Collaborating with cross-functional partners Part 1
How to work effectively with Designers
“Can you please make this mock pretty?” said no great Product Manager ever!
Of the many cross-functional relationships a product manager needs to develop, the PM-Designer partnership is a crucial and delicate one. While both shoot for the same goal - a delightful user experience🤩, you might encounter some friction along the way. Proactively involving designers throughout the development process, not being prescriptive about solutions, and giving them space to channelize their creativity and expertise, can go a long way in not making them feel like the “mock generators”. Learning from our mistakes and process experiments working with designers, below are our 10 top takeaways for forging effective design partnerships.
🤝😇 Invest time in cultivating relationships and understand their motivations
While each designer is unique, there are a few characteristics and motivations shared across them.
Designers are creative professionals who value space to ideate and explore
They care deeply about the user experience and want to ensure that the design scales to all types of users (accessibility, localization, etc.)
They care about ensuring the design is consistent and coherent with the organizational-wide design language (more common in big tech companies)
Spending time building the relationship and understanding what success means to them can help foster trust and mutual respect.
📑 ✅ Onboard them to the product well to set them up for success
PMs are often the first ones to kick off the discovery phase followed by the designer. Hence, it is crucial that designers are on-boarded properly.
Provide the designer context on the business goals and customer needs. This is best done through documentation or a product brief.
Clearly articulate the problem to be solved and back it up with evidence on why the problem is worth solving.
Outline the target user persona/s and their skills and motivations.
The output of the design process is only as good as the clarity and context you provide them.
⏰ ✍️ Clearly define responsibilities, and align on design processes and timelines early
The designer’s role varies a lot depending on the company, the size of the design team, and the skill set of the designer (visual design, interaction design, motion design). There is also a lot of overlap in the responsibilities of PM and Design functions depending on the maturity of the product development process. To avoid duplicative work and maximize the expertise of each function, it is helpful to clearly align on responsibilities, processes, and timelines using the below questions
Who conducts initial user research? How much involvement is expected from the other during this stage?
Who runs usability studies? (OR works with a researcher to do so)
Who documents the user flow and interactions and how?
Who reviews and closes out user stories related to UI facing features?
Who writes the UI text? (or works with the copywriter/ doc writer to do so)
Design Process and working style:
What is the design process that will be used for this product?
How much time do they need individually vs in collaborative sessions?
How early and often do they want feedback on the designs?
How do they prefer getting feedback?
What are their pet peeves during the design process?
How will product and design reviews be structured once the design direction is finalized?
🌟💡 Give them autonomy
Give space to explore and ideate for creative thinking without being too prescriptive on solutions.
Enjoy the design chaos. The creative process is often non-linear and messy. While it may be tempting to provide a structure for each phase, instead you can help the designer by creating a healthy space for them to explore and ideate.
Resist the urge to start with a pre-defined solution. E.g. Instead of “Let’s show the user a tutorial on how to use the product”, reframe it to the problem zone “How can we make it easier for users to onboard to our product?”
🗣👌 Give quality feedback
Learn how to give quality feedback and help them understand the tradeoffs in different design decisions. While critiquing, don't just focus only on how to make the designs as close to how you had “envisioned” them to be. Some things to do are:
Appreciate the thought and effort that has gone into the design and provide both positive and constructive feedback.
Ask questions to know the rationale behind a design decision.
Ask to see multiple explorations for the solutions. Senior designers are good at exploring and outlining tradeoffs of different approaches. With junior designers, you may have to define these expectations.
📈 📊 Help drive data-driven design decisions
Help designers make data-driven design decisions by providing quantitative data to narrow down solutions. Often designers do not have the access (or skills) to pull up quantitative data. Aid them in this process.
👍👎 Clearly define how the design should be validated
Validate designs early and often with customers to manage product risk.
Help designers get in touch with the right set of customers for usability tests.
Prioritize highest risk design decisions as resource constraints may not allow testing of all design concepts. Figure out quick alternatives to get good-enough feedback i.e internal feedback, feedback from dogfooding.
⚖️ 🛠 Help designers foster an effective and balanced relationship with engineering
Below are the two opposite ends of the product development spectrum:
1: PM defines the problem. PM and Design work out the solution and toss it over to engineering for implementation.
2: PM, Design, and Engineering work together from the very beginning through the launch.
The reality in most organizations is somewhere in between. Given this, here are a few things you can do as a PM to foster healthy design-engineering collaboration:
Get developers to participate in the design process. If this is not possible, help designers share designs early and often with developers.
Drive clarity on why designs are being shared at each stage - Is this just to keep the team informed or is it to assess feasibility?
Help both sides understand each other’s constraints. A quality user experience should drive the technology decisions, but sometimes the best solutions are not immediately feasible.
Set expectations with the team on timelines and design fidelity required to kick off development. Doing this too early may result in a lack of clarity while starting too late might often mean more design churn that impacts timelines.
Help designers prioritize work especially when a direction has been finalized and the next step is to build high fidelity designs. Often the volume of work is very high in this stage. Define clear exit criteria for the design along with all edge cases.
Figure out a process that aids team velocity while providing the designer appropriate focus time - e.g design office hours for asking questions, design handoff meetings or deep dives, design review meetings to close out user-stories.
Transition from being the middle(wo)man between design and engineering to encouraging both functions to work directly. Explicitly define where the PM-Eng-Design trio needs to take decisions together vs where developers can work directly with designers
🙌🏻 🤝Build trust continually
One of the biggest frustrations of a designer is to have spent a lot of cycles on crafts(wo)manship to only see 50% of the design seeing the light of the day. The promised “Let’s do this in v2” often doesn’t happens which erodes trust.
Build trust with designers by spending engineering cycles on user delight and crafts(wo)manship. Apart from trust, user delight also helps in building a business advantage. Engineering teams often take time to pay off technical debt after a big launch. Design debt must be prioritized in a similar manner. Trust and credibility gained by doing so will help you in healthy design negotiation for your next feature.
Have hard conversations when needed - instead of saying “We will do this in v2” be clear on what cannot be prioritized with due business justification.
🎉 👀 Provide designers more organizational visibility
Find ways to help the designer with more organizational visibility. This can be done by:
Giving them a chance to present in leadership check-ins or team all-hands. It helps in fostering more ownership and accountability.
Appreciating the designer and celebrating their work publicly in the organization. A little recognition goes a long way in keeping the individual and team morale high. Happy teams ship impactful products!! 😎 🥳
This brings us to the end of this article 🙌. We hope you learned a thing or two about collaborating with your design partners effectively. Did we miss something? Do share some of your ideas with us in the comments below! Also, don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates every week 📆 on more product learnings. Tell about it to your friends so that they can join us on this journey 🤜🏻🤛🏻 We would love any feedback here.