The Line Between Us is Not a Divider
The Line Between Us is Not a Divider
The difference in perspective, skill set and experiences of Product Managers and UX Designers help us to build better products. The overlap in our roles should bring us together but often tend to divide us. How do we develop empathy and understanding to build stronger, healthier relationships? How do we lean into constructive dialogue and come out with shared understanding and alignment?
Hi, I'm Audrey Cheng. I'm the CPO at SnapComms, an Everbridge Company. We're a market leader in critical event management tools that helps organizations to save lives and keep businesses running. I'm also the ex-VP of Product at Pushpay and in both of my roles, I've had the opportunity to lead both UX design and product management. And today I'm going to give a talk about the friction that can often exist between product managers and designers, and how to decrease the friction and build positive partnerships. And really embrace the tension between us so that we can build better products. So, my talk is called The Line Between Us is Not a Divider. And while I believe that it is important to have strong relationships between product, design and engineering. Today, I'm going to focus on specifically on the relationship between UX design and product management because I believe that there are some unique challenges that come from the overlap in some of our skillsets. So, the friction building products that help people and that people love using is not easy. And as part of a development team, we often need to navigate the complex relationships of cross-functional teams, where people are coming to the table with very different expertise and different perspectives. Sometimes this can cause or result in the team suffering from friction and fractured relationships due to misunderstanding and lack of alignment. So, the friction can be caused from a number of things it could be caused by thinking about who's responsible for representing the customer, who decides on the priorities, let's go gets cut, whose responsibility is it to interview, who decides on scope and approach. This friction can often result in us feeling like we're not part of a team and
we're not being and we're moving, I guess, to more towards being in competition with each other. Then as part of a team who's working towards a common goal. And so, when we stopped feeling like we're in a team where our expertise and perspectives are valued, we don't feel heard and we don't know why people don't understand our perspective. We end up feeling like we're butting our heads against a brick wall and feeling like I guess you'll eventually get it. So, what's the problem that results from all of that? Well, when we start feeling like we're more in competition with each other then we are working together as a team, we stop bringing our perspectives to the table. We start feeling like we can openly discuss a different perspective of what we believe is truly important to solving the customer's problem. We feel we can't be passionate about having a discussion about an idea or perspective for fear of being seen as being difficult or just not getting it. And when that happens, we don't feel aligned to the direction and approach that's chosen and when that happens, we don't feel passionate about what we're doing and we don't bring our best work. And ultimately what results from that is that our customers suffer because we don't end up building the best product that we can together. Now, I love this quote by Paul Rand, "Confusion and misunderstanding is the result of the absence of common language." And I really feel that this speaks to the heart of the problem. I believe that the tension doesn't result from us not valuing each other and the expertise and experience that we as designers and product managers bring to the table. It often results from the very different knowledge base knowledge that we all start from. We often assume that everyone has the same information and knows what we know. So, it's frustrating when it seems like the other person can't seem to get what we think is obvious. How do you transform negative friction into positive tension? Well, the things that I have found through my experience that makes a strong product and design partnership are empathy and valuing each other shared context early and often, regular communication and trusted relationships. So, when I think about empathy, I also think about equality. I think about really understanding and learning values, drivers and challenges much like we think about our customers and much like what we try to learn from our customers. It's important that we embrace and celebrate expertise and not be afraid of different perspectives. The reason that we can be a strong team is because we do have different perspectives and the perspectives that challenge us push and pull our ideas to become even better and push the boundaries of where they could actually help lead us to and co-working practices help to reinforce the everyday connection and working practices together. So, my own personal experience with this is that when I took on the responsibility for the first time of overseeing the UX research and UX design practice. Being a product manager, I really didn't know how to lead the design team. Even have worked alongside them for so many years, I didn't know what was meaningful in their work. I didn't know what they valued. I didn't know what was important to them and I didn't know what they needed to feel successful or to be feeling like they were doing the best work. So, I spent a lot of time learning, reading books, going to meet ups, talking to designers and design leaders and spending more time with on one-to-one talking