What’s the best way for product managers to align with UX teams?

by Cassandra Naji
May 11, 2017

On paper, product managers and UX teams should happily work together. Both aim to ultimately build and ship a successful product; both collect data to make necessary product decisions; and both work with development teams to bring products to fruition. The disciplines are two sides of the same coin on whom the success (or failure) of a product rests. However, getting along with UX professionals can pose challenges for product managers.

Conflicts can arise from a number of sources. Product managers sometimes feel that UX teams are muscling in on product management territory, or that the product is being derailed by airy design concepts that fail to take business or technical needs into account. Plus both roles have management duties, but usually adopt very different outlooks and workflows within a project.

In the worst of outcomes, product managers find themselves wishing that UXers would just stick to making UIs look good, and UX professionals wish that product managers would stick to ‘management stuff’. That kind of conflict situation never works out well for the product, or the users.

The benefits of working together

Despite the potential for conflict between product managers and UX teams, the benefits to creating a positive working relationship are manifold. UX teams have the skills and resources to focus on UI refinements and to generate quantitative and qualitative insights that can inform product decisions. UX teams can also help reduce potential reworks by going deep into the ‘problem space’, using psychology, cognition, and usability to glean motivation and user pain points. Product Managers who work well with UX teams will find that their own work improves and products are more successful.

On the ‘softer’ side, UX teams often provide a welcome tonic to the internal perspective of engineering teams, and perhaps even to product managers when business pressures become overwhelming.

Tips for working with UX teams

User experience can and should be another weapon in a product manager’s arsenal to help build the best product possible. Following some basic best practices will increase the likelihood of reaching that sweet spot of professional respect and creative conflict; after all, as product manager Melissa Perri points out, “it’s not about roles, it’s about skills.”

Define roles & responsibilities well. When we say well, we mean really well – nothing is too small to be defined when it comes to who owns what. Patrick Neeman and Stephanie Bergman from Pragmatic Bergman came up with a useful venn diagram to expose the points of crossover between UX and product management.

The points that fall in the grey central area of the diagram are those that could prove contentious when it comes to ownership. Before starting to work on a project with a UXer, product managers will benefit from divvying up these responsibilities clearly and fairly. Once responsibilities are decided, resist the temptation to invade your counterpart’s territory.

Make conflict into a learning experience. Accept that sometimes the product management and UX roles will disagree – and that’s ok. Moments of discrepancy actually allow teams to discover something new about the product and the design process. Use bumps in the road as opportunities to learn and find out what others in the team need to get their job done.

Justinmind’s resident UX Designer Sergi Arévalo points out that “when there’s a problem, there’s discussion; and when there’s discussion, there’s a shake-up. That can really open your eyes, and you analyze the situation and make the most of it.”

Use a variety of product and user test methods to try out assumptions and be willing to admit you were wrong if the evidence shows it. product managers might have the right to veto changes, but only if the evidence backs this up.

Test solutions together. Prototyping with an interactive tool can be a great way to test out assumptions collaboratively in real-time. The product manager can bring the roadmap and requirements to the session, and the UX team can prototype up solutions, then immediately simulate them. By talking through these simulations and even running some guerilla tests on unexpecting colleagues, product managers and UX professionals can open up communication and create a sense of unity, rather than running into negative conflict.  

This activity doesn’t have to be restricted to the product manager and UX manager. Onespring built this methodology up into so-called JAM sessions, aimed at capturing requirements more efficiently.

Let UX teams in on product management knowledge. It’s not necessary to hand over the keys to the product management kingdom here, but for user experience professionals to do their job properly, they need to be informed about business goals, competitor analyses, and stakeholder requirements.  Agile working practices will help achieve this: it’s easy UX teams in the daily stand-up and even as observers in development task evaluation, and if the UX team is aware of these factors they can design with business in mind.

Stay humble. It’s all too easy for product managers to think they know what’s best for the user. But UX professionals will always bring new perspectives and capacities to the equation. By admitting when something is outside of your experience base and staying open to learning from the UX team will actually strengthen you as a professional.

Keep working at the relationship. Software development projects move fast and furiously, so taking time to focus on anything that isn’t ‘the product’ can seem impossible. Even so, you should find ways to keep improving collaboration and communication between UX and product. Tactics such as collaborative ideation sessions, regular product-UX meetings and proactive conflict resolution through testing will keep the lines of communication open for the long-term.

How product managers can work better with UX teams – wrap-up

Having a user experience professional on the team is a great opportunity for the product manager. It can free up product managers to focus on the roadmap, on the competition and on the technology that drives the development team. It can also be a chance to tap into the UX team’s vision for a usable software that solves user needs. Product managers can lead efforts to maximize UX contributions and place them within a wider business context, helping the team iterate more effectively. It might take time to reach an understanding with UX teams, but it’s better to proactively build a relationship than try to keep UX out in the cold. You’ll end up with a better product and a stronger team.

This is a guest post by Cassandra Naji. She is the Marketing Content Editor at Justinmind, a prototyping tool that allows you to prototype web and mobile apps so you can visualize and test your software solution before writing a single line of code. Before she was a techie, Cassandra was an old-fashioned journalist and communications professional in Cambodia, Taiwan, and London.

Cassandra Naji