Dear Manager… a Letter From Designers on Product Management Best Practices
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Do you know that containing emotions is bad for health? What is good for health is to reflect on these emotions and convert them into actionable feedback that can improve team collaboration. And that is what we are trying to do here.
In our design agency, we have over twenty designers who work with different clients, different-size products from different countries. We’ve seen all kinds of product managers and they often become an object of insiders’ gossip.
Some people write letters they never send to their colleagues, as a therapeutic practice. We decided to make some use of our letter for others: In this article, we have collected all the things our designers wanted to say to their PMs, but never did. What we got is a list of product manager’s best practices that can help someone to become the designers’ hero.
Establish constant in-team communication, including external and remote workers
Product manager’s role supposes that they know all the answers. But does it mean that they have to become the only connection hub between all the different team members?
From our experience, designers work way more efficiently when they can speak directly to developers. It doesn’t necessarily mean making decisions behind the PM's back, but often it can save time. When designers and developers can ask each other questions fast without having a manager as intermediary, they are likely to be aligned and avoid those situations when designers create something that would take too much time for developers to realize.
The working method of our agency suggests that there should be no account managers. We prefer direct contact between the designers and the product team. So, the more product managers are willing to treat our designers as members of the team, the better the results will be.
Give more than just tasks
Once upon a time, our designers were working on a big project. There were few PMs, each responsible for their own part of the product. The communication was great, they all were present at every meeting, and the responsibilities were well separated. At the same time, there was the main PM who would take the final decision in case there were any discrepancies.
However, the manager responsible for user testing did not take the effort to give the designers full insight in the results. After conducting the testing, they gave designers indications based on the findings. There was communication, but our designer Olena believes that knowing more about the research could be beneficial for the work. Conclusion: user research is crucial for designers’ ideas.
Show team members the whole perspective
Typically, when clients come to us, they already have some idea of where the project is going and what they need to design. In the end, that’s why they hire designers. Designers appreciate a lot when product vision, roadmap, and other strategic directions are shared with them.
Our lead designer Maksym says that it’s good to know both short-term and long-term plans. With short-term, we see the nearest objective and deadlines. With long-term, we can adjust the design system to be flexible enough to accomodate the solutions that will be added in the following years.
Be fair with deadlines
As we know, no work happens without deadlines. It clearly falls under the PM’s responsibilities. And setting deadlines for others is quite tricky.
Our designer Roman says that he often asks the manager about the deadlines himself. That way, he can organize his work better.. However, sometimes a PM would come with a new task and set a deadline that is too short for the designer.
As a result, the concept turns out raw and unpolished. Nevertheless, the deadlines are tight, so the design goes into development, even though the designer would rather improve it.
Let designers see the product with PM’s eyes
Nobody knows the product better than a product manager. Having a clear product vision and communicating it to the team is what we expect from them. When the product manager has a clear vision, designers can see it through their eyes. So, they make exactly what is expected, focusing on what they know best: making great user experience.
Trust your team and stop with micromanagement
We all know how important it is for a product manager to have a diverse skill set. Often, they come from design or developer backgrounds. That’s why they can easily fall into the trap of “I’ll just do it myself faster and better”.
Even if PMs don’t try to take over other people’s tasks, they often take over the decision-making process completely. It sounds absolutely fair, but the problem is that the one-person-decides-all approach involves more risk in case they overlook something and make a mistake.
A good product manager values other team members’ opinions and trusts their expertise. Participative decision-making is a basis for healthy team dynamics.
To have a complete list of product manager best practices, we also asked some of the seasoned PMs: what advice would they give to their colleagues? So, here are some pro tips.
Validate your key product hypothesis (like, for real)
That is the hard part to test, because managers are naturally unwilling to accept the fact that the main product idea is not working. That’s why they just assume that they are always right. Don’t be like that. Validate the hypothesis and you will reach the product-market fit faster.
Find the key obstacle for your product to growth (and concentrate on fixing it)
When your product is on the market, but the market is not buying it… means that something needs to be done. Is it marketing or sales fail? Is it that the users don’t get to aha moment? Is it the cost of shifting from one product to yours?
Coordinate with other teams
Product managers are in constant process of keeping on track with product team members. This much of communication can already be tiring. Yet, it is highly important to dedicate time to coordinate with other teams, as well.
Support, marketing, and sales teams are your allies. If you don’t remain in constant contact, the moment when you will need something from them, it may take longer.
When team members are let to choose which tasks to start with, it turns out that their motivation reasons can be different from the overall product vision. We have talked about trusting your team, but with prioritization, the team should trust the PM.
Tasks in the backlog should be prioritized by marginal value for the users. Don’t follow the loudest voice, but try to explain what stands behind each decision. Everybody in the team should understand why you are doing each feature at a given time.
Review the tools you’re using
It is common for designers to go for minimalism in everything. They can work just with Figma and Slack. A typical product manager is the opposite: they need various tools to be efficient and keep product management processes going.
Every once in a while these tools need to be revised. Think of which ones you use rarely: What features do they lack? Are there any that overlap the features? New products appear faster than we get to know about them, so doing regular analysis and research is a good idea.
If you feel like your toolset does not fully meet your needs, try some of the ones that are on our list of top product management tools.
What are the most important skills for a product manager to have?
Product managers are often perceived as multiskilled characters. They have to know the basics of programming, UX, marketing, finances, and a lot more.
This manageropus could have even more legs. Of course, the basic level of these skills is enough. PM is not expected to be able to fully replace a designer or developer. To simplify the list, we can say it with the words of Marty Cagan, author of the book Inspired : How to Create Tech Products Customers Love.
He speaks of knowledge, not skills. These four are the most important for a product manager:
- Deep knowledge of the market and industry. Crucial for the key element of product success: getting to product-market fit. Tentacles of research and marketing tap right here.
- Deep knowledge of business. Understanding the metrics and how business works makes the product not only functional and usable, but also profitable.
- Deep knowledge of the customers. Even if a product manager knows all about good user experience, they won't be able to create a great product unless they get to know their customers and learn about their needs from the first person.
- Deep knowledge of data. To make informed decisions, PMs rely on data from different sources: business metrics, performance tracking, user testing, market reports, and so on. Operating large amounts of data and finding the most important pieces is an essential skill.
What makes you a great product manager?
Basically, knowing your product well, listening to the team members, and reflecting on user feedback is a good start. However, if you want to be a superhuman among PMs, read our list of 7 most wanted superpowers.
Obtaining these superpowers is not an easy task. Finding out what qualities and skills you lack is the first step. To get more practical tips, try some of these product management techniques.
Brief summary in 3 short tips
There is a lot that designers would like to tell product managers. In this article we only gave just a small part of it. Here are the best product management practices, according to Eleken designers:
- Promoting transparent and horizontal communication
- Sharing with team members as much information as possible, not limiting just to tasks
- Knowing their product well and being able to explain it all in details
If you want to learn more about how to work with a design team, read how our lead designer Maksym does it.