Interview

Jesse Alton, Brielle Nickoloff

Product Managers: Working With UX & Product Designers

January 12, 2021
Interview
January 12, 2021

Jesse Alton, Brielle Nickoloff

Product Managers: Working With UX & Product Designers

Disagreements between managers and creators are king, but today we’re going to dive into one specific realm of relations: product managers & designers. Or should we say “versus”?

As we claim as engagement experts, it will be a two-part research and today we offer you to focus on products’ point of view.

A Quick (Not Boring at All) Historical Recap

If you’re a new kid on the block i.e. were born after 2000, you probably think of a product manager as a transformed project manager who became essential only in our digital era. But the roots are leaning somewhere between great manufacturers of the previous century.

The first iteration came around the 1930s from Procter & Gamble — in a short memo made by Neil McElroy there was a description of “Brand Man”. Basically, responsibilities of the position were lying between hiring, sales, advertising and promotion. If you’re familiar with iconic “The Goal” by E. Goldratt, you saw an early understanding of the role through the first dialog between protagonist, Alex, and his boss.

“Al,” he says quietly, “just build the damn products. You hear me?”

“Then give me the people I need!”

“You've got enough people! Look at your efficiencies, for god's sake!”

Don't come crying to me about not enough people until you show me you can effectively use what you've got”

Kaizen – improving the business continuously while always driving for innovation and evolution

Next milestone was achieved when the position was comprehended by Toyota in post-war Japan. The company developed two principles: Kaizen – improving the business continuously while always driving for innovation and evolution and Genchi Genbutsu – to go to the source to find the facts to make correct decisions. Later, those principles will be adopted for the United States by Hewlett and Packard to give a way to effective methods of modern product management.

Genchi Genbutsu – to go to the source to find the facts to make correct decisions

What Does “Modern” Even Mean?

An ordinary time-jump will help us to understand. See, in 2001 the Agile Manifesto was developed by 17 software engineers and it claimed:

  • Individuals and interactions over Processes and tools
  • Working software over Comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over Contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over Following a plan

Agile was a game-changer for all tech-companies that boosted the client-centered vision. Next time when you’ll be interviewing a candidate for the role, ask him about the almost-90-years’ legacy.

For the last two decades thanks to giants like Amazon, Google and Apple we observe the evolution of product management. Due to different approaches teams could be more flexible and decisive as unique features demand it.

We’ve decided to talk to product managers and designers around the globe to figure out most common issues and pleasures of developing something special collaboratively. As you’ve already figured, we’re so excited to start from the first category.

Bauhaus, in full Staatliches Bauhaus, school of design, architecture, and applied arts that existed in Germany from 1919 to 1933.
Have You Met Our Experts in Product Management?

Jesse Alton, founder of AngellXR, senior director of product at Fearless, an entrepreneur with 9+ years of experience

By day, I serve as Senior Director of Product for a Medicaid project. Civic tech is an interesting space for someone with a human centered background. It's not about "will they buy this", rather civic tech really focuses on the true tenant of product management, "what problem does this feature or product solve?" Most of my time is spent working with our designers and developers, and aligning the strategies of department and project leads, while championing a Product as a Pillar approach to software development. It's about outcomes, not outputs.

I still consider myself a true entrepreneur however, as my heart and soul lie with my startup AngellXR. We aim to build a fully open, cross platform Metaverse. It starts with co-creating memories from aggregate images and videos, an open back end for creators to build and deploy applications and games and plugins off of, and a cross platform inventory system. and a cache of open APIs for connecting the real and virtual worlds. There is a lot of work to be done between now and then, but eventually we will be able to dynamically generate assets from Photogrammetry and LiDar, enabling custom world building.

The Necessity of a Technical Background for a Product Manager

From my designer’s background I really care about inclusion, accessibility and lower barriers to entry. I love the fancy head-sets that I have, but my real passion is being visible on your phone. I guess a billion people have iPhones now. That’s a billion people that could go into VR. So you could build for a phone and also work for a head-set and you’re gonna get the better experience on the head-set. But if you build for a phone first, that ensures everyone is going to have a good time, some people are gonna have “better” time.

