Last night, sitting in a local cafe with my friends (which I’m considering a huge event now), I accidentally saw a guy who was working on a presentation at the table next to me. The first slide read: ‘DESIGN NOT TYPE’. This stranger’s slide hit me like a sign: we should continue to explore the relations between designers and product managers.
If you’re not familiar with the first part of our journey, go check it, because it absolutely amazes. I mean, before, we’ve heard a lot of opinions about clashing interests, taste differences, and even simple communication issues. But our speakers destroyed all these stereotypes with their generosity and politeness towards their co-workers. But will we get a different take from the designers?
Cliffhangers are exhausting, so let’s just have a little self-reflection talk.
The Journey Begins as Soon You Make the First Step
Sorry, guys, my nostalgia has called, and guess what?
When I was a freshman at university, I had a class called ‘Business Process Modeling.’ After drawing the first IDEF0 on the whiteboard, our professor said: “Diagrams are universal. You may come from different backgrounds, countries, and have different beliefs. But, if both of you speak the language of charts, you’ll always understand each other.”
The older I get, the more I assume that's true. We could easily distinguish road signs from brand logos, but there is one thing that has always puzzled me: how to spot the dialects of that language that suit you most?
Modern design is a vast field, so many-sided that sometimes I catch myself floating in a limbo of entities. From cave paintings to the first mention of the term ‘graphic design’ in Boston Evening Transcript in 1922, from the breakthrough with the CERN website to a blueprint of ‘every-famous-modern-social-media-platform.’ Seems like it’ll take years to construct a complex map of design, because everything is connected. EVERYTHING WAS DESIGNED. And, before I start to sound like a conspiracy weirdo, I’ll introduce you to my friends from the world of product design.
Let’s focus on stories of people who create useful products in order to make our lives better.
Meet Our Experts in Product Design
Chris Ruffell, a product designer at D2L working on the Brightspace learning management system, which is a cloud-based software used by schools, higher education, and businesses, for online and blended classroom learning.
I am determined to improve the experience of a typically under-supported user; the administrator. The question is how we speed up the process of onboarding new admin users to a complex system — considering the users aren’t familiar with how the system was engineered? Like any fresh user, new admin users require time to build competency, traditionally through training, which essentially is that person’s reliance on the ability to recall how that particular system works. However, admin users have it more demanding than any other user — admins have to know how the entire system works. The problem stems from the sheer burden of time it takes to absorb the technical knowledge required to set up and operate an enterprise-level software suite.
While it took a lot of time to decipher the admin side of how systems are built, that allowed me, as a product designer, to explore the needs of new administrators and how best to serve them. “What do our admin users really need” is a problem that I am keenly enthusiastic to tackle, because it's an opportunity to flatten a learning curve through empathetic solutions that rely on recognition, rather than recall. I am fond of reminding anyone who will listen to remember that ‘admins are users too’!
Taking Responsibility in Order to Create Something Bigger than You, Bigger than Your Team
Product Management, Design, and Engineering, must work together as a harmonious, cross-functional family, making timely use of available resources while creating meaningful solutions for users and the business alike.
To illustrate the concept of the synchronicity that is required in our product division, there is a useful metaphor that we use: ‘the three-legged stool.’ While each of these roles will have its focus area of expertise, through efficient communication and collaboration, each will understand what the other is doing, allowing them to align on the ‘why’, ‘how’, and ‘when’ aspects of the project.
As designers, we are proxy representatives and advocates for the users’ needs. It is my job to foster alignment using empathy and efficient communication within the product team, which is key for cross-platform success. Like any relationship, time must be consistently and proactively invested in cultivating relationships among Design, Management, and Engineering.
Acting Efficient While Remaining Human
Sometimes even the most well-intentioned teams may find that communication is lacking. If those cases occur, my first step is to proactively arrange a meeting, and the next step is to get everyone on the same page.
An extremely useful tool in facilitating a team's alignment process is the creation of ‘UX artifacts’, shareable visual representations derived from the empathy and discovery research phases of the design thinking process. In particular, I have found user personas, usability reports, wireframes, interactive prototypes, and recorded UX video examples, to be very effective forms of UX artifacts for promoting alignment and understanding, especially when used in combination.
