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Product Manager & UX Designer Collaboration Guide

March 13, 2024
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Here at P&P, we talk a lot about our obsession with collaboration: how we work together is just as important as the work itself. We want to spotlight a fundamental relationship within the product team: product managers and UX designers. (Ideally, you have an excellent working relationship with key developers as well making a beautiful triangle, but for focus, let’s think about UX and PMs for now). While a product manager’s domain is different from a UX designer’s, there’s overlap in their skills and responsibilities. Tension and misunderstandings can arise when they don’t fully grasp each other’s roles or when they haven’t set intentional ways of working together.  

But here’s the thing: a UX designer and product manager are each other’s secret weapon. They’re the Yin and Yang of product development. When you collaborate effectively throughout the entire product development process—from concept to product launch—things can get magical 🪄

Nicole Arksey, Program Product Manager at Plotly, explains how these roles complement each other: “The best UX designers advocate for the user, and PMs need to deliver, so the tension between those two viewpoints usually leads to great solutions. Waiting for the perfect design means the product will never reach customers’ hands, but cutting corners to get something out quickly sacrifices user experience and risks losing customers due to frustration.

In this article, we’ll share our experiences and insights around how to collaborate well to reach our shared goal of building exceptional products and user experiences.

Who does what between UX and product management?

Let’s break down the core responsibilities of product management and UX design before diving into practical collaboration tips. Without clear guidelines on who’s in charge of what, it’s hard to resolve disagreements that may arise during the development process.

The product manager is a conduit between the business, development, and design, juggling multiple responsibilities under intense pressure. They’re typically super driven overachievers and multitaskers. PMs look to the future to understand where their industry is going, shape the product’s direction, oversee its go-to-market strategy, and coordinate many tasks—from user testing to release planning at a sprint level. They call the shots that UX designers rely on to do good work.

The UX designer focuses on creating optimal user experiences. They conduct user research to understand user behaviour and preferences, and use those insights to build intuitive and visually appealing interfaces. By working closely with product managers and devs, they ensure the final product meets both user needs and business goals.

Almost all software teams are strapped for design resources, with just one designer handling multiple projects. This means designers also face immense pressure and workload, risking burnout. However, when product managers provide clear direction and constraints, it significantly improves the designer’s experience and enhances the final product.

The only way to scale design is by ensuring everyone has a common understanding of UX. Take our Interaction Design For Enterprise Software course to level-up UX within your team and optimize your workflows.

Ron Kaine, Product Manager at Central 1, shares how his view of UX design evolved over the years: “Early in my career, I thought that UX was all about screen design, colour, and font choice—that’s what I looked at when meeting with the UX designer. However, while those things are important, they’re not the only thing. It’s getting the flow to be intuitive, knowing what users do most frequently and how they want to interact with software, finding information, and entering information that can mean big changes to the application.”

RACI for product development and UX roles & responsibilities  

The RACI matrix can be a useful tool for clarifying your roles and responsibilities and planning how work will get done throughout the development process. Take this example as a starting point, and adjust it to fit your team. Note all the places you don’t agree with the RACI template provided or have different opinions, this could be a great barometer for where it’d be great to have explicit discussion together on how to work the most effectively. 🎯

R: Responsible
A: Accountable
C: Consulted
I: Informed
Product development task
Product managers
UX designers
Shape product direction
R/A
R
Define product go-to-market strategy
R/A
C
Set goals for design work
R/A
C
Conduct market and contextual research
C
R/A
Map out user workflows
C
R/A
Create wireframes
C
R/A
Create prototypes
C
R/A
Conduct user testing
R/A
R
Document design rational
R/A
R
☝️ Pro tip
Collaborate on user research. “When PMs and designers conduct and share research, it means they work off a shared set of learning and assumptions that often results in a better process,” says Harrison Neuert, Director of Product Management at Nickels.

Concrete collaboration requirements at each stage of the process

Collaboration between PMs and designers usually involve the following stages, although the exact steps may vary from one product team to another. Aim to meet these collaboration goals and steer clear of the gotchas—the common pitfalls along the way.  

Stage 1: Initiating work

The trigger for UX designers and product managers to start working together might be a feature request, new data insights, a roadmap deadline, or the need to build a more competitive product.

Gotchas
  • Is the reason the work was started actually relevant and valuable? Or did the CEO with low blood sugar decide you need 100 more icons on the screen? 🙃
Goals
  • Have shared understanding of why the project is being initiated.

