Changing the Conversation about Product Management vs. UX

pm ux fight

If you had to pick one, would you rather be a Product Manager or UX Designer?

I’m both.

You can’t be both. We need to put you on the right team.

That’s not your job.

I had no idea what a Product Manager was when I started at Capital IQ, almost 10 years ago. I didn’t even apply for the job. A friend told me they were hiring, and I asked if there were any roles for people like me — engineers who liked Photoshop. After talking to a few people, I was told I’d make a good Business Analyst (their term for Product Manager, I’d later learn). The combination of business and analysis sounded intriguing, so I jumped on the offer.

My responsibilities were gathering business requirements, specifying features, passing the specs off to engineers, mocking up the interfaces in Photoshop, user acceptance testing, gathering feedback from customers, user research, and managing the scope. The company was far from Agile or Lean at the time, but I didn’t know any better. I loved it. Solving problems and watching them come to life was way better than my other options — supply chain management or coding.

Four years later at OpenSky, I heard the term “User Experience Designer” for the first time. My boss announced we were hiring a Director of UX. Apparently my role as a Product Manager was not the same as a UX Designer. What?! I was blindsided. The UX Director was now in charge of all the interface designs and mockups. He made it sound like a good thing. “Congrats! You don’t have to do any more wireframes.”

But I loved designing. I loved creating flows that solved problems.

The developers were finally participating in the process too. We were sketching together, incorporating each other’s ideas, and pairing on iterations. When the new Director of UX started, most of that went away. Now there were hand offs. I was still testing product ideas, but I didn’t get to participate in what that looked like for the user.

Quickly I realized this was not the role I wanted. I left to become the Lead UX Designer at another company. Now I had the opposite problem. I wasn’t allowed to participate in feature decisions. Those were made by the Product Managers. I was just the person who designed them. I felt like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory, trying to wrap up all these features in pretty designs. The conveyor belt never stopped.

lucy and ethel

I wish product ideas were chocolate so I could eat them.

I saw features become approved that didn’t relate to the feedback I was hearing from customers. When I tried questioning why we were building them, I was quickly shot down. Once I brought up the idea of making an MVP. Wrong move. I got a few death stares and was told “We don’t do that here”.

I was confused. If I did both Product Management and UX, and I was good at doing both, where did I fit in?

There’s some UX in your PM.

When I compare these roles, I see responsibilities that are clear cut. For example, prioritizing feature requests has typically been led by a Product Manager.

Then, there are responsibilities that are murky. Who makes personas? At one company I’ve seen it as the PM, at another UX, and at another Marketing. Who owns User Research? Same story.

If you read different job descriptions, you’ll start to see a lot of overlap in major responsibilities:

 UX vs PM

When I was writing the Product Management curriculum for General Assembly, we had trouble here as well. There were weeks dedicated to topics some saw purely as UX — personas, research, wireframes, etc. But these are all necessary for Product Management too.

It’s not about roles, it’s about skills.

I’ve found the definition of roles matters less than how a company operates. Highly collaborative teams have Product Managers and UX Designers who assign each other tasks based off what they need for the project. Whoever is best suited in that moment to do it, does it. They agree on this. Sometimes the UX Designer might be doing research, other times the PM, and hopefully, more often than not, they’ll both work on it together. Everyone can move forward without feeling territorial.

Companies need to realize that both Product Managers and UX Designers are important, but what’s more important is that these two people can make decisions together. Product Management with no User Experience Design creates functional products that don’t make users excited. User Experience Design with no Product Management produces delightful products that don’t become businesses. If these two roles are not sharing responsibilities, then you will have a disconnect in both your team and product.

If we change the conversation to skill coverage instead of role definition, it becomes clearer. Do we have all the skills we need on this team to validate and execute a product idea? If we have a Product Manager who cannot wireframe, let’s hire a UX Designer. If we have a Product Manager who does UX Design, let’s hire a Visual Designer. If we truly want to iterate and get to market faster, we need to focus on limiting our team size. Having too many moving pieces only slows us down. Limit the scope of the work and make more teams rather than adding on roles or people to one.

My knowledge of UX Design makes me a better Product Manager and my knowledge of Product Management makes me a better UX Designer. It makes me better at creating products that delight users and solve their problems. There’s a lot of people like me out there. Find them. Hire them. Don’t make them choose.

22 thoughts on “Changing the Conversation about Product Management vs. UX

  1. Awesome article, Explains a recurring problem

  2. Belated, but this is outstanding. Literally working on a talk about this exact subject when I saw this in my twitter feed. Would love to discuss sometime! The What vs. How rule is super reductive as far as I’m concerned, and there are as many ways to break down the different kinds of product design as there are organizations with PdM and UX teams. There are best practices as far as who does what — probably — but the territoriality I see sometimes is pretty depressing.