with the designers on my team about what was working well, what was not working well and what they needed. And I found two key things from those conversations. One is that I found that generally, designers didn't know how to get their ideas on the roadmap when they found some key insights, they didn't know how to convince stakeholders that it was important and why. The second thing that I found was that they all felt that by the time they were looped into projects or initiatives, it was so late but everyone had more context than they had and so they were constantly feeling like they were playing catch up and they were not looped into a lot of the context that was already there. And so, people assume that they knew what was already found. One designer said to me, without the right context - you can build - we can build a very usable wrong thing. And so, that always stuck with me about how important it is to have the right information in front of you to make the right decisions. And I have seen designers passionately champion to go in one direction and when they realized that they were missing information, they knew that they would have changed the direction that they would have gone in and so context is so important. Some of the things that I took away from all of this was that designers need to be brought into problem discovery early. We need to create a space at the table for design and designers needed to understand what was important to stakeholders to get buy-in. And so, I set about implementing some processes that helped us really to adapt and be able to address some of these problems. So, that brings me to context. So, sharing context is key and we quite often share context about our customers. We share context about which customers are talking about, what problems you might be trying to solve but sometimes what's missed are things like business objectives. What are our strategic objectives? What's the business value including revenue, a competitor market position, what are constraints, time, resources, funding, technical and one of the key areas that I feel is often miss our goals and measurements. You know, thinking about where are we headed? What are we trying to achieve? What are our financial goals? How will we measure this then the product? Quite often, I sort of see this missing, or if product management is a depth in measuring the performance of their product,it's not a shared responsibility with UX design. And it makes it very difficult for designers to understand what they're trying to achieve and actually what to measure in their own journeys that they're creating. So, if we can share more context, we can really break down information silos if we can break down these silos, everyone can have the armed and feel empowered to actually make stronger decisions with the information that they have. So, some of the things that we changed to integrate sharing contexts into our work included planning. So, we decided to plan as a team. So, we would have a fortnightly meeting and as a team of designers and product managers coming together into a regular planning session where everyone was equal and had an equal voice, it was an opportunity for all the product managers and designers to talk about what was new, what they discovered, what they felt was important, and to reevaluate some of the priorities that we had. It allowed us to have good, strong, robust discussions about what was on the roadmap and why it would be important and from there, it enabled us to gain some alignment before we had conversations with engineering about the direction that we wanted to head in or changes that we were thinking about and to get their feedback and buy-in as well. We also implemented, researching and interviewing together for some, this may feel like a bit uncomfortable but I do believe in democratized research and it's not because they don't value the expertise of UX researchers, but it's because UX researchers are in short supply. And if you're lucky to have someone on your team, it's likely that you have more research projects and you have experts to complete them so you can create a space for UX researchers to be more focused on complex initiatives and to get them to build capability across the team if you train your team and actually build expertise across your people. and so one thing I found was that we decided to train everyone on proper UX research practices and we felt that if everybody followed the same practices and followed the same process that we would trust each other more. We could devolve some of the responsibility to other members of the team to take on and it allowed us to work more cross-functionally, all be closer to the customer and really build empathy for our customers. So, in a team we could be taking on the role of leading the research, building the protocol together, taking turns being the interviewer, observer or notetaker and this allowed different product managers and designers actually to take on the different roles within interviewing and this is the best way to get people involved early and often, and really build empathy for your customers. And so, we did a lot of alignment with regards to training in order to be able to have an organization that where we had lots of people interviewing and conducting research. Another practice that we implemented was sharing insights. So, once we completed a piece of research, we wanted to share the insights really, to gain and under to share and help everyone gain an understanding and align on the customer problems and opportunities that we had in front of us. We shared this with a cross-functional team of engineers, QA, researchers, UX designers, product managers, as well as data scientists quite often, we would