With respect to sales, engineering and CX, Product Owners or VPs of Product are the heart of their company. Everything connects back to them, everyone depends on their work. From owning strategic planning and the metrics for how success will be measured, to bringing the concept and its user experience to life, to being in charge of proper function, maintenance, iterations, improvements, hopes, dreams - you name it. Safe to say, Product Owners work their behinds off.
They have to not only manage different people from various departments, they also have to ensure everyone’s working seamlessly and in sync. This calls for specific knowledge in multiple fields, so they could guide and direct people effectively.
One of the more important managerial relationships a PO has is with their Product Designer, or Product Design team. Regardless of industry or target audience, how your product is designed dictates quality, satisfaction rates, and people’s desire to engage again and again.
As a Design Team, we’ve had the fortune of playing an integral role in projects with companies in various stages, and have experienced lots of interactions with product owners and dev teams. We’ve learned a lot. We’ve seen what works and what doesn’t, and have used our learnings to establish both our tenets and methodologies.
To us, everything starts with perspective. As Product Designers, ours is that we’re here to make Product Owners shine.
By working as a team to help POs with researching and understanding their target audience, with defining the product development journey (including a precise definition of the MVP), and establishing a hierarchy for functionality. We help POs define usability concepts, draw and analyze UX frames, design screens, support software development needs, and run user-tests to constantly progress, improve, and evolve. Regardless of who you choose to work with, make sure you align on your joint perspectives first. Once you’ve got that covered, let’s break down how to maximize this instrumental working relationship.
Building the perfect Product Design team
Building a high functioning, strong team is perhaps the toughest needle to thread in any industry or working environment. Sometimes (every time?) there are budget issues. Sometimes you inherit a team that you have to work with. It’s also reasonable to assume your approach differs from that of your predecessor, or past POs your team members have worked with, which means there’s going to be a learning curve no matter what.
What skills and capabilities are must-haves?
Product Designers need to be masters at research and analysis, so they can understand your company’s goals, your customers’ needs, and your competition’s strengths and weaknesses.
They need to be able to come up with UX concepts and sketch detailed wireframes. Sometimes they need to help define your visual language and create guidelines. Did we mention prototyping, dev support, QA, usability testing, and the ability to develop new features and use cases?
So a good place to start is to define the type of design work you’ll need. There’s a big difference between design work that aims to preserve and nurture an established product, and product design work at a budding startup - where you still need to create and define something out of (almost) nothing.
Our experience taught us that when dealing with the latter, it’s important to insist on teams, or designers who are experienced with UX architecture and have the ability to build out concepts before they start sketching frames. For the former, we’d recommend designers who lean more into analytics and research, since most of the work is typically collecting data, and then improving and preserving existing qualities.
How many Product Designers do I need on my team?
You’ll need at least two humans - a UX Designer, and a UI Designer. Hot take: we don’t believe there’s such a thing as a great UX/UI designer, because these roles demand different personalities, brains, skills, and if you want to get philosophical, souls.
Ideally for a startup, you should look for two experienced UX Designers, and one UI Designer with a strong foundation in design theory, plus executional chops.
If you can only hire one person, what should you prioritize?
This question is what 90% of Product Owners face. Our first advice is take your time with making this decision. Regardless of who you hire, your product will still need both UX and UI. So focus your search based on the following questions:
- What skills are required for designing your product?
- What skills are you willing to give up on (for the foreseeable future)?
- How can you compensate for what you’ll be giving up on?
At the end of the day, Product Owners and VPs of Product can never find candidates that check all the boxes. A good approach is searching for complementary skill sets with new hires, and building a well-balanced team that can adapt and create along with your vision.
For example, a Product Owner with a UX background, who has created concepts before, and knows how to build out an experience from research to frames, should prioritize a UI Designer who can take their work and run with it. Conversely, a PO who lacks UX experience should build their team according to the classic Product Design process and hire a UX Designer (architect) first.
Another way to look at hiring is based on your roadmap and timeline. For ad hoc projects, you can outsource to a skilled freelancer (who might cost more - but for a shorter period of time). For the day-to-day, you can hire more of a generalist, be it UX or UI.
