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Product Management vs Product Design

By Udhaya Kumar Padmanabhan Global Strategic Design Director at Designit

Ever wondered how the best products seamlessly blend functionality with an engaging user experience? The magic happens at the intersection of product management and product design. These roles, while distinct, are two sides of the same coin, working together to create products that not only achieve business goals but also captivate users. Let’s explore how these fields have evolved, how they intersect, and why their effective collaboration is key to crafting remarkable products.

Key Takeaways:

  • Product management and product design must work collaboratively to create successful and user-centric products.
  • Effective team dynamics are crucial, following the stages of forming, storming, norming, and performing.
  • Both fields bring unique strengths: product managers focus on analytics and strategy, while designers prioritize creativity and user experience.
  • The evolution of product management includes adapting to a rapidly changing technology and shifting consumer needs.
  • Embracing a multidisciplinary approach ensures that no single discipline overshadows the others, fostering innovation and cohesive product development.
In this article
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    Understanding the Dynamics Between Product Management and Design

    The roles of product management and design are often seen through different lenses, each with its own set of responsibilities, challenges, and perspectives. Here, we explore the current scenario from the viewpoint of a product management professional and a designer within a product-focused company.

    The Product Management Perspective

    Product managers are often seen as the “mini-CEOs” of their products, owning everything from the vision and mission to the strategy and tactical execution. Their role is multifaceted and includes:

    • Vision and Mission: Setting the long-term vision and mission for the product.
    • Strategy and Tactics: Developing strategies and making tactical decisions to bring the product to life.
    • Design and Execution: Overseeing the design and managing countless other aspects that contribute to the product’s success.

    Product managers believe in their ability to understand and predict customer needs, market trends, and consumer behavior. There’s a perception that only individuals with specific academic backgrounds and experiences—typically in high-tech and prestigious companies—can excel in this role. This has led to a sense of entitlement and privilege within the profession, where product managers often see themselves as possessing unique skills that set them apart from other roles.

    A common aspiration among product managers is to eventually rise to the position of Chief Product Officer (CPO). This ambition is grounded in data and surveys from the product management community, reflecting a widespread belief in their strategic importance within organizations.

    The Designer’s Viewpoint

    Designers, on the other hand, advocate for a design-led approach to product development. Historically, design was often dismissed as merely the aesthetic aspect of a product, but this view has evolved significantly over the past few decades. Designers now insist on having a “seat at the table” in strategic discussions, recognizing that design is integral to creating successful products.

    Key elements of the designer’s perspective include:

    • Design Leadership: Belief that effective product development should be led by design principles.
    • Empathy and Design Thinking: Utilizing empathy and design thinking to solve problems and create user-centric products.
    • Perceived Misunderstanding: Feeling that non-design functions (product management, engineering, finance, etc.) often do not fully understand or appreciate the value of design.

    There is also an ongoing tension between designers and product managers, often rooted in their different educational backgrounds—designers from design schools (D schools) and product managers from business schools (B schools). This dichotomy can lead to conflicts over influence and decision-making power within product organizations.

    The Reality of Power and Privilege

    Within most product-centric companies, the CPO’s office wields significant power and responsibility, directly impacting the company’s success and profitability. This structure often places design as a subset of the product management function, which is a contentious issue. Designers argue that their contributions are undervalued and that they lack the power and privilege enjoyed by their product management counterparts.

    Beyond the Product Management vs. Design Debate

    While the tug-of-war between product management and design garners much attention, a broader ecosystem of professionals and domains is essential for bringing a product to life. This ecosystem navigates the entire technology adoption lifecycle—from early development to market testing, mainstream traction, and eventual product evolution.

    The Product Lifecycle

    Products like the iPhone undergo a natural progression: starting in beta, gaining traction to become mainstream, and evolving through multiple versions. Eventually, all products reach the end of their lifecycle.

    Business, Technology, and UX

    Theoretical frameworks highlight three crucial aspects of product development: business viability, technological feasibility, and user experience (UX) delight. While these elements should be equally important, UX often gets sidelined. It’s frequently perceived as the icing on the cake—essential but less critical than business and technology.

