The Struggle of Product and Design

The Struggle of Product and Design

As I interview candidates for a product manager position I’m really hoping to see history and experience with design. If a candidate doesn’t have a deep desire to work as a partner with design, they don’t fit into our style of Product Leadership.

An amazing product team culture is critical to a creative product development. When a team is focused on innovation it needs openness and creativity. The relationship between product and design is where a design culture starts.

There is a natural struggle when a handful of creative people try to work together as a team. The best product teams embrace this struggle and focus on developing a culture that enables them to work through it. I see so many product teams that instead try to “solve” the struggle with process and ownership boundaries.

Who owns what?

Today I was asked: “Is it accurate to say Product dictates what gets built, and Design dictates how it gets displayed?”

The question really is heartbreaking. First because it’s fundamentally flawed in what it’s even trying to determine (Who’s in charge?) but second, because so many people in Product really think this way.

The answer is simple: No. It is inaccurate.

In a good product team no one “dictates” anything. In a good team product and design and engineering collaborate to make decisions together.

I understand why it gets asked. If you can determine “who owns what”, then you don’t step on each other’s toes. It helps you address the struggle of creative minds butting heads. But, in my opinion, it doesn’t actually solve the core problems, and it most likely will damage a product team’s culture.

Boundaries don’t improve collaboration

The irony is that the type of product manager that thinks she can “dictate what gets built” will be the same product manager that will think she can “overrule” a designer when she disagrees with a design decision. Which obviously breaks the ownership boundaries model.

If a product manager and designer are struggling to collaborate, clearer boundaries and “lines in the sand” won’t help. If anything these expectations will likely exacerbate the walls they have built between each other.

Imagine a designer knows from user research that a solution concept could have a huge impact on the teams objectives but a PM shuts the designer down with: “You don’t get to decide ‘what’ we build.” Or imagine a product manager has some simple ideas that will make a design much easier to build but the designer shuts the Product Manager down. with: “You don’t get to decide what the UX looks like.”

If you’ve ever set these expectations for a team, you likely just wanted to clarify ownership in order to solve the struggle of design and product disagreeing. But you end up with two people building resentment and playing their trump cards.

In the case of product and design not collaborating, creating ownership boundaries is simply enabling the inability to agree. Often, the boundaries actually make the disagreement more visceral.

If a product manager and designer are struggling to collaborate the key is to find something on which they can connect. Most often, the product manager needs to adjust the way he or she is communicating and working with the designer.

Product Leadership is Shared Leadership

Product leadership is not “deciding a what”. It is not just a job where you come up with requirements and put them in some form of documentation for handoff. It is so much more than that. It is about leadership. More specifically it is about shared leadership.

A good product leader empowers their team to own the product together. The product leader works with the designer to find an area on which they agree, and a solution about which they’re both excited. And then that leader shares with the designer autonomy and opportunity to own what gets designed and delivered.

Great product management is leadership. And great leaders don’t dictate to their team.

Working with Great Designers

A designer that is empowered to help own the product, help craft what you’re building, and help decide how you prioritize solutions, will design a better product. They’ll put more of their heart and mind into what they believe is theirs.

Brilliant people don’t like being told ‘no’. You tell a good designer ‘no’ too many times, she’ll go find a product leader that tells her ‘yes’.

Great designers won’t work with PMs that simply dictate what needs to be designed.

Great product leaders won’t work with designers that try to block Product from the design.

The best designers I know could be product managers tomorrow if they wanted. (And many have become amazing product leaders that I admire.) They choose product design because they enjoy that work.

Amazing Product Team Culture

Team Culture is a culmination of the behaviors and beliefs of the individuals on a team. You hire to it; and you craft it by developing a set of shared behaviors and beliefs together.

For the most creative and innovative teams I’ve worked on, the product leader behaved in a way that demonstrated trust in the team (especially design). The best product team culture is centered on the product leader’s belief that the whole team owns the product.

To have amazing product team culture you need product leadership and design trusting and working together. To have an amazing product team culture you do not need to make clear who dictates what.