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The Importance of Design for Product Managers

  • Pragmatic Institute

    Pragmatic Institute is the transformational partner for today’s businesses, providing immediate impact through actionable and practical training for product, design and data teams. Our courses are taught by industry experts with decades of hands-on experience, and include a complete ecosystem of training, resources and community. This focus on dynamic instruction and continued learning has delivered impactful education to over 200,000 alumni worldwide over the last 30 years.

Design for Product Managers


Shannon McGarity, co-director of Pragmatic Institute’s new design practice, joins host Rebecca Kalogeris, VP of marketing and product strategy at Pragmatic, on the November 13 episode of Pragmatic Live. The two discuss the synergy between product management and design, Shannon’s background in design thinking and training, and Pragmatic’s new offering for product managers.


(This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)


Rebecca Kalogeris: Welcome to the Pragmatic Live podcast series, where we tackle the biggest challenges facing today’s product management, product marketing, and other market- and data-driven professionals with some of the best minds in the industry. Today, I am super excited to welcome Shannon McGarity, who is the co-director of our brand new design practice.


Shannon McGarity: Hi there. It’s great to be here.


RK: It’s great to have you. Today, we’re going to give people a little sneak peek of what’s happening here with design, a little bit more background about you, and a bit of conversation about product and design and how powerful that combination can be when done right.


SM: Yeah, like multiplying the power times 10.


RK: Yes, when the superpowers come together. So, I would just give everybody a little bit of background about you and how you got into this space.


SM: I have been a designer of some sort for the past 20 years. I’ve had the benefit of working in a lot of different ecosystems and verticals. I often say, “I’ve done a lot of the design jobs.” I started doing illustration, visual design, then branding, and interaction design. That morphed into creative direction, then user experience design, and then service design. A long trail and history of moving through different design practices and disciplines but also doing that in a number of different environments, from health marketing to ISPs to entertainment organizations.


Over the past five years, I was working as a design director at a company called Cooper, which eventually became Designit. That was a strategic design consulting firm, and we helped clients solve problems for their customers. Ultimately, we had an education group as well at Cooper/Designit. At Cooper Professional Education, we took things we learned from our own practices and empowered others to use those mindsets and tools in their own practices.


RK: One of the things I found so interesting as we brought you [and Co-Director Jim Dibble] on board is you say your strategic group focused on solving problems. It’s like, “Wait, that’s what we do!”


SM: Right!


RK: And when you think about our instructors, they became instructors here because they were so passionate about teaching people how to do this approach. There’s so much synergy there.


SM: Not only is there synergy in the fact that product management and design have these “outside-in” practices that use slightly different tools, methodologies, and mindsets to solve market problems and create delightful experiences, but on top of it, it’s super cool to be able to share what you’ve learned over time through hard-won, hard-fought battles in the industry and pave the way and make it easier for people to transform in their own careers.


RK: And is that why you extended from design consulting to teaching it? Is that what gets you passionate about that?


SM: Yeah, there was a lot I loved about doing design work for clients, but one of the things that I found later in my career ― which was amazing and a real game-changer ― was that we ended up facilitating a lot of workshops for clients. In those workshops, you are exposing them to new tools, ideas, and ways of collaborating. You get to see growth happen in those moments, and it’s a little addictive.


So not only did I want more of those moments where people were expanding themselves, but I was, at the same time, making forays into teaching courses through Cooper, so I got to see both of those worlds. I decided to lean into personal transformation and organizational transformation a little bit more, coming at it from empowering people.


RK: So you were at Cooper, and I know a ton of our audience is familiar with Alan Cooper, his book “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum,” and his thinking about personas. It’s so key. Leaving there and coming to Pragmatic, what has you excited about building a design practice here?


SM: I love that, first of all, Pragmatic has done amazing things within the product management community. They’ve really galvanized a group of people and empowered them to do the work that they want to do in the industry. I’m excited about connecting to that power and that mission and harnessing that energy toward designers.
Also, I think that there’s so much opportunity. By starting a design practice, Pragmatic is creating a space, a community, for diverse perspectives and cross-functional collaboration in a way I don’t know that other learning-based organizations are doing. Not only that, but we have data science thrown into the mix as well. I love that we’re not just swimming in a design practice space: it’s design practice in connection with and in relation to other functions. That’s going to be magical.


RK: Oh, 100 percent. We talked at the beginning about the same shared purpose and goal between design and product management, and that means there is amplification when you work together, but it also means sometimes there’s tension points ― even here, watching you and the product managers and SMEs [subject matter experts] work through those concepts. Everyone is focused on the same thing, right? It’s about how you align and see each other’s vision so that you know you’re working together, and find the healthy tension points and avoid the others.