    The Reality in Product Companies

    Inside many companies, UX integration with business and technology is often superficial. Despite its theoretical importance, UX is treated as an afterthought rather than a core component of product development. Addressing this disparity would require extensive research and industry-wide changes, but the current state undervalues UX compared to business and technological considerations.

    Evolution and Reflection in Product Development

    As we navigate the fast-paced world of product development, it’s worth pausing to consider our own evolution as professionals. Just as our ancestors evolved from using basic tools made of stone and bone to dreaming of flying cars and living on Mars, we too must reflect on whether we, as product managers and designers, have evolved to meet the demands of our times.

    Evolution of Thought and Practice

    From the earliest humans to modern innovators, everything around us has been designed. The question we must ask is: Have we, as product professionals, evolved as much as our creations have?

    Even the simplest aspects of our environment, like the variant of a finch found in southern India, showcase evolution. This prompts a reflection on our own growth. Are we, as product managers and designers, evolving at the pace we should be?

    Perspectives in Product Development

    Product management and product design have distinct perspectives. Product managers often see themselves as:

    • Quantitative and rigorous
    • Logical and analytical
    • Focused on measurable outcomes

    In contrast, product designers typically view themselves as:

    • Creative and innovative
    • Problem solvers
    • Impactful on a large scale

    The Core of Professional Identity

    These identities shape the way professionals approach their work but also set the stage for friction. The creative versus analytical, cool versus rigorous, problem-solving versus logical thinking dichotomies often lead to a tug-of-war between product managers and designers. This is well-documented and extensively studied, yet the pace of technological advancement and personal aspirations often exacerbate these conflicts.

    Reflecting and Moving Forward

    In today’s world, where everyone is racing against the clock for career growth and recognition, it’s crucial to pause and reflect. The intense drive to achieve can sometimes border on insanity, and it’s important to take time to smell the flowers and consider our paths.

    The Product Management and Design Tug-of-War

    In the world of product development, a well-known tension exists between product management and design. Product managers and designers often see themselves as the best thing to happen to their respective fields, creating a tug-of-war dynamic.

    The Core Beliefs

    Product Managers:

    • Analytical and Quantitative: Product managers pride themselves on their analytical skills and quantitative approach. They believe in rigorous evaluation, number crunching, and prioritizing tasks to keep the wheels of the moving train turning smoothly.
    • Structured and Logical: They are logical, detail-oriented, and focused on measurable outcomes. This mindset helps them manage high-pressure situations and make decisions based on data and gut instinct.
    • Hybrid Skill Sets: Their roles blend hard and soft skills, making them adaptable and resilient in navigating complex product landscapes.

    Product Designers:

    • Creative and Generative: Designers see themselves as creators who bring emotion and intuition into the design process. They focus on adding value through iterative and generative processes.
    • Qualitative and Abstract: Much of design work involves qualitative, abstract thinking. Designers often describe their work in terms that are not easily quantified, relying on intuition and aesthetic judgment.
    • Iterative Process: Like product management, design is an iterative process. Designers refine and iterate on their work to achieve the best possible outcome.

    The Source of Tension

    This dichotomy creates inherent friction. Product managers and designers often clash because of their contrasting approaches: analytical versus creative, quantitative versus qualitative, reductive versus additive. This tension is exacerbated by the formative experiences of individuals in each field, where they model their behavior on their mentors and leaders.

    A famous industry quote asserts that “the very existential reason for user experience as a domain is bad product management.” While some agree, others recognize that both fields have unique strengths and stressors. The key is not in proving one superior to the other but in understanding how they can complement each other.

    Bridging the Gap

    The current focus tends to be on the differences between product management and design, creating a metaphorical red brick wall that separates the two. However, the true potential lies in finding ways for these contrasting approaches to intersect and cross-pollinate.

