4 Design Skills Every Product Manager Should Have

BY HARISH VENKATESAN ON AUGUST 10, 2015

The importance of design is a common refrain these days in the tech industry — to the point of almost being a cliche. Whether in the consumer (Airbnb, Uber, Dropbox) or enterprise (Slack) space, examples abound of companies creating immense value through great design. It’s no wonder that for the first time ever, over half a dozen Silicon Valley venture capital firms invited designers to join as partners in 2015.

Given this context, the challenge for web and mobile product managers, both current and aspiring, is to figure out what “design” means in their roles. We see this question often in our roles at Designlab — “I’m a product manager; how important are my design skills, and what do I need to learn?” In this post I want to outline our take.

What does a product manager do?

When thinking about what a product manager needs to know, we first need to consider what a product manager does. A PM is the “product owner”, which means that they possess responsibility over every aspect of a product’s execution. They need to be able to:

– Understand the overall market and competitive space – and determine market segmentation, product pricing, positioning, and more
– Understand user needs, pain points, and goals
– Create a strategy/vision for a product that responds to these user and market needs
– Convey that strategy in the form of a short- and long-term product roadmap, prioritizing features based on level of importance and time to execute
– Define a set of business and product requirements to communicate the product strategy to various stakeholders
– Help coordinate and support the different teams that go into product creation — business, engineering, design, sales, marketing, and support teams
– Communicate with the market at large

Whew! That seems pretty overwhelming, right? No one said this was an easy job.

So, what “design” skills does that translate to?

4 design skills every PM should possess

First, it’s crucial to point out that company size and stage matter. In a tiny, nimble startup, it’s often the case that a Product Manager and UX Designer are one and the same person. But, as your team grows, your responsibilities as PM shift (this great post on UXPin sheds more light on this dynamic). So: be aware of this, and take team size and the specific individuals on your team into account.

1. Advanced User Research skills
The very best product managers truly understand their customers, and can articulate their pain points, desires, and needs to other members of their team (often in the form of personas or storyboards). That means a PM needs to possess strong research and empathy skills — they must be able to interview and research customers, synthesize data, and gather insights from these conversations. This is crucial in teams both large and small — the product manager must be the voice of the customer to keep the product moving in the right direction.

Techniques: field research, usability testing, personas, customer journey maps, storyboards

2. Basic Interaction Design skills
A good PM should be able to describe their users’ goals, and determine product features based on these goals. Beyond that, it’s important to describe the overall information architecture of a site, and to outline the user’s journey through different screens/pages of the product. As teams get larger, the UX designer will probably take on this set of responsibilities – but the PM must possess the domain knowledge to share insightful feedback.

On smaller teams, it’s extremely helpful to be able to communicate these ideas to other members of your team in the forms of wireframes and user flows. When you’re the de facto UX designer, it’s also helpful to possess a knowledge of common design patterns (generally accepted layout solutions to frequent user behaviors — e.g. search, login, settings, and more) and usability principles so you’re not reinventing the wheel every time and frustrating users.

Techniques: sketching, wireframing, user flows, site maps, user stories, design patterns

3. Taste
This one might be controversial, but we’re going to say it anyways — the best product people have an ineffable quality of “taste”. You don’t need to be a great visual designer yourself, but you do need to be able to recognize great design. The only way to develop your taste is to look at lots of design, both good and bad, and to think critically about what you do and don’t like, and why. Eventually, you’ll hone your own instincts and be able to lead your team in the right direction.

The reason this is controversial? Taste can’t really be defined, and subjective opinions could lead to some frustrating arguments with members of your team. Nevertheless, it can be extremely helpful, if as product “owner”, you’re a reliable arbiter of quality. Need more convincing? See: the iPhone.

4. Elementary knowledge of Visual Design concepts
In addition to taste, it’s important to know design vocabulary so you can communicate on the same terms as a designer and understand the tradeoffs and decisions they make in their visual design. Believe us — it’s much better to discuss issues like contrast, hierarchy, and whitespace than to simply ask your designer to “make the logo bigger”.

Let the designers design

An important note before we close this post — product management is a subtle art. A great product manager needs to know enough about the various aspects of product development (sales, marketing, engineering, UX, finance) to help drive the product to success… while at the same time, not overstepping their bounds as an individual contributor.

PMs with a technical background face this challenge all the time — their technical knowledge helps them greatly in their ability to understand product feasibility and communicate clearly with their engineering team… but they have to be reminded to let their engineering team write the code and make the decisions.

Similarly, when you’re working with a designer, you have to be aware of this boundary. Your role as product manager is to provide deep context on user needs, market analysis, and more (“what” problem you are solving)… and to allow the UI/UX expert freedom to define and prototype solutions that you might not have even considered (“how” a solution is implemented).

Make sure to give your teammates the freedom and space to do a great job!

Conclusion

Product managers possess a diverse set of responsibilities, and ultimately, your role is to help your team create amazing products. The lines between the UX/design and product teams are blurry, and often dependent on team size and configuration. Whether or not you’re contributing on an individual basis as a designer, possessing a basic set of design skills can help you level up your ability as a PM. Good luck!

Related reads:

http://www.usabilitycounts.com/2014/02/26/pragmatic-marketing-product-managers-designers-can-work-together-better/
http://boxesandarrows.com/transitioning-from-user-experience-to-product-management/
http://www.quora.com/Can-a-product-manager-be-effective-without-product-design-skills


What does “design” mean in your role? Let us know in the comments.

 

About HARISH VENKATESAN

Harish Venkatesan is co-founder at Designlab, where he gets to work on building the world's best platform for design education. If you’re interested in picking up any of design skills, check out the online courses on Designlab, where you learn UI/UX skills through hands-on projects and 1-on-1 mentorship from expert designers.

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  • Jody Rodgers

    I would add the ability to use design skills for presentations, both internally and externally. It is important that PMs are able to present their vision and get buy-in using clean well-designed slides. I recommend Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds and the books of Nancy Duarte for inspiration and guidance on best practices.

    • Agree! A good presentation deck should be well-designed. Add the good taste in presentation your product vision.

  • Alex Fike

    Recommendations on where to learn number 4 – elementary design language?

  • Ravish Sikha

    Alex, any training’s focused on ‘Representing Information Architecture’ as part of the UI design, would help you address point #4.

    Harish, crisp article and rightly said. One more point I would add is when you said that the Product Manager having technical knowledge should stop and let the team design, on the same lines, if the Product Manager is not a core-techie guy then the team has to step up in conveying their idea in a simple way. This also adds a way to handle the actual customers too.

  • Harish – thanks for the article!

    Totally agree with you. It is important to have these 4 skills so you (as the product manager) can make a clear and informed product design decisions. This knowledge will help you to keep building that great product!

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