Best Practices

How to Advance Collaboration Between PM and UX Design

Let’s face it –– friction between product managers and UX designers happens. Even on the most successful teams, tensions can fly when trying to balance business goals, user needs, and design best practices. Add in stressors like tight deadlines and limited resources, and you have a recipe for conflict. 

How can we avoid this?

If both teams want to improve their productivity and outcomes, they must find common ground and key collaboration points. And the place to start is for both product managers and designers to get curious about each other’s processes, logic, priorities, and needs.

Designers and product managers have a lot in common

UX designers and product managers both value a customer-focused approach to product development. Each group works to research the needs of buyers and users and to frame the problems to be solved before jumping to solutions. 

While they both strive to understand customer needs first, they approach problem solving from different perspectives. Product managers focus on identifying market problems, quantifying business opportunities, and securing resources to create solutions for those problems. Product designers focus on understanding users’ goals and crafting the ideal product to help their users achieve them. 

Both roles are now commanding greater influence within their organizations, and for good reason. Together, they’re on the leading edge of business innovation and customer experience –– the major drivers of market success. There’s tremendous strength in bringing these two perspectives together for intentional collaboration throughout the product development process. Combine these successfully, and it can serve as a force multiplier for product success.  

As the first step on that path, product managers and designers can learn more about each other’s practices and perspectives.  

What UX designers care about

UX designers are motivated by helping people achieve their goals. They want to gain an in-depth understanding of their target users, so they can create the best possible solution and experience for them.

Truly understanding users

While designers start from an in-depth knowledge of design patterns and best practices, the best designers combine that knowledge with an empathetic understanding of the user. This allows them to step into the user’s shoes to make appropriate design decisions.

To actuate empathy, designers need accurate user context. This includes gaining a sense of where the user is situated, their goals, their teammates and collaborators, and the kinds of decisions and actions the user needs to take with the information they have at hand. 

As a result, designers frequently ask to be involved earlier in the discovery process. Including your designers in discovery will give them the rich user context they crave, and help them make decisions in the user’s best interest. 

Framing problems before jumping to solutions

Designers want to make sure they’re solving the right problem so they know their efforts are well spent. Designers have specific techniques for framing problems that will inspire ideas for innovative solutions. Starting from a foundation of a well-framed problem enables designers to activate their creativity. Thus, they find a great deal of value in collaborating with product managers on framing and refining market problems.

Exploring multiple potential solutions

Designers are experimenters. They thrive when given the freedom to generate a number of ideas, knowing that the first solution to come to mind is rarely the best one. But this is not a matter of simply throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. They have techniques for exploring, generating, and evaluating alternative ideas on their own or with a team. Product managers should consider leveraging these techniques and using them as a key collaboration point for stakeholders.

Developing narratives and storytelling

Designers construct stories to play through how the user might interact with a product or a feature. These narratives are the simplest way to prototype. A designer can craft a story to explain how the product supports the user in solving a problem, to stitch together multiple features into a coherent whole, and to elicit feedback from others. Product managers can leverage product narratives to gather user feedback on a concept, before committing the resources required to build it.

Gathering feedback and refining user experiences

Designers seek out feedback on their designs, so they can refine the solution to achieve the best possible fit to user needs. Productive feedback based on user context and the problem helps designers build a stronger solution. Scheduling time for feedback from actual users throughout the design process will increase the team’s confidence that their solution accurately addresses the market problem. 

What product managers care about

The responsibilities and working styles of product managers vary widely. In some organizations, they serve as business strategists, in others, they act as market researchers, stakeholder consensus builders, or product delivery managers. Typically, a product manager needs to juggle many different responsibilities. In addition, PMs often possess expertise in problem framing, business strategy and innovation, and market understanding. Designers should take the time to get to know the product managers on their team and understand the unique skills they bring to the table. 

Balancing business outcomes with user expectations

Where designers are grounded in the user’s perspective, product managers tend to come from a market strategy and business outcomes perspective. Understanding the business goals they are aiming to achieve will help designers better identify solutions that address user needs while also accomplishing business objectives.

Prioritizing decisions based on data and strategy

Product managers consider many variables when prioritizing problems to address and selecting potential solutions. Most will take into account market data, business objectives, user needs, and technical considerations. Some may make executive decisions, while others take a more collaborative approach. Either way, they are careful to weigh decisions based on real data. Product managers often conduct user and buyer research to help guide their decision-making. 

To better understand market prioritization, designers can communicate a sincere interest in the product manager’s approach to prioritizing market problems. Ask about the buyer research they’ve conducted and what data is important to consider. And offer to assist in the research-gathering and decision-making processes.

Collaborating on this phase of the product development process will give designers the rich context they crave, and relieve product managers of communication overhead down the road. Everyone will be working in lockstep.

Working style

Every product manager has their own working style. Some are more hands off, providing the problem and leaving it to the designer to create a solution. However, others go as far as creating interface sketches. Agreeing on an approach to collaboration upfront will help create a working relationship based on trust. 

Set aside time at the beginning of a project to proactively discuss each other’s working styles. Make sure you include how you’ll handle the points of conflict that will inevitably arise in any important project.  It’s easier to do this at the beginning than when you’re in the thick of the project. This plan should detail how to handle:

  • What to do when the best solution for the user doesn’t address business objectives or vice versa
  • How product and design will bring awareness to this issue
  • The steps to take to work toward a resolution

While these can be tough conversations to have, addressing these issues ahead of time will minimize potential stress and strengthen the working relationship.

An expanded view of collaboration

The best way to understand each other is to work together more intentionally. Set up consistent spaces to collaborate throughout the process. Also, make use of the tools necessary to achieve alignment throughout the product life cycle. 

Create collaboration points as mechanisms for deeper communication and idea-sharing. Strive for meaningful collaboration. Be intentional about developing the right cadence for partnership to avoid getting sucked into the “quicksand” of over-collaboration.

And remember that while conflict is not particularly enjoyable, it can lead to better product outcomes. Diamonds can be mined from the pressure of divergent perspectives. By drilling deeper to understand the source of the conflict, you can often get closer to a solution at the ideal intersection of business goals and user needs. Mining the conflict requires trust, transparency, communication, and effective collaboration. Sure, an intentional approach to relationship-building may require more time and effort up front, but it will pay off handsomely in the long run.