By taking highly abstract concepts and making them visual and concrete, these artifacts help to build a narrative and highlight key metrics and data that are driving the project’s needs and goals.
Once the team is aligned, using similar language is key. Communicating in a similar manner assists the Product Management, Design, and Engineering silos within the product team to identify with each other’s perspective, ultimately benefiting both the end-user and the business. To be sincerely aligned, all team members must agree with the direction, and genuine alignment is fundamental for successful product companies.
Technical Background Is Tricky, Isn’t It?
The better we, as product designers, can understand the way that our designs are implemented in development, the better. By learning about the engineering side of the product and organization, a product designer can help ensure that the users’ requirements are being understood by all parties, and that important requirements are being addressed and not ‘lost in translation’, as it were. While there has been a push for engineers to introduce a more design-oriented approach to how they work, product designers can also help by meeting them halfway and learning how to code and also how the engineers’ development approach works.
It’s Not Only about the Technical Side; It’s an Art Form, Too
Whenever you’re feeling uninspired, my advice is to change your perspective first. For instance, stand up from that computer chair and take a walk. Or, dive into user research reports from other designers’ projects and read about the new needs that have been discovered. The trick is changing the closed mindset of ‘applying what I know’ to the open mindset of ‘I’m ready to learn.’
Inspiration can be found everywhere! I love how there is no end to places or people you can turn to for a new outlook. Reach out at work and set up a quick thirty-minute meeting with someone outside your immediate day-to-day and learn about who they are, what they’re up to, who they know, and genuinely connect with them. Share your job description and where you spend your time and effort, your daily challenges and process, and you will likely find some common experiences.
In Conclusion: Some Advice From Great Minds
Framing the project with the appropriate point of view is vital. Know your audience! For instance, when presenting a prototype to Product Development and Management, a product designer must be able to recap the perspective of the user, the problem, and explain their choices in the use of the design patterns they chose — especially if they altered a user interface component from how it had been used elsewhere in the product.
My advice to designers would be to stick to the design thinking process, basing decisions on user research, and creating meaningful UX artifacts and to present your findings often. Additionally, the more product designers can understand the constraints and processes of product managers and engineers, the more they can share the users’ perspective and explain design choices, and, in doing so, the product solution we create will improve. Ultimately, the key is to use all of this understanding and empathy to achieve genuine alignment among all the elements of the project team.
Maria Shanina, a product designer at Shopify
Multidisciplinary designer with a background in fine arts, currently working as a product designer and leading personalized onboarding experience at Shopify. An entrepreneur in the past, Maria applies her product design knowledge and experience to help other people start their entrepreneurial journey.
I’m currently leading and forming a team that focuses on the onboarding experience of the SAAS product I’m working on. I'm a part of a trifecta, where decisions are made by three representatives of key areas: Product, Engineering and UX. In my recent project I’ve had a chance to represent both UX and Product. So my priority shifts between producing artefacts and running team activities that a product manager would be responsible for, like a project’s problem formulation, planning, writing briefs, and making a roadmap. At the same time I’m responsible for UX outcomes, such as facilitating design sprints or mapping projects and user experience.
Taking Responsibility in Order to Create Something Bigger Than You, Bigger Than Your Team
First of all, product managers and designers are good allies. Secondly, they might be interchangeable if it’s really necessary due to a shortage of people. Meaning that both know so much about each other’s areas of expertise that their learnings start to overlap over time. This makes it easier for them to find a consensus and plan a strategic execution. Although it doesn’t mean that either’s individual expertise isn’t needed. No matter how good they are at strategic thinking, tactical problems are always better solved by an expert in the field. That means only a UX person could better plan and contribute to a design sprint, whereas a product person would do a better job with the logistics.
Acting Efficient While Remaining Human
Communication is key. As I mentioned before, different departments of our teams form trifectas or ‘multifectas.’ That means that, each time there’s a meeting, there’s a representative from each department involved. This way the work stays transparent to all departments.