also share these with the leaders of our go-to-market teams and our customer facing teams, as well as our senior leadership. And this was not only to gain to, to share and get gain alignment on the priorities for customers and for our roadmap, but also to champion the work of UX research and UX design and the value that it brings to our product development. And finally, the last point on context is really around alignment on goals and outcomes. Product and financial goals is an area where strong alignment is required but I feel often that product teams and UX designers are really not strong in this area, but if we know what needle we're trying to move, we all have a better understanding of how the work we are doing impacts those metrics. One of the things I did find was that we needed to upskill across the team in order to be able to do this in particular designers needed some coaching as to how to measure the success of their journeys that they were creating so this was an area that we needed to focus on from a learning perspective, but actually helped to help designers to understand the impact that they were making on the product and likewise, to demonstrate the value that they brought to the product. One tool that I use that I wanted to share today that I found really useful in gaining alignment across the team is Lean Canvas it's a methodology, it's a framework by Ash Maurya and it's really helpful in framing up an idea. It's basically a story of a problem, of the customer problem on a page. So, it's the business value in solving the problem in the go-to-market. It really encompasses all the metrics that the team is striving for. So, I felt it was a really good framework for gaining sharing context across the team. Excuse me. So, once we introduce these practices across our team, we needed to then make communication a priority. We needed to have regular cadence to share new learnings and insights through our development process. And we want it to work in spirit, no surprises. So, monthly
we shared some regular touch points a cross-functional meeting between engineering, QA, product management, UX research and UX design. We would talk about the things that we learned over the month, how our product was performing. Some key wins, some key learnings, as well as what was coming up for the month, both in development, research and UX design. And that really helped everybody bring everybody into the picture across the portfolio of the in-flight work, as well as to give everyone context into, you know what was happening in other areas of the product that may impact theirs. We also introduced co-design sessions. How might we solve hard problems? And so, in this picture, you can see our UX design team leading a co-design session with the team of PMs, engineers, data scientists, researchers and QA engineers. And this cross-functional team is really rich when we think about some of the problems that we were looking to solve. And I remember one instance where we had our data scientists come along and we were trying to solve a reporting sort of we wanted to build out some reporting for our customers and the data scientists really had some interesting ways of solving our customer's problem and representing the data. And we ended up implementing some of those ideas and so the designs didn't really end up turning into be the wire frames. They were just the storytelling format for someone to be able to express some ideas they had about how we might solve the customer's problems. So, that was one of the key ways that we also introduced dialog into our process. And finally reviewing early prototypes sharing work early, I'm a fan of sharing work early prototypes stimulate conversation. It's important to be able to talk about the problems that we're trying to, trying to solve, and because a lot of us like sort of like to say, sort of see something visual to generate and spark a conversation. I find that sharing early prototypes is really helpful for that. I think one of the things that's always really difficult for designers is that they take a lot of criticism because people look at this and see that it's a final design. So, it's really important to set the ground rules and ask participant and let participants know that these are not final designs. These are early ideas that we want to talk about, that we want to talk about the customer problem and so it's important to really set these expectations because designers often face really tough criticism with anything they put in front of people because people feel that these are their final ideas and it can be difficult at times for designers to share their early thinking. Because of this criticism. So, it's really important to set those expectations upfront and ensure that it's really for generating conversation - is something that I made a mistake with once and my designers felt face some pretty, pretty grueling criticism in one session. And I had to apologize to them and reset the expectations amongst our engineering and product management team. So, really important, really important to utilize that as a tool for conversation, but also equally important to set those ground rules. All right. The final point in terms of building a strong partnership between product management and design is really this idea of the culture of trust. And I think everything that we had talked about already feeds into building this culture of trust, but I just wanted to call it out a little bit further you know, in order for us to transform relationships, to being collaborative, we need to introduce new ways of working and take a product approach by testing and iterating. And so, like any relationship it's hard work. So, you need to persevere to build that trust. Right? And