SM: We’re going to get better because we are pushing each other to think in new and different ways. And we’re finding that here already. We had a very design-specific perspective, and this move requires us to be even more curious and take the powers of curiosity that we’ve been applying to clients and customer problems and focus that here, together with others. I think that’s super rewarding already. The work we’re doing, the research we’ve done, and that collaboration with our SMEs and product management team ― it’s really pushed us to think about how design truly can connect with and support other practices.
RK: And that is true as well from the product lens. You’re thinking about how you approach problems differently, how you really leverage all the resources there to make it successful. Both sides are shifting in a very healthy way because we’ve got really good examples and models for what the best of both those roles can be.


SM: We’re seeing that right now as we’re designing a new course for product managers that’s design-focused, so we’re “eating our own dog food” as they say. It’s not just coming at it from our design perspective of talking to users and trying to find out what they need and where the problems, behaviors and opportunities are in their world. We’re also applying product management tools and mindsets that we’ve learned and started to pull just by being connected to this new environment. So that’s been expanding for us as well.
RK: Alright, Shannon, tee it up. Let’s talk a little bit about the course you are creating. We’re going to have a design practice, but tell us about the project you’re working on right now.


SM: Okay, the project we’re working on right now is a design-focused course that is going to live within the product management track. So that means it’s focused on the problems of product managers.


We did research to better understand those groups because we admittedly did not know them very well (that’s like most of our life in consulting, right?). We found that there were a number of different problems. We found patterns in those conversations and some of the problems are really, truly focused on collaboration: collaborating with designers, partnering with designers, better leveraging what those practices can do together, and actually creating understanding between those two practices. So it’s interesting.


One of the things we’ve learned was that over time, both designers and product managers (and product marketing managers, too) have employed this outside-in approach, this focus on people, to their work, but they’ve been doing that in parallel for a really long time. And so of course they’ve been creating all these mindsets, processes, methodologies, and tools that don’t 100% match up.


When you get to a real-life situation of a PM working with a design team, sometimes the vocabulary is different, the tools are different and the process doesn’t match up. So that’s one of the things we found really broadly in our research: there’s some tension between the expectations of what design can do and what product managers do. Where are those touchpoints, where are those really useful places for collaboration and understanding what each team can bring to the mix ― that’s one of the places we’re going to be focusing on in the new course.


RK: I love that. And I also love that it’s the collaboration that isn’t just upfront, the roles and responsibilities ― which is key, something we touch on in all of our courses ― but it’s that communication and connection in the feedback loops. Because that’s often where the tension lies, but also the magic lies, right?


SM: Yeah, recently my co-director, Jim Dibble, and I wrote an article about this idea of the “black box” of design. It can feel very mysterious, what happens in there. Sometimes, because of the way organizations function or are structured, product management has to do a straight handoff to design. Then, design has this black box they work in where you put the requirements and a positioning statement, and then boom, something amazing is supposed to come out.


Unfortunately, if design is a black box and you don’t have feedback loops and intentional places for collaboration and communication, there are a bunch of missed expectations that can happen when that thing does come out of the box. Part of our course is really about demystifying what happens in design and vice versa, helping product managers to communicate to designers what their needs are and what they bring to the table, so everybody understands ― particularly in those moments of feedback ― where people’s strengths lie.


RK: Another thing I want to talk about because it was… I don’t know that it was a source of confusion, but it did cause some communication gaps when we brought you guys on board. We were like, “It’s design.” And some people were like, “Oh, graphic design,” and others were like, “oh, you mean, UX design” and others were like, “oh, design thinking.”


There are, as you have taught me, a bunch of different types of designers, but can you talk a little bit about what we mean when we talk about that here and then how that might relate to design thinking as a concept?


SM: That is a multi-tiered question. First, thinking about areas of design we’re going to be broaching within the context of this course. When we talk about design in this course we’re talking about product design, and there are a lot of different practices that feed into product design. Visual designers and user experience designers feed into product design. If you go a little bit further out, we could talk about service design, too. But it’s about designers who are trying to solve user problems and better understand where there’s an opportunity to frame problems so that they can deliver the best ideas, prototype them and test them over time.


RK: It’s not just “how do I use the product.” It can be the whole experience inside and outside the product that can be designed to solve the problems.


SM: Yeah. Oftentimes, brands encompass multiple products, or there’s a product that encompasses multiple channels and touchpoints that a customer is engaging with. It might be an app; it might be a website. In the case of banking, you might drive up to a teller or an ATM.


