Design Thinking and Product Management "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs September 09 2014 True Design Thinking, Product Design, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 1103 Product Management 4.412

Design Thinking and Product Management


Product Management has been traditionally seen as an analytical role where product managers spend the bulk of their time crunching numbers and analytical data to drive new products forward. But with increased pressure on companies to stay leaner and at the same time decrease their time to market, a purely analytical approach to product management isn’t quite enough. I do not advocate that the analytical approach should be thrown out; to the contrary, it is greatly enhanced when it is combined with a creative approach that focuses on customer needs as well as development.

Whenever we are developing a new product, we are looking to do either of the following:

  • Better an existing experience
  • Create a new experience altogether

Whereas research and analysis help us make sense of the world as it is, design imagines the world differently than it is today. Design thinking brings in a more empathetic, flexible and iterative approach to product development, where you focus on finding out the right ideas before focusing on growth.

Interestingly, product management and design thinking principles already overlap in several ways. Design, Lean Startup and Customer Development might seem like completely different disciplines at first, but in fact all three teach the following: Learning and Discovery, Direct Observation, Failing Fast, Test Your Assumptions and Iterative Development. Formalizing the link between Design and Product Development can take us even further forward in developing leaner products that customers love. That’s what I look to do in this article, by focusing on key areas of Product Management that can be enhanced by Design thinking.

Design Thinking and Product Manager Skills


When looking at Design Thinking dimensions, I was struck by the overlap with the skills of a product manager.  A product manager has a unique combination of knowledge, imagination and conviction. He or she has a vast knowledge of how things work, the imagination to think up something amazing, and the absolute conviction to realize those imaginations. These 3 dimensions have remarkable similarity to the 3 dimensions of design thinking: desirability, feasibility and viability. Desirability talks about the end user, the human interface of any product that we build, and relates with imagination.  Feasibility includes understanding of the market and technology, and is supported heavily by knowledge. Viability can refer to understanding the economic value of a product and the reason to do something, and works hand in hand with the conviction to see that through. Embracing these skills in line with Design Thinking can help us to become better rounded product managers than purely analytical machines.

Design Management Activities and Product Management Process


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In any design management activity, there are several stages to tackle problems and develop new ideas.

The first of these stages is in the concrete world where you register a particular problem and establish concrete experiences. You then work your way towards the Analysis stage, to try and understand the problem’s issues and complexities, and build out your observations.

Next you move towards an abstract world of model ideas, where you conceptualize the problem and put it in simpler terms. During this stage, you may observe contradictions between what people say and do, or discover new things that others have not seen before.

Finally comes synthesis, where you start converging on your different ideas and start to develop them further. You take your ideas from the abstract world and deploy them back in the physical world to create better value for your customers.

This is very similar to certain sound product management processes. Relative prioritization and unearthing contradictions are important parts of idea management. Design Management activities focus on heavy iteration, short feedback loops, listening to users, prototyping, failing early etc., which are all very good practices for product managers to concentrate on too.

Design Thinking and Project Management

Design thinking is a repeatable, multidisciplinary, iterative approach to problem solving. Perhaps Design hasn’t classically been adopted as a guiding philosophy for product management, but it in fact has several parallels with agile methodology.  Like agile development, design thinking pushes towards prototyping – this might be to refine a product, or it might be to learn more about customers in order to build better products in the future. The challenge with agile however, is that sometimes it can feel regulated. This approach is sometimes so development focused that there is a lack in understanding the marketplace. Design thinking however builds on the agile approach to product development and helps catalyse innovation. Design thinking focuses on the big idea and hence complements agile which focuses on a targeted idea. It helps make failure a learning tool so its cost is reduced. Taking the strengths of each of these models can help to reduce complexity and increase success during product development cycles.

Design Thinking and Team Members

One area where Design Thinking really helped me was to change the way in which team members look at a product or a feature and accept failures. Design Thinking is not limited to any particular discipline, such as designers, creative people or UX. This brings an interesting change in the team dynamics and mindset. Design thinking brings in:

  • perspective on the product definition from all disciplines
  • processes that increase empathy for the user
  • understanding of the why behind every initiative
  • faster learning and more sharing

The same principles can be applied to collaboration on wider product management. Rather than a prescriptive conversation around what will be built, we have a much more open conversation about what should be built in order to start learning. It also influences the way we look at requirements. Requirements are essentially assumptions. They may be well researched and well-informed but they are still simply assumptions for how the product should operate. Acknowledging this from the start with your team leads to much more effective communication throughout the product development process.


So in Conclusion…

While business typically focuses on metrics and analytics, the focus of design thinking is primarily on human-centered goals and invention.  Roger Martin in his book, The Design of Business, writes that in the future the most successful businesses “will balance analytical mastery and intuitive originality in a dynamic interplay.” Recent startups and successful products have proven that industry disruption is possible not just by focusing on adding features or just improving sales, but instead by also focusing on providing deep, meaningful engagement to the people that use the products or services. Reach this level of engagement by designing products that seem as though they have a personality, or even a soul. In sum, product managers stay in touch with your human side too.