Product Management’s Role in Product Design

There is some interesting banter on Twitter between @crankypm and @rcauvin concerning the role of product management in product design. Design is a topic near & dear to my heart, so my thoughts on the subject could not be contained by Twitter’s 140 character limit.

The point of contention in the debate is whether Product Mangers should be using tools like Balsamiq (of which I am also a big fan) to produce mock-ups. Cranky and Roger have gone back and forth on this and I think they are talking past one another. I’m guessing that they actually share a great deal of common ground on the subject, so am going to do my best Mother Teresa and attempt to demonstrate that common ground here.

Roger’s spot-on that too many companies don’t appreciate the value that an interaction designer can provide, and as stated in his Feb ’08 blog post that critical role is all too often filled with someone with the best of intentions, but the wrong skill set.

Cranky, too, is correct in her assertion that there’s nothing wrong with a Product Manager picking-up a design tool in order to communicate a product concept with a mock-up – a picture being worth a thousand words and all that.

It seems to me that the critical issue here is the intent of the mock-up. I use mock-ups frequently myself, because I am a visual person and so communicate more easily and effectively with a picture than a wordy document (never know if from this blog would you). I know that I’m not an interaction designer and don’t want anyone mistaking my attempt to communicate a concept as an attempt to specify a design. So, I am very careful to include the following disclaimer on every mock-up I produce: “…the UI is intentionally low-fidelity and serves only as a narrative – this is not a UI design artifact”. I also call my mock-ups storyboards and accompany them with a little textual narrative as this helps to drive-home the point.

The open-ended discussion that mock-ups stimulate are critical in the very early stages of product design. Just as important, however, is the need for professional interaction design; there are few things more important to a successful software product than nailing the user experience and an interaction designer is key to achieving that goal.

I hope I’ve helped to move the conversation forward, because it’s an important one.


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I happen to strongly agree with you Nathan. I’ve used mock-ups in a similar manner. Prior to tools such as Balsamiq I used to cut and past into PPT. I’ve found that it is easier with the picture to get a general idea across to a variety of stakeholders. It also seems to be an efficiency gain for the team because there are fewer iterations on a concept as opposed to a textual description.

Even with the mock-up there is a lot of latitude that can come into play. While it would have been nice to have a UI/UX person to offload some of this work to, I haven’t been afforded that luxury. So I make what I have available work.

I think it was Mike Cohn in his “User Stories Applied” book who said “words are imprecise” – as way of arguing against large requirements doc. For this same reason, mock-ups are good, because they are more precise than words.

Your comment on not having a dedicated UX person begs another post. I am currently building a small team (very, very small). The first hire we’re making is a designer. A good interaction designer is just as important as your best developer. Garbage in, garbage out is a truism that starts before a single line of code has been written.

A picture paints a thousand words, yes. But a proposed implementation corrupts the design process. In the old saw about the space pen (see Snopes for the real story), if you ask for a pen you’ll get a pen. Ask for a writing instrument and you’ll get a pencil… or an iPad.

If I ask for tagging ala Facebook, my designer is unlikely to offer me facial recognition ala Picasa.

If product managers do a lo-fi drawing to articulate the problem, it’s product management; if they do it to define an implementation, then it’s design.

As Alan Cooper would tell you, design is a skill and all teams need a designer if you want to create products that people love.

For more on the importance of design, see

The preceding comment by Steve Johnson is very important and is consistent with the notion that, in acting in a product management capacity, we should should be focusing on understanding, defining, and articulating market problems, not on the solution.

The debate between @crankym and I began when I characterized the use of Balsamic for solution mock-ups as design and not product management.

Too often, companies conflate design with requirements definition and other product management activities. In fact, some companies seem to think the primary focus of a product manager is product specification (the details of user interactions and sometimes even UI design). This mindset usually leads to either a strategy vacuum or amateur design, or both.

To the extent that @crankypm and I were “talking past each other”, it was partially over the question of whether product managers should sometimes dip into design to better understand market needs or otherwise get the job done. I believe the conclusion was that we agree it can help.

I’d soften Steve Johnson’s stance a bit by emphasizing what I tried to articulate in the Twitter debate. Two points:

1. At some point, showing a prospect a candidate solution is the most effective way of identifying some unforeseen market problems. Part of the value of agile development, in fact, rests on this premise. In facilitating conversations with our prospective customers, we ideally use a variety of facilitation tools. One set of tools gets customers out of the solution mindset so we can get to the root of their problems. But there will inevitably be gaps. So we use another set of tools – ones that purposely put possible solutions out on the table, including working software – to identify those gaps. (That said, I should point out here that a product manager need not be the one to create the illustrations of the solution.)

2. Some product managers also happen to be excellent designers. Product management and design are different roles. But in some case the same person can effectively play both roles.

My issue isn’t with the product managers who do design because they are good at it or because their companies expect them to do it. My issue is with the poor understanding of product management and how it encompasses a different set of responsibilities from interaction and UI design.

Roger I like your point “Some product managers also happen to be excellent designers. Product management and design are different roles. But in some case the same person can effectively play both roles.”

In any given configuration, what really seems at issue is the application f of domain knowledge across the product management process. This is less about does what and more about the alignment and communication around UX as an integral part of the product development, management and marketing process.

– Justin T. Smith

Thanks, Justin. We agree that, regardless of roles, UX is a critical part of product success.

All, some discussions on this topic were swirling around the blogs in 2007. Check out these blog entries:

[…] a great way to convey ideas, but Nathan Bobbins highlights an interesting point when writing about Product Management’s Role in Product Design. UI mockups are supposed to explain an idea or story, but the real UI modelling should be done by a […]

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