The difference between design and product management / by Gavin Lau

Yesterday I was asked how a designer differs from a product manager. I found the answer surprisingly hard to give. Everyone designs, but not everyone is a “designer,” which encompasses both a skill set and a mindset. I look for designers who bleed into product management and product managers who bleed into design. The venn diagram overlaps significantly in terms of the work, but the two roles bring different perspectives to problems that leads to better answers.

While one can look to attempts to define the hodgepodge that is “UX,” such as Jesse James Garrett’s diagram (correction, this version is from Dan Saffer)…

This doesn’t really answer the question as to differences. So breaking it out into capabilities, my ever-evolving opinion is as follows:

Qualitative research: I expect both designers and product managers to be able to do this well. Designers sometimes edge PMs out in terms of EQ levels, but it really depends on the person. Both need to be able to ask great questions, listen well, and make good decisions from observed patterns.

Interaction design and information architecture: Both designers and PMs should care about user flows, information access and hierarchy, and the effectiveness of a screen layout. Both should be able to wireframe and sketch. But I do not expect PMs to be able to solve complex interaction problems or create at the same level of elegance, at least not without a LOT of heavy lifting. Designers by inclination, talent, training and practice are better here.

Usability testing: I want both designers and PMs to hear the name Steve Krug and say “that guy rocks.”

Visual design: This is a clear area outside of the Venn diagram overlap in the designer camp, although not all designers are visual designers. The best interaction designer I’ve ever worked with (by a large margin) would not describe himself as a visual designer. While you will find the occasional PM who geeks out about x-height and triad color harmony, they usually can’t put those ideas into practice very well. Related to this is animation design, with a similar emphasis on the design rather than PM side. Animation design is really seeing a resurgence these days between mobile UIs and CSS transitions (and like all good design, requires effective levels of restraint!).

Strategy: This used to be the territory of PMs, who anchor the business perspective on the product team, but as design has argued for a “seat at the table” for making big decisions, design practitioners have realized that you need to talk strategy and finance to be taken seriously. They have realized that design needs to balance customer needs and business needs, and not advocate for one over the other. Design strategy is a new buzzword that makes me roll my eyes a bit, but I believe that the designer brain brings an interesting angle to strategic thinking.

What is typically outside of design? I would put competitive analysis (though designers should be aware of competitors), market structural analysis (though designers need to factor this information into their thinking), and pricing strategy (with related financial modeling) as typically outside of design (although pricing is a fascinating design problem).

A big difference is where they spend their time. You’ll hear me call design and engineering “deep dive” roles, while PM is a multi-tasking role, which is why it is relatively easier for PMs to assume a leadership role. Even though we work in very collaborative ways (“rough draft culture”) at Axial, both design and engineering require getting into a “flow state” on a problem. Design takes a lot of iteration and trial and error to get something right. PMs, on the other hand, are bouncing around a million tasks, from clarifying a user story, to managing communication inside and outside the organization, to doing whatever it takes to un-bottleneck the team, to all the things listed above.