Fearless is a full stack digital services firm in Baltimore that delivers sleek, modern, and user-friendly software designed to push the boundaries of possibility

Design really is solving problems and it’s driven by a “why”. You can’t really say that something was well designed if it was just thrown together, if it was just a guess. It might look great, but it wasn’t Design. In 2020 it’s human centered design for the most part, so you’re asking questions, researching, testing hypotheses. You want to be wrong so you could find out the next question to ask. And it’s the same in designing for a newspaper as it is for a website as it is for the next generation.

A Lack of Personal Conversations and Other Recent Changes in Workflows

The gap is that we don’t have those little conversations anymore. Everything is planned. If I’m in a meeting and someone’s being a jerk for some reason, when the meeting ends, I could just lean to someone and ask: “What was up with Marsel? He was in a bad mood”. And then I could find out that Marsel stub his toe this morning [or he’s a jerk all the time]. It’s just a minute and now I understand why it was a problem.

It’s taken away an ability to be human beings and we could normally just have a small conversation to handle really small things

But now if I want to have a conversation, when the meeting ends, I have to schedule another meeting. And I have to reach out to somebody and say: “hey, do you have 5 minutes, I just wanna to ask you something”. And he goes: “Oh, my schedule is booked, how about 3:30 PM?”. So now I’m arranging the call at 3:30 and the whole thing becomes a much bigger deal.

It’s taken away an ability to be human beings and we could normally just have a small conversation to handle really small things. But now everything you want to talk about is scheduled and it inherently has to be a big deal or you’re “wasting other people’s time”.

Product Managers Are Dealing with Low Motivation and Other Issues

First of all, taking a walk could solve a lot of problems, especially, if you’re a tech person. It comes from my early entrepreneurship days, I had a mentor who taught that if you’ll go and spend an hour in the world every day, you come up with better ideas, you work through the problems. Don’t take any music with you, don’t take a book with you, just go and observe.

Another thing I would recommend is workshops: doing design sprints or a lightning decision jams (LDJ) is a great way to break the ice and there is probably a collaborative workshop for whatever problem you’re experiencing. Maybe you don’t know what to build next or you don’t know where to start? You’re coming up with a bunch of ideas and then voting on which one we wanna do first. It gets people energized and helps to come with better stuff.

And the third thing is “virtual happy hours”: just have a couple drinks, play some video game online with each other, that stuff goes a long way.

Teambuilding, that’s really what it is.

Bio block photo hero by Alexander Lovyagin
Jesse Alton’s commenting the project:
I took a stab at visualizing the intricate relationships and exchanges of value within a tech product organization. Credit: Blush plugin for Figma
See on Dribbble

If you feel weird for any reason just take a break. Embracing the human side now becomes far more important now than ever, people take more time off now than ever before. We’re not judging each other, instead we’re encouraging each other to be just open about the time that you need.

In Conclusion: A Section of Wisdom

My biggest piece of advice: you are supposed to be best friends. A product manager and a product designer are really effective if they collaborate. I like to say the product designer owns the “what”: what are we building to solve the problem? A lead developer owns “how”: how are we going to build this thing? And me, as a product manager, owns “why”: why are we building this? When you’re connecting these three people, you have a triumvirate that leads to actually building good products. Designers represent users, managers represent the product and technicians represent what is called “visibility”. When you come together like that, it works. So, for product people who wanna work better with designers, it’s necessary to ask each other questions, fill in the blanks, communicate. If you’re siloed, it won’t work and it never will.

