Ask the Experts: How to Navigate the Tricky (and sometimes nonexistent) Relationship Between Product Managers and Designers

product management and designer relationship

Jim Dibble, co-director of Pragmatic Institute’s Design Practice, and Product Instructor Amy Graham tackled the often tense (and sometimes nonexistent) relationship between product managers and designers in a Jan. 12 Product Chat hosted by Rebecca Kalogeris, vice president of marketing and product strategy at Pragmatic Institute.

During the webinar, Dibble and Graham talked extensively about the importance of a strong, effective partnership between product managers and designers.

“Not only do we believe it will improve the product experience that’s delivered to the market,” explained Dibble, but it will also lead to fewer revision cycles, better visualization of the concept during buy-in, and a greater chance of internal approval on product decisions.”

Here are two of the questions they tackled during the hour-long discussion:

QUESTION: How can product managers leverage design resources to create a successful product?

Product managers looking to better leverage their company’s design function should be aware of two issues at play.

* On a corporate level, where does product management and design fall on the organizational chart?

* On a project level, what is the resourcing model for designers?


If you’re a VP or director of product, this is a concern for you. Sometimes design reports to product, sometimes it stands on its own, and sometimes it reports to engineering or marketing. As a product leader, you should build an alliance with the head of design, who can be your trusted partner in maintaining an outside-in approach.


If you’re an individual product manager, how design is resourced on your project will tee up how you might collaborate.

While conducting research for Pragmatic Institute’s new course for product managers, Design, Dibble said he, and Design Practice Co-Chair Shannon McGarity, saw two main ways in which design is structured within an organization.

Embedded Model: Design resources are embedded within product teams. If you’re a product manager who’s leading a product or a portion of a product, you have a dedicated designer or set of designers.

Agency Model: There is a centralized pool of designers, which you can draw from if you make the case that your particular project needs these resources. It’s as if you have an internal design agency.

In each model, there are unique responsibilities for product managers.

If you have an embedded model, work on establishing a strong partnership between product managers and designers. You could lean on them to help with user research, persona creation, product concept testing, product storytelling, etc. And they can see you as a partner in ideation, solution visioning, etc. Discuss who will lead and who will participate at different stages.

If you have an agency model, chances are you have access to a designer for a limited amount of time and that you might get a different designer each time you request one. That’s a challenge, because you’ll have to explain your product context each time. Be crisp when sharing the context designers need to do great work (who they’re designing for, what their goals are, how they currently approach the market problem, how you want the users to feel).

QUESTION: What’s the best way to proceed if you don’t have access to any design resources within your organization?

Organizations tend to be understaffed in design, and some don’t invest in it at all. As a result, it’s not uncommon for product managers to be without any true design resources at their disposal.

In her days working as a product manager, Graham said she included three main points when making the case for bringing on design resources:

  • Provide visibility and transparency into bandwidth issues: “I can’t be everything to everyone.”
  • Share challenges around skill set: “I’m not a designer…If you want me doing design just be aware I’m ‘practicing my flair.’”
  • Demonstrate how critical it is to have a separation of duties.

“I also started to gather data. I looked at our support tickets, our win/loss data, any sort of input that would speak to usability, adoption, complaints that a product is not intuitive, or if somebody used our mobile app one time and never came back. I pulled that data together and used it to build a business case to get design resources either contracted from a consultant or get them in-house.”

In the webinar, Dibble explained how, without a dedicated design resource, a product team is putting quality and customer satisfaction at risk.

“Engineers will often talk about ‘technical debt,’ these things they need to fix in the infrastructure but haven’t had time to because they’re turning the crank so quickly. If you don’t have a designer, you’re building up ‘design debt’ and your product is becoming more and more inconsistent visually and in the way it works. It ends up looking like a Frankenstein collection of features because you didn’t have a designer.”

Dibble said an unwillingness to spend resources to get it right from the beginning often means an investment will be required at a later date to correct your product.

You can also focus on business outcomes you want to achieve when advocating for resources, said Dibble. For example, designers have techniques for both innovating and gathering user feedback on ideas and work in progress.

If your organization prioritizes product innovation or wants to mitigate the risk of spending resources on developing products that aren’t embraced by users, design is a great investment.

Dibble suggests doing an analysis of what design capabilities are needed before hiring new designers to make sure to apply the right skill set to the project.

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