as I said, take a product approach. If something is not working, try something else and not all the approaches that I have mentioned today. I mean, necessarily work for you. It's just my experience that with my teams that has worked for me, but I suggest you try some things and iterate on it. So, maybe it doesn't work exactly that way for you but adapt it to your own context and it really takes everyone on the team to be open to new way of working and to new ideas. We all have to come to the table if we want to be able to work in a really trusted team environment. And for us, it's about sharing success and sharing failure. So, it's the idea of us being a team and working towards a common goal rather than feeling like we are working on opposite teams and we're working, competing internally for the recognition or for our ideas to be represented. Retro and iterate, as we talked about, and post-mortems when things don't go the way that we had expected let's understand and unpack the reasons why let's assume that everybody worked as hard as they can with the best intent. So, looking at it, I like this quote from Brene Brown that says "Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change." If we break down barriers, we can really spark creativity. I've often been asked what it takes to build trust. It's to be an ally, to ask for an opinion, to champion and value the expertise of your team. Also believe that you should see your cross-functional team as your first team. So, your first team, isn't the product management team. It isn't the design team. It isn't the engineering team. It's the team that you work with towards a goal. So, that could be your lead product manager, your lead engineer and your lead designer working together as a first team towards that goal and setting the right expectations about how you work together and finding the right balance and reminding yourself that everybody is working with the best intent and as hard as they can. One of the things that I've found that makes everybody on the same playing field is really learning together. You know, it's one of the most vulnerable things that you can do is to say like, Hey, actually I could upskill in this area. Hey, I don't know that. Right. But if we can upskill the team as a whole. We're all the better for it. So, not just in research has had mentioned in the user research and interviewing section but also the things that we have trained together in are things like storytelling and public speaking, as well as in metrics. And when we're learning together about how to actually be better presenters or storytellers and metrics, there is no hierarchal structure. There is no competition in terms of I'm going to be, it's my idea or your idea. It's really about learning and learning together. And the better that we can be at storytelling and metrics, the better our ideas we can sell our ideas to our stakeholders, our internal stakeholders. And the last thing aligning on practices is also very useful. So, as I talked about with the user research, it's really important that when there are responsibilities that we are actually practicing in a way that we all agree on and are aligned on. So, it doesn't matter. Who's conducting say the interview. If we have a line on the practice and everybody's been trained, then we value and we trust the data that's been collected. So, I feel like that is a really important way of being able to build trust between each other, that we are capable, that we were working in the same vein and that we're following the process. So, some of these things are just around, you know working on what makes sense for your team test and iterate. And so, I put it to you that we don't need to worry about the line between us and about the differences that we have. It really doesn't matter whose idea or whose decision, but really about how we come to making that decision that matters. Let's remove the personal friction and really embrace the professional tension that can exist to create the best products we can for our users. I feel that the magic happens in the overlap and I think as product management and UX designers, we do have an area of overlap. We really passionately care about solving the customer's problem and when we can bring our differences to the table and see that as a really positive thing. You know, there's a lot of magic that happens when I see teams together you know, we can see the bounds of ideas being pushed. Like the creativity that comes from that is incredible. So, for me, what are the results that I've seen on my team on this? You know I've seen firsthand that when you can break down these barriers, the positive impact that UX designers can have on your team culture is incredible. For me, I saw a shift from tactical practical thinking, to product managers creating space for exploration and experimentation. And when the team culture is strong, it really leads to more interesting ideas being brought forward. The ability to have deeper, more challenging conversations in a safe and trusted environment. I find that my team is happier. The product outcomes are stronger. I have stronger and higher retention and a much more resilient team so I'm seeing shorter decision cycles more empowered partnerships, focus, and diversity on the team. So, I'm still on this journey. So, stay tuned. And finally, some of the key takeaways that I hope you that you take from this talk are build empathy and understanding for each other, share context in order to gain alignment. It's really important not to assume that people already know what you know regular communication supports buy-in to decision-making and the culture of trust opens the door to creating better products for our customers. Thank you.