Brielle Nickoloff, product manager at Botmock, co-host of the Language & Linguistics #Voicelunch Chapter, an ADPList mentor, a Google Developer Groups (GDG) woman techmakers ambassador

My main priority right now is Botmock, a tool for anyone creating chatbots or voice experiences on Alexa, Google Assistant, or IVR. You can think about Botmock as sort of like Figma or Sketch for conversation designers. Because conversation design is so new, there aren't many well-established design systems or tools available for creatives (the only widespread tools are more build-focused like Dialogflow and really only make sense to super techy people). Botmock is an interactive canvas with drag-and-drop boxes for dialogue between a bot and a user, and because work as a product manager here can really empower non-technical people (like me!) to create amazing designs, my work is pretty much a labor of love 🤖

The Necessity of a Technical Background for a Product Manager

As a linguist and a conversation designer with no technical background, my mission is to empower fellow non-technical conversation designers to create amazing things. I feel so lucky that I can do this as a product manager in a field of design that is centered around words and language, and that I can use my experience with voice user interface (VUI) design to ask the right questions and keep improving the tool for all of our wonderful users.

Teams of all sizes use Botmock to rapid prototype and design conversational experiences across multiple channels – both voice & text

A great conversation designer fundamentally wants to understand the ins and outs of human language. They are analytical but creative. They are willing to look at how real-world conversational interactions can support their work and their philosophy. They recognize that conversation is an art, but is also a science, and they become masters at knowing where that line can be drawn, so that they can decide what within a conversation can scale, and what cannot. Great conversation designers are artists, but their tools are words, not pixels.

A Lack of Personal Conversations and Other Recent Changes in Workflows

Botmock has been a distributed team from the start (even before #covid), so all of our internal communication processes are “remote by design”. This mindset helps our team stay grounded in a process that doesn't just accommodate asynchronous communication, but actually honors it, and treats it as the default.

We respect different time zones, and that doesn't just have to mean geographic time zones — maybe your kid needs to be with you in the mornings, so you work 12-8 during the days. Maybe you do your best work from 8pm to 5am! It doesn't matter what times you're working, and we don't babysit our employees. We trust them to do the work we hired them to do. We have team calls during times that work for everyone, and use slack for both asynchronous and synchronous chatting.

Finally, the other lynchpin of remote work is documenting EVERYTHING. We can't rely on offhanded questions in the hallway, so we decentralize the team's knowledge by encouraging everyone to write things down in a central repository of team knowledge. Being sticklers for documentation saves time on everyone's part since we're not constantly answering the same questions over and over (and would honestly probably help out most co-located teams too!)

Product Managers Are Dealing with Low Motivation and Other Issues

Honestly, usually when one or more teammates starts to feel frustrated or uninspired, it starts to affect the rest of the team. Fast. It can be so easy for all of us to feel like the whole ship is sinking ... even if the root of the issue is something that can be solved pretty easily.

Thinking back to a time this year when that happened, the way I approached it was by drawing attention to it, instead of ignoring it. In meetings with leadership, it can feel scary to bring up things like this, especially if you can't even really put your finger on what's really wrong. It may just be a feeling, and it's easy to worry that you're the only one feeling it. Instead of ignoring it, though, I grasp for whatever words I think can be a way to describe the issue, even if it feels clumsy. And without fail, at that point, other team members feel more empowered to voice their concern about the general uneasiness as well.

When one or more teammates starts to feel frustrated or uninspired, it starts to affect the rest of the team

Once everyone can contribute a little piece of what they're experiencing, then the entire group can start to piece things together. In my experience, this starts to lead to a much more productive conversation about the root of the issue, and then establishing a plan forward. Only then can you figure out if the low morale was linked to a process problem, an issue with the team's vision, an issue with that teammate's specific workflow, or something else.

In Conclusion: A Section of Wisdom

Write EVERYTHING down. For a remote team, this is so crucial. It creates a huge body of knowledge that anyone can tap into at any time. It saves time on your part and their part. I believe it's the difference between remote teams who sink or swim.

Credits: Eliyahu M. Goldratt, Rafayel Mkrtchyan, Martin Erikson

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