Either way, you have to get a good feel for the person, and remember that there are differences between one designer to another - people come from different backgrounds, and have different styles, skills, and experience. Some UI Designers would be super comfortable with UX concepts and characterizations. Others would be very uncomfortable if those are the problems they have to solve on a daily basis. For example, some designers are great with infographics, smart flows and CTAs, while others excel at complex systems that are packed with lots of data points that have to be viewed at once.
Some UX Designers have a high sense of aesthetics, and can work great without strict (or any) visual guidelines. But many lack that skill, and will not be able to get by without support from a UI designer (or guidelines). It doesn’t mean they’re not great at their job, it’s just a matter of positioning your people to succeed.
Okay. Let’s begin with what to look for in a UX Designer?
In our opinion, the most important characteristic of a User Experience Designer is a true passion for solving problems. You’re looking for someone who thinks like an Engineer or an Architect. Someone who loves breaking things down, learning, implementing, and explaining their reasoning. Someone who doesn’t give up, who wants to make things better, who doesn’t get tired of pushing for the sake of the product and the people who’ll be using it. Yes, those qualities can be occasionally annoying or difficult to work with. But you can’t have one without the other, and great UX is always worth the time and the investment.
Speaking of ROI, never underestimate experience. Look for people who worked in great places or with great leaders, and in various environments. Odds are they’ve learned (from people and projects) things that’ll come handy for your product design needs, and offer a variety of solutions with a high executional standard. They need to be practical, not just dreamers, so they’ll be able to translate your vision into roadmaps and timelines. Inherently, UX and Product Design both require teamwork. So along with the aforementioned professional skills and qualities, your personal connection is crucial to a productive working relationship. Don’t underestimate that part either.
What to look for in a UI Designer?
It’s important to differentiate between a UI Designer who specializes in Product Design, and a Graphic Designer who specializes in creative advertising or marketing messages. The main role of a Product UI Designer is taking detailed UX concepts and wireframes, and translating them into a visual brand language. They’ll create the visual language and build the design system. This role also calls for lots of logical thinking, and “systematic creativity,” so we recommend finding someone who has good experience working with UX professionals. Designers who don't know how to work the tools of the trade, but often they are not trained in looking at things holistically to ensure everything’s going to work seamlessly across the experience.
Are there advantages in outsourcing your entire Product Design team?
There are lots of instances where an external Product Design team can bring immense value to startups and product companies. This comes into play especially in early stage companies, when you need lots of resources and skills to plan the product from the ground up, and define the visual language that’ll serve the company for the foreseeable future. An established freelance Product Design team can also be highly productive in a short period of time. We wrote more about this topic here.
Should your Product Design team work with other departments in your org?
Sharing your Product Design team across the organization contributes to uniformity, ensures a strong base of understanding and familiarity with all of the company’s systems and products. It typically means methodologies are more kept, transparency is adhered to, and the process is more organized as a whole.
However…..the biggest drawback is that as a Product Owner, you now have to share your resources, which hurts their focus and your ability to move at your speed. Prioritization can also get tricky for your designers when they have too many "bosses", so keep that in mind. Another drawback, with some external teams, is that you don’t always get to pick which designer is assigned to your project.
Establishing your Product Design methodology and workflow
How to help your Product Design team succeed
Planning is the base for almost every type of creation in the world. Yet, somehow when it comes to Product Design, things often get a bit…messy. Maybe it’s because the startup world moves at rapid speeds, or because of the desire to apply new tech and constantly test, learn, and get stuff “out the door.” But more often than not, progress struggles when we’re not sure which direction we should be heading. This is why planning your roadmap is crucial for creating a successful plan - which in turn dictates your day-to-day assignments. The roadmap needs to be constantly updated to ensure your team is on track, and that the connection between present and future is always, well, present.
How to hit the (design) ground running
Unless you’re dealing with a pure visual design project, you should start with characterizing the user experience, which means research and data collection. Then, and only then, you should start thinking about the UI. In cases where you already have a rich and clear visual language, you can use existing design elements as part of the characterization process. We dove more into that here.
What’s the difference between a UI design project and a UX design project?
A UI design project deals exclusively with aesthetics, and the goal is replacing the old with the new - without changing functionality, and with minimal changes to on-screen components. In some cases, these projects are a chance to actually refresh all design settings, but again no changes to how things work, just the way they look.
