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How to build a strong relationship with the design team
The success of UX products depends on how well you partner with your design counterparts. Having a great designer on your team is just as good as how effectively you collaborate.
It’s tempting to draw boundaries early on. I will define the specs, and they will build the mockups. I own the “what” and they own the “how.” While this may make sense, it’s more than that.
You both own the product
A designer and a PM are equally responsible for the product’s desired outcomes, and you both own the product! The lens you perceive the problem with and the strengths you utilize are where you differ. Typically, a PM is responsible for determining the target customer, identifying the top challenges they face, and how solving these problems through the product will deliver the desired business outcomes. The designer is responsible for understanding the target user, the jobs to be done, and how the product experience can be tailored to the target user to solve the need and thus deliver the desired business outcomes. See what I mean?
So how do you build an alliance such that you shoot for the same target from a different angle? The key is to recognize each other’s strength and apply it effectively.
Involve them early and continuously
Your strength is your proximity to business decisions. You will likely be the first to hear about new initiatives, a funding change, or a shift in top-level priorities.
Involve the designer early on in the vision and strategy of the product. The earlier they are brought in, the more input they can have on the direction of the product and the user experience. And keep them posted with the relevant updates. Feeling included builds trust, which leads to high-quality collaboration.
If the designer joins after the initial phases of the product, catch her up by sharing as much context as possible. Share the rationale behind the decisions you made or inherited. If there are constraints, make her aware of those. This way, you both empathize with whatever challenges you will encounter as you build the product.
As you evolve the product, keep the designer in the loop. Meeting a customer? Invite the designer. Just spoke with a customer? Share your summary and next steps. Have a product win? Celebrate with them - even better - give them credit. Subscribed to a user-feedback notification? Add the designer to the notification. Make product metrics and telemetry dashboards easily accessible to the designers so you both can make data-backed decisions.
Designers are experts in their field and know what will work best. Give the design team autonomy. Trust them to do their jobs and make decisions.
Utilize straightforward, pre-committed features to exercise building trust. When writing specs, avoid prescribing designs. Instead, start with a clear goal, user stories, and success criteria. For example, “the user should easily check report progress” as an acceptance criterion is better than “include a progress bar panel.” That way, you are not micro-managing, which leads to resentment. But more importantly, you let the experts do the thinking without introducing a bias. It’s OK to share rough wireframes to convey your thoughts, but make sure to state your intent.
Share this draft early with the designer (and developers) and actively seek their input - this will set an inclusive tone and imply that the spec is not set in stone. And, getting a different perspective will expose gaps sooner, which is win-win for everyone.
Review the mockups with the feature crew - developers, copywriters, and user researchers. Connect the designer with early adopters and internal or external customers to validate if the UX will meet the need.
Last but not least, evolve the spec together with the designer. The first iteration of the designs will likely change your specs. For example, the proposed design could make some of your assumptions moot. Or, it may introduce a brand new scenario. Be open to adopting the specs with the designs.
Plan, build, and celebrate together
Planning offers a great collaboration opportunity. Co-define the OKRs. Brainstorm the suitable Key Results that would move the needle for an aspirational “become a product of choice for target users” Objective. Explore metrics that will best measure the usability or user love for the product. A UX lens will well-round the OKRs and sharpen the metrics.
Once you prioritize your OKRs, empower the design team to brainstorm UX opportunities that will impact the KR. You can facilitate the feasibility and cost conversation with engineering to bake these features into the roadmap.
Periodically review the metrics to ensure the features are driving the intended results. If you failed to deliver the results, retrospect them together, so you learn and evolve at the same pace.
Finally, give the credit when it’s due. If you are presenting a vision to the leadership team, invite the designer, and co-present if possible. Celebrate success by calling out how the UX contributed to the win and congratulate the person involved.
Manage differences through mutual respect
Conflicts are inevitable in a PM-design working relationship. In fact, a healthy conflict is indicative of passion and love for the product. But don’t let that get in the way.
If you are unsatisfied with a design proposal, understand why it is so and what it would take to get there. Ask precision questions before criticizing. “This isn’t what I had asked for” is a recipe for a defensive teammate. Instead, “This design meets the first two criteria, but I don’t see how it will address the 3rd”, “I am curious if a novice user will be able to access this report”, or “Is there another option to solve the problem?” will drive a constructive conversation.
Feature/product scope is another bone of contention. Say you need to address a pressing issue, and your mind has recognized an obvious UX fix. But your solution doesn’t jive with the design principles. How do you strike the balance of being pragmatic vs. principled?
First, seek to understand the designer’s perspective. Explain why a timely solution is essential. Then work with them to develop a crawl-walk-run solution. Ideate a short-term fix that’s a stepping stone towards the long-term solution to minimize waste. And most importantly, commit the long-term work on the roadmap, so demonstrate credibility for your words.
Be mindful of their time and efforts
Shared design teams are common in the product world. Sharing ensures fluidity as design needs ebb and flow with the product life cycle. This setup can be challenging when you seek dedicated focus from the designer.
Regardless, a designer’s time is precious. You need to be proactive about their contribution. Plan design efforts multiple sprints ahead of the development. Make the best use of the designer’s time by sharing the context head of a design working session. Send periodic updates to preserve the context. And be scrappy. Given the constraints, the designer might be OK if the PM and devs make tactical UX designs with a light review from the designer. So, the designer can spend time on strategic UX initiatives. If you need designs sooner, ask if you can get low-fidelity mockups to unblock costing. In general, work, be flexible and creative to optimize their time and efforts.
Help them grow
Even though you don’t manage designers, you can influence their career growth. Learn about their career aspirations and what excites them. Tailor your guidance depending on the seniority to offer the right coaching. Work with their manager to ensure they get the right opportunities to grow. There’s nothing more fulfilling than playing a part in your teammate’s promotion.
In short, forging a great partnership with your design teammate starts with a co-ownership mindset. You recognize that you are responsible for the same outcomes using different skill sets and perspectives. You build trust by involving them upstream and often, giving them autonomy and space so they can be their best. You respect their opinion and debate constructively to reach a happy medium. Finally, contribute to their career growth. When done well, a design-PM partnership not only delivers excellent product outcomes but develops lasting relationships and foster work well-being.