4 Signs Your UX Relationship With the Product Manager May Need Some Work

The key here is in understanding that there is a need to foster an insight around what UX is, the roles and responsibilities it has, and how the UX function interacts with other business functions.
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There are a lot of articles on the differences and definitions between the UX designer and the UI designer role (I posted one not too long ago myself). However, another topic that has recently came up in conversation with my fellow UX designers, and in a number of articles, was the relationship between ours and another core role, that of the Product Manager. Normally, and indeed in the majority of my experiences as well, the UX Designer and the Product Manager are two peas in the same pod. However, given UX's rise in the industry, Product Managers have had to consider the impact of User Experience, it's relationship with the function and the techniques associated with this domain, just as other fields have. There does, however, seem to be several stories of what to watch out for as a UX designer when liaising with the product function in order to enable the total success of a product - especially if you are coming in new and building the UX function from scratch. After all, you are both working for the good of the product and the company as a whole - and the best product will come not just from these roles figuring out their relationship to each other but from figuring out their relationship to all other associated business functions in a cohesive manner. It will, therefore, only help your UX endeavors to understand what to watch out for and how to breed a well-oiled working relationship.

Their Way or No Way

You will quickly see this characteristic in your first few meetings with a Product Manager if they have this trait; it's the typical my way or the high way attitude. Sometimes, they may listen to what you have to say but in the end, the meeting wraps up with their thoughts and it is made clear that they alone have the final say. Despite any suggestions or counter-arguments, they make it very clear that this is how things will be done.

There are several ways you can deal with this situation, but firstly know that with some people it may take a little time. One way, is to try and introduce process around your UX work. This is not to say you need a heavyweight process. However, in this situation having a level of guidance around what artifacts you will produce, the input points etc. will introduce a comfort level that everyone understands the role, as well as giving everyone a clear cut point from which to obtain feedback that is within your control.

The key here is in understanding that there is a need to foster an insight around what UX is, the roles and responsibilities it has, and how the UX function interacts with other business functions.

The Power Trip

Sometimes, especially if you are coming in new to an organization or working with a product in some "UX distress", you may end up "battling" Product Managers who seem to have a sense of entitled control over the product. This is generally with good reason of course; they are indeed responsible for the product, but as such, they should have an appreciation for UX and what it can do for them. However, there are those Product Managers who are actually just on a power trip and you may identify them from the way in which they speak, or the words and tone that they use.

Here you need to be careful; just putting process into the work may not give you your intended results as they may want to "own" the process as well. Here, you may need to employ some good old "show them and they will come" tactics. Use data to illustrate and abstract away from a "them vs. you" scenario. You could take the product or a feature in conflict and conduct some user testing to give you concrete facts to work from. Or mock up your idea or flow to take to the meeting with you - having the visual will better explain your thoughts and allow them to see another way.

Dictates the How, Not the What

Another key sign Product Managers may exhibit which shows you that a level of understanding needs to be reached is when they seem to tell other functions the how and not the what. For example, a requirement could be that the user must be able to download a file but the Product Manager might tell you how to implement a feature instead. They may even be very specific about how this should work - "a user must be able to download a file, from the file manager, from a download icon on the right side panel".

If this is the case, then they are not really letting you do UX design (i.e. connecting the dots of how everything works together). They think that they just need someone to implement what they say. Now perhaps, wrong or right, in your company the Product Manager is also the "designer" or has been led to believe so. Here, you need to decide if you need to make your role clear, or whether the company is actually looking more for a visual designer or for someone to create the exact vision of the Product Manager.

As a UX designer, you need to figure the best way for the specific requirement to be achieved. Start by asking the important questions - where and how does the user perform the function? What happens in an error situation (e.g. the user doesn't have permission to download)? What does the user see and do next? Etc. Here is where you should work with the Product Manager and get their input on these things - it normally works best if you flow it out/mock it up first, then meet with them to discuss.

If you are there to actually do UX design, then you need to educate the team and put a stake in the ground on your role and responsibilities, instead of just facilitating to their whims.

Me, Myself and I Syndrome

Another symptom that seems common is the "it's my product" mentality. In fact I have heard stories where UX Designers have actually heard Product Management say "I am designing a product for myself". Now, it is entirely possible that this may well be the case if they actually are a representative end user. However, their opinion alone will not get you very far. This is similar to the Executive or Leader who states how they want something made because they "prefer" it that way, e.g. the placement of a button or a particular color used etc.

Here, again it's the power duo of influence that comes into play- a bit of process combined with supporting data. Together these two will play a big part in helping you on your UX way. Start incorporating the analysis of customer pain points into the solution, along with how the pain is resolved. Get actual customer and user input and present this aligned to the design or flow you have created. This will help them begin to see the importance of the customer and end-users in the end-to-end process of designing solutions.

How you and UX can help

In my experience, it seems that Product Management and UX can learn a great deal from each other. Product Managers must understand their customers, especially their pains and needs, as well as the market and other business competitors to ensure that the product and roadmap they are delivering actually answers all the required needs. UX can help by bringing real data to the conversation to assist in constructing a vision that both aligns to the product vision and ensures that it is both easy and a delight to use. UX must also understand business context especially the various reasons behind business decisions. After you demonstrate the value of UX and the way in which the UX thinking-process covers the whole end-to-end experience lifecycle, you may even be asked to join in on conversations and business decisions, bringing value to other areas of the company...In fact, I have often been a part of business decisions as a UX Leader.

As a UX Designer, there are many ways in which you can contribute positively in helping the different roles of the team to form a profitable and harmonious working relationship -

Be understanding - everyone is adjusting to this new world where a great User Experience, is becoming an expectation (some may argue even that it's already an expectation and no longer just a differentiator).

Help the Product Manager to understand the full role of UX - take the time to understand their role and work together on deliverables that are at the crossroads of both your roles. This will foster a better two-way appreciation between you. For example, you could flow out the user flows then meet to talk them through it, or even work on them together, demonstrating how and why you make certain decisions.

Incorporate user testing and customer feedback - start by bringing in other viewpoints and aligning the voice of the customer, from their pain points to the solution that gets implemented. If a Product Manager isn't already doing this, then showing them how is a good start.

UX can certainly act as a cross-functional glue throughout the product design process - UX designers can work with both marketing and product to highlight the voice of the customer, their needs and pains. They can work with engineering on design possibilities and the delivery teams during the end-user portion, using their knowledge of the system design and deep understanding of the target audience to help maximize adoption rates.

At the end of the day, "setting up the right responsibilities in your organization reduces costs and risks throughout the entire product development process." It is in understanding the different job roles, their intersections, values and accountabilities that you will end up with a great product.


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