  3. […] her blog post, Changing the Conversation about Product Management vs. UX, she explains that the gap between designers, clients and internal stakeholders is about open […]

  4. […] I was reading an article about the overlap between product management and user experience, by Melissa Perri, who has feet in both worlds.  She drew a Venn diagram showing the unique and […]

  5. […] great example of rigid skill divisions causing problems is in Melissa Perri’s recent post, Product Management vs UX Design (good article & story, worth a read). However, Melissa’s challenge over where and how […]

  6. Great article – Now – we can make it even more interesting when we add to the equitation Product owners in places that divide the PM role to inbound and outbound. I liked the diagram and would be nice exercise to add the Product owner as additional circle.

  7. […] Melissa Perri knöpft sich das oft geführte Kompetenzgerangel zwischen Produktmanagement und UX vor und erklärt warum Skills viel wichtiger als starre Rollendefinitionen sind. […]

  8. UX Design should not be confused with Interaction Designers and Visual Designers. UX Design, if done properly, includes all customer touchpoints, marketing, on-boarding, 1st time use, call center interactions (phone, email, text, etc), account closing. UX, if done well, takes into account all the user’s experience with your company. It is the end to end experience.

  9. Melissa,

    Thank you so much for putting this out there! This is the world I find myself in every day. The way you have expressed it is very thoughtful and you’re right on all accounts. It’s not either or – it’s a collaboration of both.

    Again, thank you and hope to read more of your insights!

  10. Really good article. I came from a similar beginnings. You are a few years ahead of me, but I am accounting some of the same problems, cutting the role into 2 doesn’t make sense. Product or Project Managers need to be working closely aligned with design, I would go even further and get the actual development team involved. This has started to work for us, as it also helps with architectural decisions of the way that products hang together and not just in terms of user journeys.

  11. Nicely done. I too have my foot in two if not three camps. I would love to hear thoughts about how decisions ultimately get resolved when there different interpretations of the inputs (user data, surveys, etc) raise different opinions about priorities.

    I find that there can be a conflict between whomever wears the UX hat and Product. It would be easy to trivialize this as UX wanting style over substance but often they have some valid points but their point of view is frequently different. UX may be focused on the product at hand and not where the company is going or one of the hundreds of other signals/inputs that you alluded to. They may also not be interested in MVP, technical limitations, or time to market. They have a “No comprimise!” mentality when Product requires tradeoffs be it schedule, cost, size, etc.

  12. Agreed – it has to be a collaborative (or symbiotic) effort and it has to be tailored to the specific team, that team member’s unique skills, and the combined skills of all the team members. I would add that it’s fluid – as the product matures or as the team changes – the tailoring and responsibilities have to be monitored and potentially edited or amended.

    An addition, if you want to broaden your article in the future: My understanding of your article assumes that UX and PO are exclusively tied to the same production unit. What I have found in my career is that when I hold the UX position my role considers all the external connections the user has to the Product while the PO is exclusively interested in, and plays closely within the boundaries of, the core product. These two views of the user’s world have different end points. Because of this it is even more critical that the UX and PO roles both continue their symbiotic relationship. While in other instances of my career I have been responsible for all UX across all user touch points which includes multiple products. In these cases, as the role of UX, I have to work with multiple POs and ensure that as a whole ecosystem things are coordinated for the user (most often these POs do not cross-talk about their products – they often work in a vaccuum).

    Am happy to chat offline more about this if you like. Find me on LinkedIn.

    • I actually have been through both cases. My example about the chocolate factory is from a team I worked on where I was the only UX person across 5 teams. The one before that, I was on a dedicated team. So I see problems from both ends. I advocate strongly for teams having dedicated resources as much as possible though.

  13. Great article! I agree there is lot of overlap of responsibilities and collaboration is key factor. Both would have input but my simple rule when there is conflict of ownership, Product Managers decide WHAT goes to customers and UX decides HOW it goes to customers!

  14. I enjoyed reading your article. It is clear that there is a tug o’ war of roles specifically around the deliverables and functional aspects of the work that is required to make great products. I think your conclusion that it should be about skills is completely spot on. The UX spectrum can be extensive in terms of skills, and PM role knowledge is great for anyone in this field.

  15. Mandar Munagekar

    Great articulation, I would imagine that over a period of time one collects more wisdom around both areas and they can connect the dots that most folks cant see. Thats where the ability to find that one feature/usability quickly becomes the USP for a product/service. eg. one button on Apple phone, one click checkout in Amazon….

  16. Thank you for this. I forwarded this on to some colleagues who had the Product Management team split up along these lines. One responded that she really appreciated the way you described how the skills brought to the team were more important than the role definitions. She added that when those definitions were looser, that there were far fewer hand offs, and much more collaboration. This seems to align nicely with my preferences.

  17. Great article and I’m feeling with you. I’m a Product Designer and Developer and have some UX skills as well. Right now I’m working in a small PMO making our project and portfolio related in-house apps and integrations basically all by myself … some other perspective in the areas that I’m feeling less competent (read incompetent) would be really great at times.

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