Product Management -vs- Design! Wait. Really -vs-?


We titled this episode after Matthew was invited to give feedback on a Twitter thread that was essentially Design vs PdM. There does seem to be a lot of “vs” but there really shouldn’t be. This is the downside of titling your episodes before recording them. But we still got to a good place.


Matt:  Do you wanna do an intro?

Matthew: What kind of intro?

Matt: Do we need an intro for this episode, or are we just gonna, I thought we'd kind of just ramble on into it without a clear, "Hey, welcome".

Matthew: Well, that's what the . Well, we've never done an intro like that. We've always dove, dived, dived right in.

Matt: Dived, yeah, I guess so. Alright, nevermind. 

Matt: I had a tough time coming up with some material for this. I even pulled my roommate and she didn't have a lot either.

Matthew: Really?

Matt: She said--

Matthew: Go ahead.

Matt: Said, "My product managers are really awesome "and we don't step on each others toes "and we kind of have a good clear delineation." We were talking about this yesterday for a while. So that being said, yeah.

Matthew: Maybe, we're the ones who are wrong. No, it's the children.

Matt: Well, so whoever asked the question, I wanna get her on and be like, "So what kind of beef are you having? "What's your problem?"

Matthew: "What's your problem?", yeah.

Matt: It could be a culture thing. You know, maybe, we should, people come from different backgrounds. If you're a designer, and then, you become a product manager, let's say, I could see you having a little, or you don't, or you still think you're a designer. You kind of forget where your new job is.

Matthew: Yeah, but what's the difference, really? I mean, you know--

Matt: You've got different priorities.

Matthew: Forget titles but... 

Matt: But your focus should be different. If you're a product manager, in my opinion, your focus is on product, not how they all fit together, or what your ROI is, what your marketing strategy is. You're not necessarily focused on designing screens. It's not to say you don't have valuable input and opinions, but that's not where your strength is anymore. That's not why you're at that company.

Matthew: Yeah. And, you know, I can't help but look at this from my background's perspective where, having been a product manager, albeit just for a little bit, the way I've been a designer has been more like a product manager who's also responsible for some screen work. And that's when, when I look at people who are designers and they're like, "I'm pretty happy moving pixels around. "I don't care what the ROI is", I'm like, "Why are you doing this work?" I don't understand that.

Matt: Well, and that goes back to setting expectations and having job descriptions. Because some people are totally comfortable doing that and that's what they should do. As long as they have other members of their team that are looking at the other stuff.

Matthew: Yeah.

Matt: Because people have different strengths and different interests. Personally, I don't have a ton of stories around, you know, conflict with product managers as far as overstepping. The one I can remember comes down to design, and evaluating design, and understanding how to measure good design, and competing metric as far as, how do we decide this is the design we wanna go forward with? Anyway, I worked with this one product manager who, and it was one of my big pet peeves in designed people, in general, is he was a click counter. And any screen or design anyone on my team did, it was, well, how many clicks is this gonna take?

Matthew: Right, yeah.

Matt: And which is gonna, can we come up with fewer clicks? It's all about clicks, which is where I came up with my rebuttal of, "What if we brought a screen with zero clicks? "Would that be the best design?" 

Matthew: Right. Obviously, yes. 

Matt: Right, everything's on one page. And I've talked to people, and that's something that's come up is, yeah, they don't, they have different priorities. So sometimes, it goes back to aesthetics versus functionality or usability. It's gotta look pretty. We don't necessarily focus so much on whether people can complete a task. And so, I've heard that leading to some friction of a product manager kind of dictating design to kind of skew it in one direction of, you know, what they see as a, to your point, maybe more sellable, because it looks prettier.

Matthew: Yeah, we'll make it work later.

Matt: Right.

Matthew: Let's make it look good now so that we can, we're in growth mode and we need customers. What I hear when I hear that is, you need a count. You need people to sign up. You don't care if they use it. You just need a number of accounts. It's like, your meetup has a thousand members, right, but only 20 people ever show up.

Matt: They're look for money coming in but not money staying in. 

Matthew: Right.

Matt: You know, there's no retention involved in that discussion. And I'm not a business person. Maybe, that's valid or, you know, it's a valuable strategy. I don't know, but I think you're right. That is something that people do.

Matthew: Yeah, it's a valuable strategy if your goal is, on paper, growth. If your goal is to produce a quality product that people are going to use and enjoy using and find value out of, no.

Matt: And I would hope that, yeah, the strategy, if it's growth, is, alright, get them in, and then, we'll fix it really, really, really soon. Not this, oh, we'll fix it with a five-year plan. People don't stick around for five years.

Matthew: No. 