On the other hand, a UX design project, on the other hand, deals with the definition of the entire system, and requires conducting research, understanding what world of content you operate in, planning user flows, and ultimately sketching all the interface components and interactions - before diving into visual design. UX design changes don’t have to mean you’ll change color palettes, font, logo, or whatnot. But changes here do mean different components in your product will serve new functions, or allow users to do things they weren’t able to before. In this design case, only after having a precise and accurate definition of the screens should your team start diving into the visual changes, whether you’re using an existing design language or building a new one.
Clarity and communication FTW
If we could speak for all designers in the history of design, we love it when our partners set expectations up front. It helps keep the timeline and the process honest, and aids with transparency.
As mentioned above, concept and characterization is the first Product Design step, and the one that dictates the cadence of everything that follows. It’s important that a Product Owner defines the various design steps ahead, and differentiates between project types so they can estimate how much time and what resources each one will require. The more you understand, the more you can set expectations, the more transparent the project will go, and the better the final outcome would be. To start, ask your Product Design team what they need, and how they’d go about achieving your goals. Your partnership will benefit, too.
How to share previous explorations without leading Designers down the wrong path?
Product Designers want to know everything you’re thinking about, and most would love to hear about things you’ve already tried. Remember, their personality loves uncovering thoughts and learning new things, and they’ll use all that knowledge you impart as a base for their planning and characterization. An experienced Product Designer will know how to take in all the information, highlight key insights, and shelve a few others to create a specific solution for any use case.
How to think about your Design System
A product’s Design System is a library of elements and rules that is created with the goal of optimizing your product design process and development.
It’s a dynamic system that’s ever evolving, and contains definitions of design elements, layouts, and general information such as sizes, colors, and interactions.
The system contains your brand language, core components, and all elements to date.
It’s important to remember that you’ll never have every little thing defined, because of the inherent nature of developing new solutions. Good news is that since your Design System is constantly updated, your library grows and improves with time.
Mastering the Product Owner & Product Designer dynamic
As with any form of teamwork, everything starts with communication and trust. It’s important to think about the little things that make a big difference, like not being stingy with compliments when your designer has earned it. Similarly, it’s important not to hold back constructive criticism when the work needs to be pushed. What we’ve found to be especially helpful for both sides is a commitment to sharing knowledge, and examples of innovations in your respective fields. When you share what you like and have a dialogue about the other’s perspective, your trust and understanding grows.
Lastly, it’s important to think positively and remember that even if a mistake or disagreement feels hugely important, in a few days you’re likely to forget all about it. Which is to say, play the long game and remember that no matter what, your fingerprints are sure to be all over the end result.
Building a culture of knowledge-sharing
We wanted to expand on this, since we believe knowledge sharing isn’t just a kind human gesture, it’s also smart business, and a foundation for a productive working environment. It’s important that the Product Owner develops their Product Design knowledge, just as it’s important for the designer to gain an understanding of product ownership and the dilemmas and their manager faces. We’ve learned that recurring check-ins that are dedicated to knowledge-sharing make a world of difference for the team, and the product.
How much of the roadmap should you share?
Even the quickest-on-their-feet Designer appreciates a heads up. And since planning (a few months ahead, when possible) is ideal, keeping your designer or team in the loop is hugely important. An experienced Designer will know how to read your roadmap, digest and prepare for the tasks ahead, and plan accordingly for resources, timelines, and methodologies. Not to mention, they’ll know which future tasks are connected and will be able to save time and resources by killing multiple birds at once. Not literally, though. Birds are cool, let’s not harm them.
Teamwork, transparency, and efficiency ever after
Tools for transparency have evolved tremendously in recent years, as did the ability to react/respond/correct in an instant. The biggest advantage transparency provides is that it lets everyone on the team see, comment, and design in real time.
Programs like Figma, for example, are helpful not only for the design process, but also for management and development. Using these tools allows Designers to create screens from concepts to wireframes, and all the way to final designs - while keeping track of all versions and interactions. As a Product Owner, they help you see how the design is evolving and progressing in real time, as well as comment, illuminate, move and “feel” your product coming to life. Smart software makes your life easier and better. It’s that simple.
Anything else a PO needs to know?
Nah, you’ve got this. And if for whatever reason your imposter syndrome creeps in, remember all the work you’ve already put in to date. All the hours of studying and grinding are yours to lean on. Odds are, you know more than you think you know, and we’re willing to bet you have friends and colleagues - old and new - who can help you figure out whatever it is you’re struggling with. Go get em!