    • Cross-Pollination: Product managers can learn from designers’ top-down, intuitive approaches, while designers can benefit from the structured, bottom-up methods of product managers.
    • Collaboration: Encouraging collaboration and mutual understanding can help break down barriers and lead to more innovative and effective product development processes.

    The Future of Product Management and Design: Embracing Change and Collaboration

    The future of product management and design is starting now. Both fields are transforming to adapt to new realities, where traditional roles and methods are being questioned and reshaped. This dynamic shift necessitates a closer look at how these disciplines intersect and how they can collaboratively drive innovation.

    The Maturity of Product Management and Design

    Product Management:

    • Established and Evolving: Product management is a mature, robust domain recognized for its analytical rigor and strategic importance. Historically, product managers have been seen as the key players in shaping and delivering products, often prioritizing services and managing intricate details through data-driven decisions.
    • Adaptation to Services: As many products become services, product management must evolve. This shift doesn’t mean product management becomes service management; instead, it highlights the need for new tools, methods, and mindsets to address the changing landscape.


    • Creative and Integral: Design has existed longer than product management but has often been seen as secondary, merely enhancing products with aesthetics. However, design’s role is becoming more critical, moving beyond “putting lipstick on the pig” to being a core part of product development.
    • Recognition of Value: Companies now recognize the importance of design, sometimes elevating designers to executive roles, such as Chief Design Officer (CDO) or Chief Experience Officer (CXO), reflecting a shift towards design-led innovation.

    Bridging the Gap Between Product Management and Design

    Collaboration and Integration:

    • Interdisciplinary Teams: The future demands a team sport approach, where interdisciplinary collaboration between product managers and designers becomes the norm. Each discipline brings unique strengths that, when combined, can drive more effective and innovative solutions.
    • Behavioral Adaptation: Both product managers and designers must adapt their behaviors and approaches. For product managers, this means incorporating more creative and intuitive methods. For designers, it involves understanding and valuing analytical and quantitative perspectives.

    Power and Privilege:

    • Contextual Application: Power and privilege in these roles should be contextual and shared. The traditional hierarchy, where product managers hold more influence, is shifting towards a more balanced and collaborative structure. In some companies, designers now hold significant sway, influencing not just aesthetics but overall user experience and strategic direction.

    Evolving Skill Sets and Mindsets

    For Product Managers:

    • Beyond Numbers: Product managers are traditionally seen as quantitative and analytical. However, they must also embrace qualitative insights and creative problem-solving to stay relevant in a design-led world.
    • Holistic View: Understanding the customer requires more than data; it involves empathy, anthropological insights, and a deep understanding of human behavior.

    For Designers:

    • Beyond Creativity: While creativity remains crucial, designers must also develop strategic thinking and understand the broader business context. They need to communicate their ideas effectively to other stakeholders and work within multidisciplinary teams.
    • Universal Designers: Embracing the concept that everyone can be a designer can democratize creativity within organizations. This perspective fosters a culture where innovative thinking is encouraged across all roles and levels.

    Education and Continuous Learning

    Lifelong Learning:

    • Academic Foundations: While formal education provides a foundation, real-world experience, and continuous learning are crucial. The best professionals in both fields continually seek new knowledge and skills, adapting to changing environments and technologies.
    • Curiosity and Inquiry: Cultivating a sense of curiosity and the willingness to question and learn is essential for growth. This mindset drives both personal and professional development, enabling individuals to stay ahead in their fields.

    Building High-Performance Teams in Product Management and Design

    Fostering effective team dynamics is crucial for success. One influential framework for understanding team development comes from Bruce Tuckman, a pioneer in psychology and organizational behavior. Tuckman’s model, though not as famous as it perhaps should be, offers valuable insights into the stages teams go through to achieve high performance. Here’s a look at how product management and design teams can benefit from this model.

    Tuckman’s Model: The Four Stages of Team Development

    1. Forming: Building Relationships

    • Initial Phase: When a team is first created, members are introduced, roles are defined, and relationships begin to form. This is an organic process where individuals start to understand their place within the team and how they fit into the broader mission.
    • Key Activities: Establishing trust, getting to know each other, and understanding the team’s goals and objectives. This stage is critical for laying the foundation of a cohesive team.

