer can also create pixel-perfect, detailed UI design plans.

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Designers are not the genius artist types any more, like you see on Mad Men. The best designers are not the ones who create one concept and push it through the whole team with a cool presentation. The best designers always explore many different solutions for a problem and share them with the team. They can tell you what are the advantages and disadvantages of each one. They also share research and test results, and they let the team choose the best direction together.

Designers has to work well with developers. The truth is noone likes to read written documentations, so the final UI design and the clickable wireframes are the best specifications for any software feature. As they say, an image worth thousand words, and a prototype worth thousand meetings. It is just easier to understand and can save you from many misunderstandings. The best designers also use tools like Zapier or Avocode to help coders to get the necessary parameters from the design files.

What do designers expect from a product manager?

It’s a no-brainer, but the most important thing a good product manager can give to its team is clear goals. We have to know the vision we have behind the product, which means who do we design it for and what problems do we solve with it? Besides the long-term goals, a simple, high-level roadmap is also good, to communicate the most important areas we have to cover to achieve our goals. The goals and the roadmap has to be crystal clear to everyone in the team, not just designers.

Design takes place in the early-phase of the product development, when we still have many open questions. So unfortunately it is difficult (if not impossible) to predict the time certain design tasks will need. Sometimes we just need a few iterations, sometimes a lot more. Don’t expect designers to do perfect job for the first time, no one can. Let them do their design rounds, as many as they need. One more week of design is not a big cost for a feature that will serve your customers for years.

Designers and researcher will ask you to access existing customers. Give them the chance to visit or talk to real customers. It is impossible to design for someone who you’ve never met. Designers are usually very good in communication and empathy, so you don’t have to worry, they won’t bite your precious clients.

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The design team will also need access to usage statistics. Sometimes it is enough to share your analytics tools, but in some other cases they will have questions you can’t answer with these, so a database expert will have to help them and dig into raw data.

Design is not just a task you give out to your designers, it will need your active participation. First of all, be available on online and offline channels, because designers will have many questions while they work. You will also have to attend design meetings. In our UX minimum checklist we propose week-long design sprints with a design meeting every week, where the product manager and someone from the developers are there. Designers will also do workshops time to time where product people, or sometimes the whole product team has to attend.

Designers will also ask for feedback frequently. Feedback is essential part of design, so please spend some time with it. Designers are used to getting feedback from many different people, so you don’t have to be too polite, honesty is more important. You are welcome to tell your concerns, but you also have to highlight the things you like. The best is to use the 3+3 formula: tell the 3 things you like in the design and the 3 areas you would improve. The best designers will always ask you why you like or not like certain things. This is a very important question, because it will help them to understand your thoughts and step forward. So if you want to give good feedback tell designers why you love or hate something. If it is hard to describe your thoughts by words, you can still look for other good or bad examples on the internet. Saying “I miss the wow effect from this website” will not really help the designers. Show them an other site that has the “wow effect”, and they will understand better what you mean.

I hope these tips will help you to work together with your beloved designers and UX researchers. Just treat them well, and they will do an enormous job to make your product successful. If you want to learn more about UX you can also download our ebook: a product manager’s guide to UX design.

About the Author

david-pasztor.jpgDavid Pasztor designs digital products for more than 10 years. He is the founder of UX studio, a 20-person user experience company in Budapest. They have Berlin, London and US-based startups within their clients, as well as international brands like HBO. David also teaches design on his own design course, and he was invited as guest lecturer to various universities

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This entry was posted in guest blogger, product management and tagged , by Jeremy Horn. Bookmark the permalink.

About Jeremy Horn

Jeremy Horn is an award-winning, product management veteran with 2 decades of experience leading and managing product teams. Jeremy has held various executive and advisory roles, from founder of several start-ups to driving diverse organizations in online services, consumer products, and wearables. As founder of The Product Group, he has created the largest product management meetup in the world and hosts the annual awarding of The Best Product Person. Accelerating the next evolution of product management, Jeremy acted as creator and instructor of the 10-week product management course at General Assembly and The New School, and mentoring at Women 2.0 and Lean Startup Machine (where is he also a judge). To see where Jeremy is now check him out at (1) http://linkedin.com/in/TheProductGuy and (2) http://TheProductGuy.com