How are the responsibilities divided when it comes to product definition ? Where does the PM’s responsibility end ?
With engineers, it is a lot more clear for me but it is hard for me to draw a hard line between my and my designer’s responsibilities.
I think of PM and designer collaborations like this.
The PMs job is to sell the business that “ABC” feature will help solve “XYZ” problem.
The designers job is to understand “XYZ” problem, and sell the PM on designs that graphically direct a user to solve that problem.
As a PM I have worked with several great designers and they constantly ask me questions. I would actually get worried if they stopped asking me questions. I expected a million of them.
But after that, I expected them to come back with ideas to solve the problem at hand, and I trusted them.
Another tip on collaboration that I found useful is to set boundaries of your expectations. In many cases, I had very clear direction on what something should look like and some design direction and I would make that clear. It was basically some non-negotiables I had to set. And as a PM, try to have as few of these as possible.
Most everything else, I wanted to get the designers best shot at coming up with something, I made that clear too.
Some PMs get a power trip and want to dictate every small detail. I personally like to let designers…well…design. And that gives me better options to choose from and I’ve had incredible working relationships and friendships with my designers.
As a designer who turned down multiple offers to switch over to the PM side, I commend you for your attitude towards designers. You do your job well and you let them do theirs well, everybody happy.
I have worked with so many PMs, most of them not great but a couple had so much faith in me that it made my job fun.
I didn’t have the confidence to switch over, as I feared I‘d never be able to “let go enough” to do exactly what you described. I’m learning some key communication and leadership skills now so I think i’ll be ready to if I wanted to in the near future.
PMs are orchestrators, translators, enablers, and final-say havers (a position that is asked of you, not taken). In the same way, a hotel manager doesn’t need to choose the layout of the rooms, or the distance from the bathroom to the pool, neither does the PM need to define exactly how a product is built or what it looks like. If the designer is good, then PMs should rarely have a relevant opinion on this. In the same way, PMs do not have much opinion on how a system is architected.
Your role is to provide the technical team with the tools, resources, and thought process to come up with great ideas and. execute on them. You should give them the techniques to think about problems in a customer-centric way and provide business framing that they likely lack from being so immersed in problems.
Good designers can represent the customers better than PMs can. They can do deep user research and really understand the problems users face both qualitatively and quantitatively. Often what designers are not good at is bridging the gap between what is technically feasible (our backend can only do X because Y) which makes scoping challenging and can lead to conflict with engineering. This also applies to the data science discipline.
PMs can serve as translators from design to engineering, turning a design outcome into an engineering requirement that is scalable, achievable, and valuable based on the available resources. PMs also have a more universal view of the world. Designers, Data science, and engineering might all have different ideas about what is appointment. It’s the PM’s role to drive alignment around the roadmap while keeping everyone’s needs met.
Often PMs want to do the job of the designers because it’s fun, but generally, I find this happens because there is either not a designer on the team, the designer is junior or no good, or the designer is simply spread too thin to give equal care and love to each feature. Part of the PM role is filling those gaps where they are needed.
In my experience, the best collaborations between PMs and designers happen when the PM provides just enough definition to point the designer in a valuable direction, and then the designer carves out time to really dig deep into the problem and propose meaningful solutions.
If designers feel like PMs are ‘micro-managing’ (which I have been guilty of) or not defining the problem space clearly enough (ditto), they may feel adrift and be unhappy. Some designers will be vocal about this and others won’t, but as a PM, it’s incumbent on you to find a solution either way. Make it a safe space for honesty, shield your designers from having to show unfinished work or otherwise move out of their comfort zone, and ask them what they need to do their jobs.
Lastly, remember to respect the creative schedule. PMs are in meetings much of the day, but designers aren’t and usually don’t want to be. Keep meetings short and sweet, invite designers as optional as much as possible, and provide time and space to let designers follow their own processes, and in my experience, you will have a healthy and happy collaboration.
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