When we talk about service design, we’re talking about orchestrating all of these different channels and touchpoints to deliver a consistent and delightful experience for the customer.


RK: Which I think for some people is just a shift. So, I’m going to be direct with our audience right now: if you’re trying to stick your designer in the bucket that’s just focused on wireframes and those pieces, you’re missing out on this type of thinking that is so much broader and is such a partner along the way.


SM: Yeah! And hey, there are so many different types of designers who sometimes cross multiple practices. That’s where it gets confusing, right? There are some designers who are truly visual designers; maybe they have a brand focus. There are some designers who are user experience designers; they’re very focused on digital products. There are some people who are truly focused on services and orchestrating multiple touchpoints and channels over time. There are some people that do all those things.


Mind blown, right? How do you know what to expect from the designers that you’re working with? The short answer is: ask them. Ask them what they’re interested in and what their capabilities are. Don’t make assumptions. That’s the thing we don’t want to do in design, make assumptions about people. So how do we apply curiosity not just to designers ― designers need to know about product managers. There are lots of different types of product managers, too. There’s so much diversity in the world. How do we bridge that gap?


RK: It’s great clarity. My point would be don’t assume that that’s the only place they can interact. And to your point, for the designers listening, don’t assume that these product managers haven’t been steeped in research, that they don’t have good insights, that they only are focusing on the end requirements and those and those pieces. Really explore these relationships, because when you find good matches, it’s an amplifier.
SM: Yeah, people gotta talk together and not in the context of, “Oh my gosh, we’re in the middle of a project.” Because nobody has time for that. You have to be intentional before the project happens and a good example of that frustration or tension is one of the problems that we uncovered in research.
There are some product managers that might work with an embedded designer on their team who doesn’t understand why they’re not being invited to participate in their NIHITO research because they have a background in user research, ethnographic research, and they’ve got a whole host of different tools and processes to understand customers and users. There can be that moment of friction, like, “Wait a minute, I can help you.”


We want to promote growth, so to say, “You’ve got all these skills, and you can’t use them. You can only be a wireframe designer.” That’s frustrating to designers, and I’m assuming that it must be frustrating to product managers. We heard that, too: “Why are we not being called upon to add our own expertise further into the process? I would love to be a part of ideation.”


RK:  The other thing that came up in the research was frustration: because product managers hadn’t brought designers in, it felt like to them that the designers didn’t believe what they gave them, like “I just did all this research, and now you want to go back again?” Not understanding that designers’ research is going at it from a slightly different perspective and for a slightly different outcome. It just feels to product managers that they’re saying “That’s nice that you did research, but it’s not real research, and we’re gonna do it again.”


SM: Yeah, because, again, there are different ways and different tools and methods that these two groups of people are getting to understand those market problems. I mean, designers don’t usually call them market problems, they just call them user problems or user pain points. They have rigor around the way they approach interviewing people, synthesizing that information, and getting the insights. That can be frustrating for product managers who are like, “Why are they pushing me on this, the rigor that I’ve applied to this work?” It’s just because nobody knows what the other person is doing.


So, where is their opportunity to create some transparency and not be so focused on ownership? There’s an opportunity to say, “I can learn something from the way designers go about ethnographic research.” And designers can learn something: “Oh, if I think about this through the lens of market problems and prioritizing those market problems through impact on the business…” Oh gosh, harmony starts to be achieved.


RK: All right, now let’s dig in on design thinking a little bit because that is a term we hear in the industry a lot, and it has different implications to different people. One of the things you see with design thinking is it being a business philosophy versus a practice, but I would love to get your thoughts on it, Shannon.


SM: So the easiest way to explain it is going through my personal trajectory of how I got exposed to the concept of design thinking. When I got to Cooper back in 2015, my world expanded exponentially. Prior to that, I was solving problems that I perceived to be true through a natural empathy for people ― a certain intuition and experience being steeped as a subject matter expert in a specific place. I had developed all these principles and best practices over time.


When I got to Cooper, all of a sudden it was like, “We’re leaning into human-centered design.” Actually, Alan Cooper coined the term “goal-directed design.” So we were focused on goal-directed design. And what did that mean? Well, it was about applying generative design research (gaining empathy through research with customers or users), doing modeling (telling stories from the research that we conducted), ideating, prototyping, testing…


And the thing is, we never called that design thinking; it was “design” or “goal-directed design.” By the time I transitioned from consulting to education, Cooper Professional Education had started to say that design thinking has become very popular. It’s a great set of mindsets and tools for cross-functional teams to solve problems with a user-centered focus. And it was a diplomatic way of opening up all of these tools that designers typically use and creating a framework for anybody in organizations ― not just designers ― to start solving problems.


