At our Leadership Forum last year, I heard about a battle going on in some companies today. A battle over who understands the customer best and is, therefore, best equipped to answer the questions about what they want or need.

This battle used to be between Sales and Product Management. Sales, having more contact with customers, felt they had a better understanding of customer needs than product managers (and sometimes they were right). But I think today the bigger fight is between User Experience (UX) practitioners and product managers.

To help explore this, I had a discussion with Dr. Rebecca Gill, Director at Bunnyfoot, a leading UX consultancy and training organization.

Remember your goals

Product managers and UX practitioners each have a slightly different goal; the differences are subtle but might be one of the sources of conflict.

Anyone who has been in product for a while knows that the role of Product Manager varies from company to company, but in all cases, I believe that the role is:

to seek to maximize business and customer value through offering products and services that they value and can be delivered in a targeted, scalable and profitable way

Product Management is about balance across all areas of the business built on a broad and deep market understanding. This understanding is typically established through customer and internal discussions as well as extensive market research and analysis.

UX practitioners, including Designers and User Researchers, on the other hand, are:

seeking to ensure that they are solving real user problems in an effective and efficient way

They try to understand users (as well as other business stakeholders) to match the problems and needs they have with solutions the business can offer. They do this through research and by taking an evidence-based approach with a wide array of methods – including observation.

Solving similar problems

I think in reality UX practitioners and product managers are trying to achieve similar outcomes, but use different tools and techniques while approaching from slightly different perspectives.

Originally the product management function aimed to efficiently deliver what management wanted, an ivory tower approach of “if we build it, they will buy”. Over time this changed to define and build target products based on industry and subject matter knowledge to hit customer needs, all hidden behind the phrase “voice of the market”. More recently product managers have started applying principles such as Lean Startup; running experiments to find out what customers want – something that is often much easier to do with software products. They seek to find Problem-Solution Fit, Product-Market Fit, and Business Model Fit; through this, they ensure they understand the customer problem and can solve it in a way customers’ value, the market will accept and will be profitable.

Similarly, many design teams that now contain UX practitioners were historically limited to working in the User Interface (UI) world. Simply all they would have been asked to do would be “make it look pretty”. This is sometimes known as “putting lipstick on a pig” based on it being something that was applied after the fundamentally ugly product has been created. These activities were not applying UX principles at all. The principles of human-centered design (HCD) are fundamentally what UX practitioners apply these days. They involve users throughout with observation and iterative testing that drives design. We often currently see Design Thinking as an example of the application of these principles.

The development community brought us Agile in a similar way to encourage us to build small elements incrementally and get them in the hands of customers to iteratively learn.

With the growing awareness that many products fail and a desire to reduce this risk by better understanding customers, many approaches have been developed. They are all a little different because they have come from different starting points, but they are all aiming for essentially the same outcome.

Don’t get lost in the language

There are a lot of terms around, and I think half the confusion comes from the terminology. For example, what is the difference between a Customer, User and Buyer? What is the difference between Customer Experience (CX), User Experience (UX), Service Design and Experience Design (XD)?

I’m not going to answer those questions here, as the point is not the definitions but how we best understand how to build products customers want. Sometimes the different definitions can be useful, but often they simply lead to a semantic discussion instead of delivering anything constructive. So, in my experience, don’t get hung up on the terminology.

It’s all about humans

It is usually people (humans) that are using our products, so taking a human-centered approach to understanding and design makes a lot of sense. There are many tools used to help understand the people using and buying our products. One of the most common is Personas. Lots of product managers use them in both their marketing and development activities.

I’ll let you into a secret… you probably have terrible personas. Product managers in my experience are not very good at creating them; often people with too little exposure to customers without a deep understanding of how to craft a persona simply write down what they think is a reasonable persona, a.k.a. they make them up! Those bad Personas then become accepted as facts in the organization and are used to make decisions, despite being based on little more than fresh air.

UX practitioners despair of personas that are not based on research, as they give personas a bad name. They know better than to do that; they develop them based on evidence. They develop truly representative Personas that help understand users’ behaviors, needs, attitudes, etc. They allow you to get “under the skin” of a user or buyer and provide powerful tools for the entire team to use.

Evidence is critical

Product and UX are typically looking for evidence, or facts, as without them there is no way to overcome the HiPPOs or ZEBRAs in the organization. The fundamental goal is not to make mistakes and then correct them but instead to make the correct informed choices from day one. There is still a chance that we get things wrong, but the open and learning mindset that modern teams embrace means that the learning will be consolidated and the next iteration will be better.

One of my favorite philosophies is that of Paul Saffo of having “strong opinions, weakly held”. This might sound a bit odd, but the reality is that we all know if we are honest (and think about it) that many of our opinions are based on very little. As a Product Manager, you are often expected to make decisions, quickly and with minimal information.

I don’t think you will ever get away from this and so in many organizations having a strong point of view as a Product Manager is a critical skill. But having evidence behind your beliefs is even better. When evidence presents itself that goes against the point of view you hold, you should be open (possibly also seeking) to learn and to change your perspective. Obviously, this should be after considering all of the other evidence that your previous position was based on. Don’t just be a flag in the wind and change your opinion whenever the wind changes direction.

Build up an awareness

Once you solidify your skills in product management, you should spend some time gaining more appreciation of what is involved in UX activities. Perhaps by attending some training? That is precisely what I did; I attended a foundation course run by Bunnyfoot back in 2016. This exposure gave me some great insights, and enough learning to know that I could be dangerous if I pretended to be an expert myself!

The same is also likely to be true for UX practitioners. Over the last year, I have had several people with UX related roles in product management training courses that I have run. Some were considering a shift into product management and others were learning to work more closely with their colleagues. I think this is a great idea – as increased empathy and understanding can only lead to better collaboration.

Done right the partnership is powerful

As anyone who has attended a Product Focus training course will know, we emphasize the need for Product Managers, Designers and Tech Leads to work closely together to develop the best requirements. Marty Cagan says something very similar in his book Inspired and when he talks about Dual-Track Agile.

I am sure many other teams could be included, but these three form the core that should always be involved. While product managers should always be focussing on the “why” they often get distracted by being pulled into the “what”. Designers bring an open and questioning mind that forces the team to get to the “why” in all aspects of the product and in this way they are great partners.

On a recent training course, I had an Experience Designer in the room who commented that he felt designers were typically more open and less biased. This was on the basis that Product Managers often have to make decisions on technical solutions and then own them. To me, best practice is not for the Product Manager to decide on solutions, which is in the domain of the technology team, but sometimes we do inevitably cross that line. Product Managers do tend to have in-depth domain knowledge that may lead to this sort of bias. We certainly have to live with the solution. Great product managers don’t show this bias, but many good (and not so good) ones do.


Done right the partnership is powerful

Ultimately we all want the same thing!

We all want to deliver products (and services) that customers love and buy, by solving problems they really have and care about in a way that works for users, and scales profitability-wise for the business.

Work together, use whichever tools and approaches fit your situation, and empower and trust each other. As a product manager take the insights from UX to help make better product decisions. As a UX practitioner take the insights that product brings from the broader market and business context to help shape the user experience. Together you might just have a chance of having a major impact on your market and taking your business to the next level!

Phil Hornby
Independent Consultant

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