    2. Storming: Healthy Debates and Discussions

    • Constructive Conflict: Once the team members are comfortable with each other, they enter the storming phase, characterized by debates and discussions. This is where different perspectives and ideas clash, leading to creative solutions and innovative thinking.
    • Key Activities: Engaging in healthy debates, addressing conflicts openly, and understanding the unique strengths and weaknesses of each team member. This stage helps in identifying the quirks and capabilities of the team.

    3. Norming: Establishing Norms and Cohesion

    • Building Consensus: After understanding the storming phase, the team begins to establish norms and routines. Members understand each other’s working styles and start to develop a rhythm.
    • Key Activities: Creating standard processes, fostering mutual respect, and aligning on shared goals. The team becomes more cohesive and starts functioning smoothly as a unit.

    4. Performing: Achieving High Performance

    • Optimal Functioning: In the performing stage, the team operates at its highest potential. Members are not only aware of their roles but also excel in them, contributing effectively towards the team’s goals.
    • Key Activities: Delivering consistent results, leveraging each member’s strengths, and maintaining high levels of productivity and morale. The team is now a well-oiled machine, capable of tackling complex challenges.
    Applying Tuckman’s Model to Product Management and Design

    Formation and Initial Collaboration:

    • Forming Relationships: As product managers and designers come together, it’s essential to invest time in building relationships. This involves understanding each other’s roles and responsibilities and establishing trust.
    • Encouraging Open Dialogue: Facilitating open and honest communication from the beginning can set the stage for effective collaboration.

    Navigating Creative Tensions:

    • Embracing Storming: Creative tensions between product managers and designers are natural and beneficial. Encouraging healthy debates can lead to innovative solutions and better products.
    • Understanding Perspectives: Product managers should appreciate the creative input of designers, and designers should value the data-driven insights of product managers. This mutual respect can enhance collaboration.

    Establishing Effective Norms:

    • Creating Standards: Developing processes and standards that both teams agree on can streamline operations. Regular check-ins and feedback loops can ensure everyone stays aligned.
    • Building a Cohesive Team: Recognizing and leveraging each team member’s strengths can create a balanced and effective team dynamic.

    Achieving High Performance:

    • Delivering Results: Once the team has navigated through the initial stages, it can achieve high performance by focusing on shared goals and continuous improvement.
    • Continuous Learning: Encouraging ongoing learning and adaptation helps the team stay innovative and responsive to new challenges.

    The intersection of product management and product design is a dynamic and evolving space. By understanding and embracing the unique strengths of each domain, and by fostering effective collaboration through frameworks like Tuckman’s model, organizations can create products that not only meet business goals but also delight users. As we move forward, the key to success lies in recognizing the value of multidisciplinary teams, cultivating curiosity, and embracing the idea that everyone can contribute to the design process.

    About the Author:

    Udhaya Kumar Padmanabhan – Global Strategic Design Director at Designit

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Product management focuses on the strategic and analytical aspects of product development, such as planning, prioritizing, and ensuring business goals are met. Product design, on the other hand, centers on creative and user-centric elements, crafting intuitive and engaging user experiences. While both are essential for successful products, they bring distinct but complementary skills to the table.

    Product managers typically do not design but instead focus on strategic planning, prioritizing tasks, and ensuring business goals are met. They work closely with designers, who handle the creative and user experience aspects. However, product managers need to understand design principles to effectively collaborate and guide the product vision.

    To transition from a product designer to a product manager, gain knowledge in strategic planning, market analysis, and project management. Seek opportunities to lead cross-functional teams and demonstrate your ability to drive product vision and execution. Additionally, develop strong communication and leadership skills to effectively collaborate with stakeholders and guide product development processes.

    No, product management and UX design are distinct roles with different focuses. Product management involves strategic planning, market analysis, and driving product development, while UX design focuses on creating intuitive and user-friendly interfaces. While they collaborate closely, they serve different functions within the product development process.