If you think about the five mindsets of design thinking, it’s:


  • Empathize: You have to research.
  • Define: You have to ask, “What does my user need?” and gather insights and decide on the framing of the problem.
  • Ideate: You are trying to come up with as many ideas as possible, going broad before you converge.
  • Prototype: Before you invest, you need to try something out, and then you…
  • Test it.


So you have these five mindsets of design thinking. They mapped well to what we were doing in our practices as either goal-directed designers or human-centered designers, and there’s no friction there.


I don’t refer to myself as a “design thinker,” I’m a designer, and I educate around design thinking principles across different functions and practices. That’s how I’ve created the difference for myself. Design is this practice and design thinking is a way to bring people together in an outside-in approach to solving problems.


RK: I think it’s not a perfect analogy, but when we talk about being market-driven ― something we talk about a ton on the product management vertical ― we want the whole organization to be talking about that. It’s not a product management effort; it is a company effort. It’s a cultural mind shift. Then we have to translate that into functions for different roles within that. So there’s both a philosophy piece and also the tax of it and how we’re going to move forward.


SM: That’s the magical part where Pragmatic has so much opportunity because there are companies that are very design thinking-focused, and that is the framework by which they’ve decided to innovate. Then you’ve got product-driven organizations, and they all have these different methods and tools. And I think there’s competition sometimes in how those things fit together. There’s this great opportunity to find out where those practices can mesh better and actually not compete. That’s maybe the sweet spot of the work we develop together.


RK: Absolutely. All right, I’m gonna go in a little exploratory area because I know we brought you on board just a couple of months ago, and you’re very focused on getting this first course created for product management about the design function and everything about the design vertical but…data.


The amount of data people have in organizations is sort of mind-blowing, the ability to actually analyze and capitalize and share that data is greatly outpaced by the amount of data we have. So, thinking about the problems we can solve with data and also thinking about telling the story of data because it’s one thing to be able to build a great model but to be able to translate that into a story… Both of those seem like such great connection points that we get to explore between design and data.


SM: I will plus-one you on that and say that data doesn’t do much unless there’s some sense-making that occurs. Before we even get to storytelling, you have to understand what’s there, what’s possible, what is the right story to tell, and what is the ethical story to tell, because you can manipulate data to tell lots of different stories.


So, what stories should we be telling, how should we be telling them, and are we telling those stories to persuade and to activate some kind of work? Yes, that’s true. I think that’s super exciting for us as designers. You know, if you pull it back even to that PowerPoint that you saw in some meeting that was just like, “There’s just so much information here!” You can see that if 90% of that data was thrown out, and you could just focus on the meaningful stuff, what a difference that makes in persuading people to take action or to buy into the work that you’re going to do. I think there’s just so much opportunity there and can’t wait to explore.


RK: Shannon, we talked about lots of different things today. If you were going to have listeners do two things differently tomorrow based on what we talked about today, what would that be?


SM: I would say for anybody ― designers, product managers, data scientists ― understanding is crucial. Go out there and have a conversation. Do some NIHITO with your designers, and talk to them. See where their head is at: what do they think they’re bringing to the table, and how could they be leveraged better in the process? Have conversations. Maybe it’s a coffee conversation, maybe it’s something more structured ― whatever it is to make them feel psychologically safe, that they’re not being called to the mat to speak for themselves, but more like it’s a two-way conversation. I think that’s number one.
Building on that, I would say: Where is there opportunity in your practice to have a partner in crime? Where you would love to have support in the work that you’re doing? Maybe do a little self-auditing. Are there other people you could bring in to help them buy into the process or supercharge how you solve those market problems?


RK: Great advice, and Shannon this was an awesome conversation. I really appreciate having you on today. And now that you’re here with us, it will not be the last time.


SM: I would love to come back. This conversation has been so easy and so wonderful.
RK: All right. That does it for today’s episode. We’ve got some more articles coming out in the next issue of the magazine about this topic: product and design. Keep your eyes open for the announcement of the course and when you’ll be able to take it. If you’re interested in being part of the beta process for that ― listeners full of product managers are a great place to get feedback ― feel free to reach out at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you. Alright. Thank you, Shannon.


SM: Thanks for the opportunity; it was really fun.

  • Pragmatic Institute

    Pragmatic Institute is the transformational partner for today’s businesses, providing immediate impact through actionable and practical training for product, design and data teams. Our courses are taught by industry experts with decades of hands-on experience, and include a complete ecosystem of training, resources and community. This focus on dynamic instruction and continued learning has delivered impactful education to over 200,000 alumni worldwide over the last 30 years.


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