Matt: The other one I've heard recently, I was talking with someone, it was the classic, the classic, I don't even know what you call it. The classic mistake that product people make is they design it for themselves. I know these people. I've been in their job, or I've talked to so many of them that I'll tell you how to design it because I know. I'm the expert. And they don't want testing. They don't want any sort of validation from or actual customers. 

Matthew: I know what works. 

Matt: Trust me, that's why I'm the product manager. I'm the expert in the domain, and just, here's what to do. To the point where this people I was talking with was talking to their product owner and kind of explaining how to word requirements and use cases in the, to include the user or the customer in their thinking, and they would just even game that. And they would word it in a way that it was still about them. "Let's say I'm a customer."

Matthew: "As a me, I want to..."

Matt: Right, right. And so, that's another place where I've heard recently of product people kind of stepping our of their lane, if you will, kind of infringe on the designer's or the UX person's authority.

Matthew: One of the comments to Tracy's question on the Twitter thread was, "PM, product managers and stakeholders "coming to the table with solutions "for designers to implement, "rather than, here is the problem, opportunity. "What can we do about this?"

Matt: "Here's what the market says."

Matthew: Right. And, to me, it just, I still struggle with, why aren't you, not you, but --

Matt: What did I do?

Matthew: But you. Why aren't you, as a designer, curious about this stuff, the business side of things? I've never understood designers who aren't at least curious about it. Maybe, that isn't, you know, where they put their focus. And partly, they don't put their focus because they're inundated with design work to do. To me, I look at design work as, you're making business choices. And why you don't have a fundamental understanding of what your choices do, how they impact, and how they improve or dis-improve? Un-improve, there we go. And it just boggles my mind that there are people who call themselves designers who don't care about that.

Matt: That is strange. I just had a conversation a few weeks ago with a client about this and they were telling me they were having trouble finding full-time UX designers that they trusted and liked. And they're asking me kind of the same question. How come they don't think to look at the bigger picture?

Matthew: Yeah.

Matt: And I say, you know, guessing, because I haven't done research or talked to a lot of people. It's partly, I would guess, an element of experience where they haven't learned by their mistakes, where being shortsighted can miss opportunities. So I'll say they're younger, not so much in age, but in experience, or less mature in experience within the world of user experience design, where they're just missing those. They don't see the gaps. And they're so laser-focused on, like you said, designing a page or a screen or something that they don't pick their head up. Because they're not being taught that in whatever classes they go to or, you know, whatever training they've had. So I think that's two of the reasons. Yeah, I don't know, but I've heard that, too.

Matthew: Another reason, and it's a valid reason, but also, not a valid reason is, and I'll explain, is designers who work at a large enough company where they are required to specialize and just do their thing, and they've got enough of that thing to keep them busy all week that it's hard to look beyond what they've been asked to do. I still wonder about that, but I also understand it, right? You work at an enterprise level. You've got plenty of stuff to do often that you don't have time to go and to basically be a junior product manager.

Matt: And I think that's it, is that those large organizations have good people, hopefully, if they company's doing well, good people in those roles where they're focused on the longer-term strategy and the cross-feature collaboration, that designers don't have to worry about that. Nothing's gonna go wrong if they miss that because they've got other people looking out.

Matthew: To the point of this show's title-- There are a lot of product managers who are great to work with and who really know what they're doing and who like design, do the thing they're good at, and also, who, when they, as product managers, are out talking to customers, don't say things like, "Hey, if I made an app "that made your life better, "would that make your life better?"

Matt: You would use this, right? You'd use this?

Matthew: "Can you sign this to say that you'll use it? "Give you $50 participation money. You're supposed to be using this.

Matt: Right.

Matthew: Yeah, to the point of this show's title, you know, We Can Do Better, there's always room for doing better. So, yes, there are a lot of product managers and designers out there who do care about the business side of things and who are doing their jobs well. There are also a lot of people out there who are not for a variety of reasons. But even--

Matt: Let's talk about them.

Matthew: Let's talk about those bastards. No. There's still always room for improvement, I think, is the thing.

Matt: Sure. Are there any other specific things you've run across where the line is blurred between product and designer and it causes conflict?

Matthew: For me, I think the biggest issue working with product management really kind of does come down to the, I'm solving this for me, or, they just don't know how to ask questions properly.

Matt: That's huge.

Matthew: You know, and I--

Matt: Even designers say that.

Matthew: What was that?

Matt: Even designers and researchers--

Matthew: Oh, absolutely, right? I know, and you and I have been on things together where I said something in a way to a participant and I thought, oh, crap, I can't believe I phrased it like that.. So, you know, we can do better. But there's a lot of product managers out there who, not even just product managers. It's everybody. But, since we're just talking about them, there's a lot of product managers who are just like, "Well, I've gotta ship features. "We're supposed to be releasing new stuff every two weeks, "or every six weeks, or every six months, or whatever, "and we can't break that cadence. "We have to keep our velocity. "We have to keep shipping." And the obsession with that over the obsession with providing value to the customer. To me, I think that's a huge, problematic area.

