How Product Managers Build Healthy Relationships with Designers
Designers and product managers tend to work side by side. As such, it’s important for them to establish and maintain close, collaborative relationships.
"Designers and product managers have to be partners. As a PM, your designer is your right arm. And you need to figure out how to make that relationship work above and beyond everything else." says Annie Dunham, Director of Product Management at ProductPlan. Throughout her career, Annie has worked with many different designers, each with their own preferred work style.
Her best piece of advice for starting off the critical partnership between product management and design on the right foot? Coffee.
"Take your designer out for coffee. Get to know them first and foremost. Understand what motivates them, what they need, and how they like to work. And then worry about the rest."
— Annie Dunham, Director of Product Management at ProductPlan
Of course, coffee isn’t the only key ingredient involved in creating a good relationship with the designers you work with (though it’s a good start). Let’s talk about 3 other critical things product managers need to do to foster healthy relationships and work effectively with designers.
Alignment: The foundation of a healthy product manager/designer relationship
Working with a designer for the first time can be a challenging balancing act for some product managers. On one hand, you need to communicate the very specific customer needs that need to be met and provide plenty of context into customer pain points. On the other, you need to give designers space and autonomy to do what they do best.
If you’re overly prescriptive in your approach, you risk stifling creativity, which not only is demotivating to designers, but also may prevent you from getting the best outcome possible. That’s why it’s advised to train yourself to communicate with designers about the problem rather than the solution.
"The most important thing the product person can do is explain what the problem is. They should know what the job to be done is and what it is you’re trying to help the customer do," explains Dunham, adding that it’s not uncommon to come up with a couple solutions to share with designers, but that those should be strictly for the purpose of clarifying the problem you’re trying to solve.
"How do we know if this is right?"
In addition to communicating thoroughly about the problem you’re seeking to solve, it helps if you also get on the same page with your designer about what success looks like. Get together and chat about how you’ll know if a design gets the job done. Ask each other "What are the ways we’re going to validate with customers that this design solves the problem we’re intending to solve?"
Sometimes the best way to validate whether a design works is simply getting it in front of customers and watching them use it. Other times success could be measured with standardized usability metrics such as discoverability or time to complete.
"You and your designer need to be on the same page about what these metrics are. The metrics don’t need to come from one person or the other, but you need to be aligned on what success is," says Dunham.
Collaboration: Make design handoffs a thing of the past
While there will always be points where there is a perceived transition in responsibility, formal design "handoffs" as we know them are becoming a thing of the past.
"I think the notion of a handoff is going by the wayside. You're a team. As such, you shouldn't have transition points, you should have collaboration points," says Dunham.
These so-called "collaboration points" will vary entirely team by team. For example, distributed teams working across different time zones may have different points of collaboration than co-located teams. That said, there are 3 things you can do to help ensure you foster a healthy collaboration process between yourself and designers:
- Define clear responsibilities
- Facilitate frequent feedback loops
- Loop designers in on customer insights
Defining clear responsibilities
Ambiguity can cause friction. Be clear about who is responsible for what, and where accountability lies.
"You, your designer, and even your engineers need to share an understanding of one very important thing: you need to agree and align on owned and shared responsibilities. For example, 'I as the PM am responsible for defining the customer problem, WE as a team are responsible for defining what you need to feel like you have that information'" explains Dunham.
Facilitating frequent feedback loops
Feedback sessions and check ins can be great collaboration points, and it’s wise to have your first check ins early on in the process (early and often feedback loops can help solve one of the possible points of design friction we’ll discuss later in the article). Work with your designers to determine an ideal cadence and format for check ins. You want to collaborate closely, but the last thing you want to do is make designers feel like you’re breathing down their necks.
Looping designers in on customer insights
Designers need customer empathy to create the best user experiences they possibly can. As a product manager, you’re most likely interacting closely with customers, and it’s helpful if you can share customer insights with them to help drive that customer empathy.
"The current trend is to bring UX and Engineering into early validation conversations with customers. In these calls, you will all hear things differently, so it’s a good idea to record these calls so you can go back and clarify what was actually said," says Dunham.
Of course, if your team is extremely lean, that’s not always doable. Instead, you can share quotes with designers from the conversations you’re having.
"During the validation phase, I’m constantly sending our designer chats with quotes from my customer interviews. I share any context I get with him," Dunham explains, "But as soon as we’re going to build something, our designer starts sitting in on all of the feedback calls to get that context firsthand."
Conflict: Settling design disputes
In any relationship, conflict is bound to happen. Disagreements are perfectly healthy, but the way you settle those disagreements can make or break your relationship. This is true for design conflicts just as much as it is for personal ones. Fortunately, solving design disagreements can be fairly straightforward and objective.
In most cases, your best bet for settling design disputes is to get the design(s) in question in front of customers. After all, you and the designers you work with rarely have the exact same perspective as your end users. Therefore, it’s sometimes best to let them have the last word about design.
"If we disagree, the conversations we have commonly are about answering 'What’s the smallest way we can test what we think?'" says Dunham, "We try to determine what’s the easiest thing we can do to put it in front of the customer, and then we can take it in one direction or the other from what we learn from them."
What to do when expectations and reality clash
Let’s look at another, less common, point of friction that you may experience when working with designers.
What do you do when a designer designs something that’s completely wrong?
"When a designer delivers something you feel is completely off base, it becomes a question of why. In cases like these, it’s unlikely that the breakdown happened because someone was wrong, and highly-likely it happened due to a misalignment somewhere," explains Dunham.
In the event you experience something like this, step back and try to identify why it happened. Was the problem defined well enough? Was there a misunderstanding of the problem? Missing context? Focus primarily on why and how there was misalignment, not on the fact that it happened in the first place. In the future, you can change the former but not the latter.
Like any relationship, your relationship with the designers you work with is an ongoing commitment. While the suggestions we’ve shared above can help get you started, it’s up to you to continue strengthening your partnership. Talk to the designers you work with frequently about how things are going, participate in design retrospectives, and continue to look for ways you can improve (together).
Finally, remember those PM/designer coffee dates you started out your relationship with? Make them a regular part of your routine. People can be just as dynamic as their products are, and you want to stay close to your designer as their motivations and goals evolve. Plus, what product manager/designer duo couldn’t use a little extra caffeine every once in a while?