Communication is key
As for the Design and Product Management departments in particular, these two work very closely from the beginning of any project. Product managers, valuing user experience very high, always involve UXers in early thinking. Same way, whenever a UXer starts thinking about a new idea, they communicate to product people on a regular basis. This way of work benefits both parties and helps make sure the project not only caters to the users’ needs but also meets the product (business) requirements.
Technical Background Is Tricky, Isn’t It?
When a PM has a tech background in design it certainly helps. The question here is how a product person offers their feedback. Giving and receiving feedback is a skill that needs to be worked on. If a person offers their feedback as a way of helping to move the project and improving it, it’s always welcomed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a situation where a product manager’s involvement was perceived as distracting. Again, it all depends on the communication (read: ‘trust’ and ‘respect’ between two people).
At the end of the day we all want to ship something awesome and make users’ lives better. And this is the common ground for any argument that might arise.
As a designer facing feedback you might not agree with it at first, try to ask yourself:
- “Will this work?
- Will it make the experience better?”
- As a product manager giving feedback, try to form it as a suggestion rather than critique, something like “what if we change this?” or “have you considered that?”
And some advice to both parties: just try to build a dialog, explore ideas together, and lean on each other’s strengths.
It’s Not Only About the Technical Side; It’s an Art Form, Too
When I feel my energy level goes low I take some time off. Usually between projects, especially in the projects where the stakes are high.
Even so, I tend to think that no project is ever complete, and each time we ship something it’s just an iteration. We’ll get more data and more learnings from this iteration and improve the experience even further. Despite this fact, I need some time to recharge between projects. I take a couple of days off and try to spend this time away from my computer.
If for some reason I cannot take some time off, I’ll find a ‘healthy distraction’, as I call it, — a small project in an absolutely different area. For example, I can find it fulfilling to create a nice eye-candy presentation or do some graphic design experiments just for fun. Or I can be stuck in my art studio and spend this time unwinding and painting a new piece.
Going to museums and galleries was always a huge part of my inspiration but due to COVID it’s no longer an option for me. So I temporarily replaced it with ordering and reading very nice books about graphic design and visual art that I’d always wanted to possess. So I’m building my personal library at the moment.
In Conclusion: Some Advice From Great Minds
There are a few rules I try to follow:
- Ask but don’t assume.
It’s so easy to fall under the wrong impression and assume something that’s not even there. It’s human nature to build tales in our minds and make guesses. Try leaving it behind. Always ask a person what they mean, especially when it seems pretty obvious to you. You might have gotten it wrong.
- Rephrase and repeat.
Each of us might understand a message differently. To be sure your message is received as intended, try to rephrase it and repeat, or ask people how they understand it.
- You’re not alone.
There are many people and teams having difficulties with communication. It’s okay. You need to build trust with a person (or people) to achieve good communication with them. Start talking to your peers and asking about their struggles. You’ll see how much you have in common.
- Keep your work transparent and over-communicate.
Oftentimes designers can work in silos and share only the final stage of the project. This way, they miss out so much. The more and earlier you share, the better.
First, you’ll avoid making unnecessary changes later, saving yourself and your team time.
Second, you’ll get valuable input and feedback from different departments and your peers, which will make your work better and more impactful.
And, finally, you will gain your peers’ trust. Even if it’s just boxes and arrows, all other departments are always curious to see what kind of magic tricks designers are performing. And believe me: they’ll appreciate a sneak peek :)
- Learn the art of giving and receiving feedback.
Feedback is everything for a designer. It’s something they cannot grow without. It’s something they cannot build a great design collaboration without. As important as being able to share honest feedback with good intention, it’s important to know how to receive feedback openly and objectively.
- Disagree and commit.
Sometimes there are situations where a decision must be made, and having too many strong opinions across the table would slow down the whole development process. Try to recognize those moments and see if your strong opinion is becoming an obstacle for your team. Think what could be done differently, and, even if you disagree with a certain product decision, learn to commit and still design the best experience you can do.
Last but not least, there’s also a great book called ‘Radical Candor.’ Even though it’s intended for leads, I highly recommend that everyone read it. It’s not easy to build relationships. Especially now, when we mainly work remotely. This book can help you a lot.
And remember: trust and respect are difficult to gain and easy to lose.
Written by Marsel Tukhvatshin