Let’s get one thing clear right away. Product management and user experience (UX) are both necessary roles in pretty much any company that creates products. But they are different.
This is a bit personal for me, since I was a UX practitioner for many years before transitioning into product management. It was a natural transition for me, and my UX experience and skills served me well in product management. Many friends and colleagues during my UX days are now in product management roles or are considering them.
Now in my role at SiriusDecisions leading our Product Management advisory service, I work with product management leaders and their teams on issues like how product managers can work effectively with UX, and how to clarify responsibilities, activities and deliverables that often seem to overlap.
But lately it seems as though some of the conversations are less about clarifying the roles and more about muddying them.
I get frustrated when I see articles about “great tools for product managers” that refer to tools that create wireframes and help you conduct usability tests.
I get perturbed when I see blog posts with titles like “Things That Product Managers Should Know,” that include creating responsive designs and organizing Web pages to optimize call-to-action responses and proper form design.
And I start to lose it when I see people (usually UX designers) asking what value a product manager adds when you’ve got a smart, experienced UX practitioner.
Recently, someone posed the question to me: “What can a product manager do that a good senior UX designer can’t?” After clarifying the semantics – “Can’t do or doesn’t do? A lot of UX people could be great product managers, but that’s a different role.” – my response was: “If your UX designers can do things like segmentation, market sizing, pricing, positioning, sales enablement and manage the overall commercial success, then they can be product managers.”
But it was the question itself – which, incidentally, I’ve heard more times than I care to count – that perturbed me, because it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of product management. Product management is more than UX.
Sure, if you’re managing a product, millions of visitors come to your site every day, and minor changes in click-throughs and conversion rates make the difference between profitable growth and going out of business, then UX is crucial. In that case, it’s probably vital that you, as product manager, get involved in UX at an incredibly granular level. But most product managers – certainly in b-to-b, and in most b-to-c situations as well – aren’t in that situation (although, even in those situations, product management is still more than UX). SiriusDecisions’s view is that the product manager is responsible for the commercial success of a product, overseeing it from inception/ideation through design, build, launch and growth/enhancement. UX is an important component of that commercial success, but a product’s success requires much more than that.
We’ve passed the point for most software-as-a-service products where UX is a nice-to-have – it’s table stakes. An amazing UX used to be a competitive advantage; in some markets, it is now a basic customer expectation. Because of this, it has a naturally close connection with product management. And a lot of the qualities that make someone a good UX practitioner are the same as those that make a good product manager – focus on, and empathy for, the customer/user, an evidence-based approach to problem solving, and a desire to create a product that is useful and easy to use.
Ultimately, as important as UX is, it’s not product management, and confusing the two belittles the importance of both of these crucial roles.
Jeff Lash is Vice President and Group Director of Go-to-Market at SiriusDecisions, where he leads the Product Management and Portfolio Marketing Research and Advisory Services. A recognized thought leader in product management, he has over 15 years of experience in product management, product development, product marketing, and user experience design. Follow Jeff on Twitter at @jefflash.