Matt: Along those lines, I'll throw in another one you reminded me of. And this isn't so much as designer versus product manager, but just a product manager gripe, I suppose, is the, keep up with the check boxes. We used to call it, oh, the competition has this feature. We have to have that feature. Not so much an understanding of whether your customers want it, or whether it fits in with your whole strategy. It's, we have to tick the same boxes.

Matthew: I remember even back when I was at State Farm, so anywhere from 2000 to 2006, wherever the Venn diagram of Amazon existed and this statement being made. I was, literally, in a meeting. "Let's just do what Amazon does "because I really like the way they handle this." And I don't even remember what it was, but I remember that statement. And, even back then, being a young upstart designer, I knew to go, "But our customers are not buying books." Because, back then, that's all Amazon sold.

Matt: Right, read your history books.

Matthew: That's right. Just got an Amazon email saying, "Buy tires for your car." What?

Matt: "Buy health insurance." "I thought you just sold books."

Matthew: That's right. It's not that that comes from product management, specifically, but it's, to me, anybody who's on the side of business. And I do think that there is, I don't think there should be, but I think there's a delineation between the people who are on the side of business and the people who are on the side of implementing the solution to support the business, right? Ideally, they're all together. They're all in the businesses to serve the customer.

Matt: And I get that and, to kind of give a little counter-point is, you see a successful business, the natural inclination is to follow them.

Matthew: Right, yeah.

Matt: Like, "Wow, they're doing things right. "They have great user experience. "Why not do what they're doing?" And that's where the UX person can educate a businessperson or a product person like you've just kind of explained. Yes, they're doing great things for their business, for their customers. Maybe we can take some of what they've learned and apply it. But just copying it is not the way to go. I get the seduction, you know, of doing what the number one competitor is doing. But that's not the way you, that's not where you win for your customers.

Matthew: For me, the answer is always going to be, your team, if you are a product manager and you have a team of designers, developers, QA, writers, whatever, if your company is organized like that, your team is responsible for delivering value to the customer and, by extension, value to the business. Anybody who is focused only, "We just need to ship features", I don't really understand it. I can't condone it.

Matt: I will not condone it.

Matthew: I will not condone it. Well, I mean, I think I might've mentioned this on the show before but, you know, that stint that I had as a product manager, I was told indirectly, but directly, by the VP of product that we're shipping things of value to the customer. And I took that seriously. And, when I presented the plan for doing that, I was told, "No, you can't do that. "You have to ship features." Because we were going to skip a release except for major bug fixes, and we weren't going to ship a new feature. I didn't get in trouble exactly, but I kind of got in trouble for going down that path. And I condoned it and dis-condoned it enough, and also, the opportunity at Ngen came along that I was like, "Smell you later because "I can't work in an environment that doesn't care "about its customers. "Maybe, I'm the one who's wrong. "Maybe, it is me."

Matt: Maybe, it's you. No, it's the children.

Matthew: It is the children. We've veered a little bit on this one.

Matt: That's what we do.

Matthew: That's alright.

Matt: We veer. In my head, there's always like a clear, again, just in my head. It doesn't make it to the video all the time. Like, "Hey, let's get started."

Matthew: I think it's kind of a mix. I think, sometimes, we veer, sometimes, we don't.

Matt: That's cool. Man, that was good. I think we've stayed close enough to the topic that it was--

Matthew: We should just go for it anyway. And sometimes, you know--

Matt: Let's go for it.

Matthew: Go for it. This is what people with hundreds of podcast episodes do. It doesn't always--

Matt: Yeah, and I like that almost better because it was just more natural and--

Matthew: Yeah.

Matt: Conversational.

Matthew: The only other thing that I would want to say about this topic, product managers, bring your designers who know how to do research, or your researchers with you when you're out there gathering information from clients.

Matt: Good call.

Matthew: Rely on them. Not all of them are terrible.

Matt: That's right. Right, you're the expert in the domain, but they're the expert at getting the information.

Matthew: Right, yeah. And, to me, that's what makes an excellent partnership between, you know, quote/end quote, design, and I'm including research in that, and product management. Because it really should be a partnership.

Matt: That's the word I was gonna use, too. I agree. I condone that word.

Matthew: Thank you. I also condone it. My name is Matthew Oliphant and I approve this message.

Matt: Bye, everybody.

Matthew: Goodbye, everybody.

Matt: Alright, good show, people. Good show.