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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Sketching a Path Forward

sketch-forwardDon’t debate the debaters, but instead, influence the influencers.

Product managers are leaders and influencers of features, ideas, and epic tasks. Some have direct and backed authority, many others have variants that are partial or merely implicit. Either way, to achieve the greatest success, do you rule with force? Or influence, and guide, and allow for shared discovery in support of your product’s end goals?

Functional Forms

When your designer says “no”… how do you get them to “yes”? Let’s look at this challenge with respect to a few designer types that many of us have had the pleasure and privilege of working with.

The Perfectionist
The Innovator

This week, let’s take a look at…

The Mixologist
The Standard Bearer

The Mixologist

The Mixologist may lack vision or a good stream of resources. No problem.

Influence the sources. If the sources are blogs, suggest other blogs more inline with your desired approaches. If the sources are people, work with them, share your vision, share your perspectives, recommendations, creativity, logic and reasoning. Build relationships and foster broad support from below. Tread lightly here; you do not want to offend The Mixologist by overstepping or allowing any of your relationship building to be construed as anything threatening.

When The Mixologist is aligned with your goals and proposing ideas you have pitched and sought, get your ego out of the way… #1 is always to achieve the business objective. And, if you have built sound relationships, the right people will know where the credit truly belongs. Oh yeah… and frequent lunches with The Mixologist help too.

The Standard Bearer

“Standards are great, because there are so many to choose from.”

There are a ton of standards out there. For every standard, there is another competing one. Identify the competition, share it around the organization. Build support for the new standard, or at least for a willingness to experiment with it. Let those new supporters become the advocates of the new thinking. Foster an environment where multiple ideas, multiple standards can co-exist and compete on objective measures. Encourage and reward the experimentation with competing standards as well as non-standard concepts. Standards are great; they can always be improved.

Designers are people, too.

Yep. And, they too, do not often fit a simple character description. Most designers are a mix of traits, some potentially described here.

Generally speaking, the best influencer, the one to really buddy up to, is statistics– they can often be your best influencer and supporter in most cases. Collect the data, find the data, and introduce the data (“your key influencer”) to your designer and together understand it, explore it, and challenge yourselves to build upon it.

Over the next few weeks, we will be discussing various examples and approaches in wielding strategic influence as a successful product manager.

Subscribe now (click here) to make sure you don’t miss any part of this series, as well as other insightful posts from The Product Guy.

Enjoy!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

The Pixel Perfectionist

pixel-pefectDon’t debate the debaters, but instead, influence the influencers.

Product managers are leaders and influencers of features, ideas, and epic tasks. Some have direct and backed authority, many others have variants that are partial or merely implicit. Either way, to achieve the greatest success, do you rule with force? Or influence, and guide, and allow for shared discovery in support of your product’s end goals?

Functional Forms

When your designer says “no”… how do you get them to “yes”? Let’s look at this challenge with respect to a few designer types that many of us have had the pleasure and privilege of working with.

The Perfectionist
The Innovator
The Mixologist
The Standard Barer

The Perfectionist

Perhaps your idea isn’t perfect, or is suffering from The Perfectionist’s attempt for design perfection. Or, perhaps, the design is spiraling into endless edge case bottomless pits of despair.

The Perfectionist can be difficult to influence by anyone less perfect than themselves (nearly everyone else). You may recognize The Perfectionist by these additional traits…

  • Has to be in control
  • Gets carried away with the details
  • Frequently criticizes others
  • Refuses to hear criticism
  • Checks up on other people’s work
  • Has a hard time making choices

Leverage the Peer Group

At their core, The Perfectionist seeks acceptance and approval. Encourage praise from their peers and coworkers for their work; satisfaction breeds productivity and openness to more ideas (especially those that may have received firm “no’s” in the past)

Create an environment that rewards good ideas. Perfectionism can often be curbed through healthy, time-constrained competition – encourage speed and near perfection over 100% and lagging delivery. A mix of some competition with other individuals / groups coupled with tracking and metrics can help lower the individual’s reservations about taking risks while simultaneously establishing a structure for setting and achieving more realistic goals.

The Innovator

Innovator may find your ideas too bland and normal… that’s fine, provide avenues for their creative spirit.

The Innovator can be pushing the limits of design so far that their designs lose the ability to communicate form and function, usable value. The Innovator often seeks to inspire, rather than motivate – motivate the product users to action, to buy, to come back.

Set objective, measurable goals. For example, change the challenge from improving usability by moving the login button to a new location, to increase the rate of logins by 20% and time on the website by 40% for each logged in user. When you redefine the problem in these terms, you then empower The Innovator to iterate, to innovate, to dazzle, to do whatever they can envision… as long, at the end of the day, the goals are met.

Over the next few weeks, we will be discussing various examples and approaches in wielding strategic influence as a successful product manager. Next week, we will look at …

The Mixologist
The Standard Barer

Subscribe now (click here) to make sure you don’t miss any part of this series, as well as other insightful posts from The Product Guy.

Enjoy!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

Draw in the Designers

imageDon’t debate the debaters, but instead, influence the influencers.

Product managers are leaders and influencers of features, ideas, and epic tasks. Some have direct and backed authority, many others have variants that are partial or merely implicit. Either way, to achieve the greatest success, do you rule with force? Or influence, and guide, and allow for shared discovery in support of your product’s end goals?

Let’s Take Designers

There are all types of designers. To describe a few…

The Perfectionist

Can often get lost in the weeds and minutia. They may even often fail at the on time delivery of a product since, for them, nothing less than 100% perfect will do.

The Innovator

A genius at creating new design patterns; and is always trying to work them into every corner of the product design. They seek to establish previously unexperienced trends. And, they may see themselves more as an artist than as a designer working to meet the business requirements of customers, or product managers.

The Mixologist

They take, borrow, improve ideas of their own, from their team, peers, as well as, from outside the company (blogs, designers, books, websites, …). They may not be doing the heavy lifting, but, make no mistakes, they are the design conductor behind the scenes.

The Standard Barer

This individual of rigorous ideals, follows only the establish design patterns — shirking from trying the untried ideas. Often they end up following these standards to a fault, impinging innovation and other business goals.

The Problem

Your designer doesn’t want to make the changes to the UI that you think will provide additional business value, through usability, productivity, better experience, …

What do you do? Twist an arm? Or, understand the individual, and influence the influencers?

What’s your advice for these and other types of designers?

Over the next few weeks, we will be discussing various examples and approaches in wielding strategic influence as a successful product manager.

Subscribe now (click here) to make sure you don’t miss any part of this series, as well as other insightful posts from The Product Guy.

Enjoy!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

From Knitting the Startup Story to Challenging your UX Designer

Every week I read thousands of blog posts. For your weekend enjoyment, here are some of those highlights.  What are you reading this weekend?

01_story

On Starting Up…

http://www.readwriteweb.com/start/2010/07/does-your-startup-have-a-good.php
Weaving the perfect startup story.

 
 

On Design & Product Experience…

http://www.inspireux.com/2010/07/05/challenging-conventional-assumptions-about-user-experience-design/
Challenge your UX designer today!

02_catirona
03_dokdok

On Modular Innovation…

http://mashable.com/2010/07/09/email-attachments-dokdok/
Taming file attachments with Modular Innovation, DokDok.

 

Have a great weekend!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy