7 ways to improve your designer–PM collaboration
As a product designer, you’ll spend a lot of your time with a product manager. There’s an art to creating an awesome, mutually beneficial working relationship. Here’s what I know.
This relationship is sacred. And it’s no secret that how well you collaborate will determine the level of excellence you’ll be able to bring to your product. Loosely put, product managers are the yins to our product designer yangs. And both are crucial.
PM+PD is one of the most important cross-functional relationships in any organization. And, if done right, also becomes a triumvirate with an engineering lead — but that’s for another article.
I’ve spoken to several experienced product managers and designers here at Productboard, sprinkled in my own experience, and created this helpful guide for working with PMs.
1. Build a solid relationship.
These roles work together so closely, that feeling comfortable around each other, and being able to get along is incredibly important. We’re all human first. There must be trust, respect, and the usual magic required for a good relationship.
You might have expected me to say that it doesn’t really matter if you “like” each other or not, but I’m going to tell you straight: it does. You’ll enjoy the work so much more if you do. This person is going to become your “work wife” or “work husband” — that’s how much time you’ll be spending together, so invest in building a solid foundation.
Zdenek Kuncar, design manager at Productboard, emphasizes the importance of this aspect:
“If the relationship doesn’t work well, but you still have to work together every day, you’ll become annoyed or, worse, stop communicating with each other.”
You should take care and time to develop a trusting and friendly relationship. Understanding your respective roles plays an important part in this. Designers will find that the PM’s job is much more tethered to real-life realities, and largely involves aligning teams to build and deliver the right thing (experience, feature, or solution) that solves customer problems and advances the business.
And finding that right thing is risky. In fact, here are the 4 product “risks” that PMs care about:
- Value: Will it solve the customers’ problem and will they buy it?
- Usability: Can people figure out how to use it?
- Feasibility: Can we build this?
- Viability: Is that solution viable for our business?
I recommend reading ‘Inspired’ by Marty Cagan if you want to learn more about these.
The takeaway here is that there’s an overlap where designers and PMs must work together to address these risks. That overlap lies mainly in minimising risks related to value and usability. This is where product managers and product designers will work together the most, and create the most magic. Having a good relationship is the best foundation for success here.
2. Transparent communication.
It’s true what they say: open communication is the cornerstone of any good relationship. Great collaboration can’t exist without frequent and transparent communication. For both sides, it starts with being clear about what your expectations are. Zdenek says:
“There’s no one correct way of working. The designer and PM should clarify what they’re good at and how they want to work together.”
For designers, transparency also means sharing your work with your PM early and often. It’s ideal if PMs can access your design work any time and know their way around it. But you shouldn’t take this for granted, and I’d recommend that you proactively approach them with the latest learnings, explorations, or finished designs you’ve been working on. They’re busy juggling a lot of plates.
At the same time, don’t be afraid to share early, unpolished ideas. They often spark great conversations that will help you move forward with decisions. Seeing ideas come to life can also lead to the creation of new approaches or catch any problems that were previously invisible.
Having a trusting and friendly relationship will definitely help you be more comfortable with sharing something early or having difficult discussions.
You should also talk openly about what you can improve about the way you work. For example, you can do discovery retrospectives to identify what’s been working well, and where you’ve got points of friction so that you can address these differently.
3. Focus on outcomes.
Strong product organizations focus on outcomes over outputs: or solving customer and business problems instead of just shipping features. PMs are usually the strongest proponents of this mindset. In order for your collaboration to be as smooth as possible, sharing that mindset is important for the whole team.
Focusing on outcomes means looking at the ultimate value of what you are shipping, and asking these key questions:
- What’s the desired change in customer/user behavior that will drive business results?
- What can we do to support that?
- How will we know when we’re successful?
- And lately, how does this fit with our company goals?
The answers to these can basically define the objective you’ll have as a team. It’s important to regularly remind yourself and your team of the ultimate ‘why’ or value, since it’s easy to slip into just trying to deliver a solution.
It’s human nature to keep investing in what you’ve already invested in. The later you are in the process, the more bias you’ll have as individuals and as a team to just power on with what you’re working on. But you should be always asking if you’re still on the right track to reach that outcome and be honest with your answers.
For getting a better sense for what this mindset is all about, I recommend reading Josh Seiden’s book ‘Outcomes over Outputs’.
4. Build a shared understanding.
PMs are a part of the planning process, before their product team starts working on an objective. They’ll have a lot of valuable context by that time thanks to reading existing customer feedback, reviewing the competition, and talking to other stakeholders. It’s important to build a shared understanding out of that.
Stephen Walker, director of product management at Productboard, has good advice for designers:
“Ask good questions and have the PM walk you through their research. Get into their head and gain a shared vocabulary.
Designers should ask how we know something is a problem. PMs can provide context about the addressable market that experiences this problem and share their notes.”
This will give you a great start. Actively participating in product discovery together will deepen that understanding and we’ll talk about that below.
And the combination of shared understanding and focus on outcomes will allow you to make better product decisions as a team.
For example, you might be trying to solve a specific interaction together later in the process. You have multiple solutions on the table and feedback from customers saying how cool it would be to have the particular solution you’re working on.
Now you can take a step back and ask: Will this actually help us achieve our goal? If yes, which solution supports that the best? Eventually, you may decide that the particular interaction you’ve been working on isn’t even that important and it would be better to focus on another part of the solution that will drive the desired behavior even more.
5. Discover, together.
Product discovery is where designers and PMs typically spend the most time together. It’s where you figure out the right solution that will help you reach your given objective.
Both roles need to play a very active role in this process. It starts with doing research and understanding the problem. A good product designer should already possess solid research skills and can drive the process of defining research questions, choosing the right methods, and implementing them.
You’ll be spending a lot of time doing user research, and that means a lot of talking to your customers. It’s a great opportunity to help the rest of your team adopt a customer-informed mindset and develop greater customer empathy.
But there are many ways that you, a designer, help with discovery. By using your many skills, including visual design or facilitation, you can help PMs build shared knowledge in your team.
Five great ways designers can aid discovery:
- Hold workshops to synthesize learnings from user research together
- Visualize learnings to share with other stakeholders or team members
- Define jobs-to-be-done or use cases together with PMs
- Facilitate sessions to generate solution ideas
- Invite engineers to sit on interviews
6. Inform product decisions through design explorations.
With many solution ideas floating around, it can be difficult to make a decision. This is where designers can shine, by using their skills to explore multiple directions for different ideas, without anything having to be built just yet.
People are very visual by nature. When debating an idea, everyone on the team will probably have an image of that idea in their head. By looking at visualised ideas in the form of prototypes, mockups, or wireframes, the discussions you’ll have as a team will be much more productive.
And designers should be proactive in this. Don’t wait for the PM to bring requirements to you. If you spot a problem or have an idea, visualise it or write it down, and put it forward.
But it’s not just about the most promising ideas. You should definitely explore those that you believe are destined to fail. Getting clarity on what not to build is just as important as the inverse.
While it’s ultimately the PM’s responsibility to make most product decisions, many can (and should) be done together with a designer. Designers can explore and articulate trade-offs for users, the system, and business, and present different directions and ideas that are invaluable to a PM when making important product decisions.
7. Embrace compromises.
While talking about exploring ideas, it’s important to note that the PM’s job is all about making compromises. Remember the four product risks? PMs need to carefully balance them and ideally find a solution that minimizes all of them.
What does that mean for us designers? You’ll need to work together with the PM and engineers to find the right solution under your given set of circumstances.
Maybe you’ve chosen a particular direction and are working off of some idealistic explorations. The reality is that the ideal-looking solution rarely gets built. At least not right off the bat, anyway.
You might get there after several iterations, but the first thing that you’ll deliver to customers is likely going to be a more humble version of what you initially imagined.
You’ll be cutting down on the scope a lot. Maybe a feasibility constraint will appear that you’ll need to work around. Or a sudden implementation glitch.
All of that is totally fine, as long as you’re making progress toward reaching your objective. And that’s the thing to remember.
It’s about the objective, not your design ideas. By coming from an outcome-oriented mindset and embracing the compromises you’ll inevitably need to make, you’ll save yourself a lot of frustration. The collaboration with your PM and product team will be much more productive as a result.
In conclusion: mistakes you should avoid and what to do instead.
I’ve tried to outline the 7 key principles that make for a successful collaboration between product designers and product managers. It’s a key relationship inside any organization and is worth investing in. If we take what I’ve covered, and apply inverted thinking to it, we can also see the biggest mistakes to avoid:
- Having no relationship to build on: Investing in building a good relationship will pay off infinitely.
- Lack of communication: This leads to making a lot of assumptions. When assumptions don’t meet with reality, there’s going to be a lot of friction and frustration. Without frequent and transparent communication, it’s going to be hard (if not impossible) to discover the right thing to build, which is ultimately your shared goal.
- Working in silos: It’s very easy for things to get lost in translation when you’re just moving things along in waterfall fashion without actually looking at them together. Things like synthesizing research insights or making an important product or design decisions are best done together.
The best recipe for avoiding those mistakes and having great collaboration as a designer and a PM is:
- Having a great relationship as a foundation
- Communicating often and transparently
- Sharing outcome-oriented mindset
- Creating shared understanding
- Running product discovery activities together
- Informing product decisions through design explorations
- Embracing compromises
This is how we work at Productboard and I encourage you to follow these principles, too.
Let me know how they’ve helped you, or feel free to share how your team works! We’re always searching for ways to improve and would love to hear about your experience. What has or hasn’t worked for you when it comes to collaboration between designers and product managers? Let’s connect on Twitter!
Huge thanks to folks from Productboard’s design and PM team for their help with this article: Allie, Zdenek, Stephen, Pavel and Martin.🙌
Interested in joining our growing team? Well, we’re hiring across the board! Check out our careers page for the latest vacancies.