Note 📌 While we’re focusing on the relationship between PMs and designers here, devs should also be included in the process early on so they can assess feasibility risk and find any edge cases that designers and PMs might miss. Just like anyone else, devs do better work when they’re brought into the project early.

Stage 2: Jumping off point

Next, the product manager typically shares a mission with the designer, either through a formal design brief and kick-off meeting or a more informal chat. The designer should try to understand the product manager’s rationale and filter their ideas to find golden nuggets.

Gotchas
  • A PM’s instructions can be either too prescriptive or not defined enough.
  • A PM’s iJunior UX designers misread wireframes from PMs as “just do this.” But wireframes are a way for PMs to express themselves, encapsulate their thoughts, and kick off the conversation.nstructions can be either too prescriptive or not defined enough.
  • A UX designer may not express their bandwidth or the level of effort the project will take.
  • If the goals aren’t well defined, you won’t have anything to ground you. Your goals might shift during the process, but making them explicit and acknowledging any changes is crucial. For example, you might agree: “We thought we needed to develop a whole new permissions model, but we only needed to clarify the ones that currently exist.”
Goals
  • Align on the problem statement and the goal of the design work. Also agree on the relative amount of exploration needed:
  • Lowest: For a simple feature, fix, or adjustment
  • Medium: Implicates a flow, involves development of a pattern, and is generally pretty tricky
  • Large: Involves a new feature set or way of thinking, with design concepts needed to propel the conversation

Harrison explains his perspective as a PM: “My primary responsibility is making sure that what we’re designing and building is valuable for our users and valuable for our business. The best collaborations start when designers are able to get really clear about how a given feature or interface is driving value for users and the business. Often this means that they’ll ask a lot of questions about our goals rather than just executing to an exact brief.

Stage 3: Exploration

Here’s where you collaborate both synchronously, like in design sessions, and asynchronously. This will be a mix of low fidelity design tools, even stickies work for certain projects. Designers will need some quiet time to explore things on their own.

Gotchas
  • Explorations can either be too short or too long, causing you to miss UX opportunities or oversimplify the feature in an attempt to save time.
Goals
  • Talk through the logic and implications together.

Exploration itself can act like a spike and throw the strategy and problem statement into question. This natural part of the process shouldn’t be misconstrued as bad or wrong—that’s just how design feels before a breakthrough.

Stage 4: Identifying direction

At this stage, you’ll revisit what you discussed in the jumping off point, and check whether the solution addresses the problem statement.

Gotchas
  • It can be hard to make a product direction call one way or the other. Especially for complex and involved projects where finding a solution is challenging, you’ll need to do user testing to act as a tiebreaker or get more information. You might also try leaving the problem alone for a few days to settle and marinade. These are very complex problems and discovering the depth of the problem AND making instant decisions about it is like…really hard you guys.
Goals
  • Align on the project’s direction, feasibility, and utility.

Stage 5: Testing

This is an important stage of the development process, where you’re testing and validating your ideas.

Gotchas
  • You might get inconclusive results.
  • You might conduct testing in the wrong way—either putting in too much effort or not enough effort. ⚖️
  • You might not align on which actions to take based on the testing data (or you might forget to discuss and agree on this).
Goals
  • Align on the degree of testing required, and then test and iterate as needed. While you don’t need to do extensive user testing for every single feature, you’ll need to amp things up for riskier projects.
  • Agree on who’s doing what, like who’s conducting the tests and who’s documenting the findings. No matter who’s in charge, both sides need to have a solid foundation of the practice.
  • Align on the testing results and what to take action on. If you both join a usability test or user interview, have a quick 15-minute chat afterwards to catch up on how things went.

Stage 6: Preparing for development

Documenting your design decisions and logic at this stage helps prevent confusion and gets everyone on the same page. You need to understand what versions to deploy at different times, document them clearly, and ensure everybody understands them. There’s a lot of complexity involved, especially when it comes to logic and interaction behavior.

Gotchas
  • Coordination is haphazard and not explicit, so stuff is missed.
  • You don’t get a second pair of eyes on your work, so errors are made that disrupt development.
Goals
  • Clarify documentation responsibilities and QA each other’s work. The product manager typically documents the business logic and technical details, while the UX designer documents interaction, UI specs, and UX copy.

Stage 7: Development and implementation

Once the design is ready to be implemented,  both PMS and UX designers onboard devs to the documentation if necessary.

Gotchas
  • Design QA gets out of control and is very messy.
  • UX decisions are made without communicating or checking with the design team, introducing preventable inconsistency.
  • Communication fails because the development pace is too fast.
Goals
  • Align on who does the design QA and to what degree.

Habits and mindset for great collaboration

Now that we’ve covered specific collaboration requirements, let’s delve into how to approach this collaboration overall so you can mentally prepare yourself to get into the zone.

Let go of your ego

We get it: everyone wants to look good at work and be the best, but sometimes the “best” stuff happens when two peeps nerd out together. To make great products, both of your egos should take a backseat. You’re aligned towards a common goal, and no one needs to “look good” during the messy design process. Ideally, you want to be working in a flow state where ideas run freely, and it doesn’t matter whose brainchild the design was at the end of the day.

In fact, if you don’t remember who came up with the idea, that’s a sign of a good partnership. Nicole summarizes: “Neither side should be precious about their solutions. They should be ready to consider others’ ideas, as this is how the best designs usually come about.”

Set yourself up for smooth work sessions

Joint work sessions between product managers and UX designers require a lot of focus and energy. You’re thinking about your design goals, the logic you’ve gone through to get to this point, the things you’ve eliminated—there’s a lot going on.  

To facilitate smooth sessions, you should both prepare ahead of time and align on what you hope to achieve. Sometimes the sessions might be really open, and other times one or both of you will have wireframes or written thoughts to share.

When it comes to sharing feedback, Harrison encourages PMs to build the skill of delivering specific feedback about visual design. “Designers I’ve worked well with have helped me build my vocabulary around design basics like typography and UX patterns in order to more specifically articulate feedback about a design.”

Test frameworks and processes

Every product team has their own ways of working, so you’ve got to find your rhythm and what works best for your team dynamics and organizational culture. Test some workshops, frameworks, and work habits together for a set period (weeks, months, or sprints), always reassessing and checking in about what’s working.

At P&P, for example, we’ve developed a concept phase framework to turn low-fidelity work into clickable prototypes as soon as possible, which helps our crew feel out how different concepts could work and have better discussions with our clients. We arrive at this after a lot of testing out and retrying the framework with different teams.

Communicate your design rationale and decisions  

When you’re in the design process, you’ve got a clear goal in mind: you’re designing in more detail and organizing user testing. Both PMs and designers should be able to express and document their design rationale throughout the process—the “why” behind their design and product choices.

Harrison explains: “Many PM’s don’t have as detailed an understanding of UX best practices as the designers they work with. It’s always helpful when designers can share best practices around usability and accessibility that inform their decision making.” Harrison also suggests that designers keep an archive of past iterations handy to quickly articulate why a particular idea isn’t workable (even if it seems like a good idea in the abstract to the PM!).

Especially if you’ve been working on something for a while, you can lose the plot and forget why you’ve made certain decisions, like “Wait, why did we eliminate that first idea again?” Documenting your decisions and keeping records helps prevent that confusion.

Balance each other out

Product managers tend to lean towards control (🔥🐅🏃), while designers tend to be more exploratory (🌊✨🌍). Whatever end of the energy and vibes spectrum you skew to, finding a balance and common ground is crucial for effective collaboration. The tensions that arise between these dispositions can push designs into some very interesting directions that you might not expect.

Ron shares his advice: “As product managers, we tend to be control freaks. We’re always looking to solve customer problems, often with a solution in mind. However, when we’re willing to relinquish some control and leverage designers’ guidance and expertise, we usually work better together. In my experience, UX designers are creative and offer a different perspective from some product managers, who may be more technically inclined. It’s all about recognizing each other’s strengths and using them to our advantage.”

Wrapping up

In short: clear communication, intentional collaboration, and respecting each other’s expertise make for a winning duo. 🤝

While it might feel like you’re too busy to think about this stuff, neglecting work relationships means settling for subpar design and products. It’s the ping-pong of ideas and feedback between product managers and UX designers that sparks the kind of brilliance no one could achieve on their own.

Harrison summarizes the value of this relationship: “When PMs and designers work well it’s a great creative partnership. It means that PMs are able to identify problems that are worth the designer’s time, and designers are able to work with an eye towards business goals.”

And prioritizing this relationship isn’t just about working more efficiently—it’s also about having more fun at work. Sharing the load means less stress and more support because you won’t have to do everything alone if you make the relationship work.  

Want to dive deeper? Sign up for our Interaction Design For Enterprise Software course to level-up X within your team.

P.S. ❤️ Thank you to our awesome product management pals for piping in and providing their insights to the world. Nicole Arksey, Program Product Manager at Plotly, Ron Kaine, Product Manager at Central 1, and Harrison Neuert, Director of Product Management at Nickels. – we love you!

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