Product design

Product Design vs Product Management and Why They Need to Combine Forces


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There is no single recipe for a product team. Available resources limit team size, while product ambitions and goals define which roles will be prioritized. In the end, in some teams, the roles of product manager and product designer can be combined into one person. Others may choose to outsource product design to an agency, or maybe they are just a startup with a developer, CEO, and a designer.

On the other hand, big products may have a big product management team and a product design team apart. Knowing the difference between the two is key to finding the team model that suits your product best.

What is product management?

When a product succeeds, it’s because everyone on the team did what they needed to do. But when a product fails, it’s the product manager’s fault. 

This is a citation from Marty Cagan’s book Inspired: How to Create Tech Products that Customers Love and it couldn’t be more precise. This is one of the favorite books of Ilya, CEO of Eleken design agency, included in our list of best books that we wish all product managers and designers read.

One of the ways we can define product management is "creating a product that meets customers' needs and aligning it with the business strategy. If product design can be illustrated in a Behance case without ever being presented in a real world, a product management case can not exist “in vacuum”.  Product managers have to work with marketing, and sales teams, study the market, and prepare solutions that are bringing value to both customers and the business.

It is common to mistake product management with project management. However, a project manager needs to have additional formation if they want to embark on the role of product manager. As the latter has to be a connecting link between designers, engineers, and other team members, basic knowledge of programming, accounting, product design process, and the principles of design thinking are a must. And this list is not complete.

According to Marty Cagan, the expertise of product managers is based on four whales of deep knowledge:

  • Customer. Knowing how your customers live, think, and interact with the product is essential for a product manager. It’s impossible to create a good product without understanding user needs.
  • Data. The ability to collect, read, and analyze data is what allows one to make decisions based on proven hypotheses, and not just follow the feelings. With a vast volume of available data, it takes a good grasp to navigate through the ocean of KPIs and not to get misguided by vanity metrics.
  • Your business. If previous whales were the ones that both product managers and product designers share, deep knowledge of the business is the job of the product manager. They have to know the place of their product in the business and keep in mind all the stakeholders, both inner and external.
  • Your market and industry. To make a product successful on the market, a product manager has to be an expert in the industry, keeping track of what competitors do, as well as their strong and weak spots. To become a leader in a competitive market, they have to know the field well.

Product management includes working on product development strategy, roadmap, product vision, product-market fit, and so on. In our blog, we have covered many topics related to SaaS product management, so go have a read when you'd like to learn more.

The questions that product managers face:

  • How can we improve our churn rates?
  • What changes should we make to our roadmap?
  • What are the priorities in product development?

What is product design?

Product design is the process of developing a usable product that meets customers' needs by defining the users' problems and finding creative solutions for these problems.

For people not engaged in product design, the difference between product designers and UX designers seems blurry. However, we insist that it is not the same. Product design suggests a more holistic view of user experience and design. It doesn’t stop after the launch and goes through many stages of testing, iterating, and evolving whenever there is an opportunity for improvement. We have a detailed explanation of both roles in a dedicated article about product designers and UX designers.

Product design process

So, what does product design mean in practice? It is an iterative process, going through different stages and following them in a circle. Here are these stages:

The religion of product designers is design thinking. Nowadays this term is applied to (almost) anything, from social work to personal development. Can’t claim how universal this concept is, but in product design, it is absolutely essential. Here are the key steps of design thinking:

  1. Empathizing with users/customers. Designers try to understand what they feel, think, and need. Talk to them, observe them, and put yourself in their shoes. (Yes, it goes even before the competitors' research)
  2. Defining the problem. What is their need? The need should be defined by users themselves, not by the urge to fit a solution that designers already have in their minds.
  3. Ideation. Once the problem is formulated, designers can start looking for a solution. To get the best results at this stage, it is recommended to use integrative thinking (something that is outside of the regular rational way of thinking) and involve people of diverse profiles in collaboration.
  4. Prototype. It’s important that the realization of the idea does not go to perfection. The prototype should be just enough to go through testing. Overdoing it would mean wasted time in case it gets rejected at the next stage.
  5. Test. This is a moment of truth. The prototype has to be tested, preferably with the very same users that designers were empathizing with in the beginning. If the prototype fails to solve the problem defined in step 3, then the designer goes back to step 1 and starts all over.

The most important characteristic of design thinking is the iterative nature of the process.

Every product goes through a number of iterations, and the product team has to understand it. To successfully apply design thinking, designers have to adopt a certain level of optimism and experimentalism to be able to accept the fact that the ideas need to be rethought and the project needs another iteration.

To see how these principles are used in product design, check some examples of design thinking.

The questions that product designers face:

  • How can we improve user flow?
  • What are the most challenging points for users?
  • What can be done to help users reach their goals faster?

To find out more about designer’s role in product development, check our article about product designers.

What’s common between product design and product management?

Image credit: Noah Levin

Focus on customers

There shouldn’t be just one person responsible for getting to know the users. Ideally, each team member has to be familiar with customer profiles and their needs. For product designers and product managers, this is absolutely crucial.

Testing and iterating

Iterative design is a key to success, and the product can reach success only when both product manager and product designer understand it. Whenever one of them just relies on their own intuition trying to launch the product too fast, the whole project falls under the risk of failure. Each idea has to be tested and the team should be prepared to change everything until it gets to deliver the best value to the customer and business.

Research-based decisions

Both product managers and product designers should do the research, analyze results, and avoid bias. For example, we always want to make sure that our clients decide to make a redesign not just because “they want something new”, but because the audit showed that the existing design is not performing well enough.

To sum up

Product management and product design both have the objective of making great products that solve users' problems and contribute to business growth. Tools that product managers use are more connected to business objectives, while product designers get to concentrate foremost on users, and how to make the product as usable as possible.

These are two essential product team members. In our work, we insist on tight collaboration of our product designers with product managers on the client side. We don’t just receive briefs and deliver the final result. Instead, we do regular meetings, brainstorm all ideas together, and jointly make important product decisions.

Many startups may go with just a couple of engineers/founders, and decide to involve a designer only when the product has already taken shape and is in need of a visual interface. However, we recommend involving a product designer in the early stages, because design thinking is not something that can be applied on top of a ready-made product. Contact us if you are looking for a professional product design team.

Masha Panchenko


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