Designer as Product Owner

There’s a creature in software companies called the “product manager” (almost always referred to as the “product guy”, hammering home the unfortunate fact that nearly all software companies are full of men. For fun, I’ll switch it ’round for the remainder of this post.) The product gal has a strange role, in that her focus is on product-market-fit. This means she’s responsible for determining the features the product offers, for bringing these features to market in a certain sequence and by a certain date, and for making sure the features deliver on the value proposition and promise made to end users and customers.

The reason the role is strange is because it serves two masters. The product gal answers to the needs of the market, and so she must have a strong sense of what competitors are doing and what technological advancements are starting to become the norm. Yet simultaneously, she answers to the needs of users, and so she must have a strong sense of what users want and desire. When these two masters line up, everything is groovy. But frequently, what’s good for the market and what’s good for the users diverge, and so our product gal will have to choose a side.

Most of the product gals I know come from either a tech background (they were coders), or a marketing background. When push comes to shove and the market/user fit diverges, these people double-down on what they know best. This might mean pushing new features, or migrating to a new development stack, or analyzing all hell out of web traffic, or conducting survey after survey. But when the product gal has a background in design, and she sees a divergence between market and user needs, a different thing happens.  She’ll leverage an empathetic lens, and she’ll also double-down on what she knows: user-centered design. She’ll focus on helping users achieve their goals and aspirations. This is distinctly a design perspective on product functionality, and it often means removing features, rather than adding them, and ignoring current site behavior rather than optimizing for it. It’s a maternal voice of usability, and will force a conversation of resource allocation. Perhaps creative and development resources should spend their time refining existing features, rather than producing new ones. It might make more sense to track forward progress based on the outcome of behavioral studies – yes, boring old usability studies – rather than lines of new code shipped or backlog pruning. These are definitively non-sexy places to be as a product owner, but in a strange way, they position usability as a strategic differentiator. For all the talk of experience and engagement as product goals, usability may have found its way back in the limelight as a means of achieving both ends. (This poses a subtle irony to last summer’s bandwagon land grab of the Usability Professionals Association, rebranding as “The User Experience Professionals Association.”)

For a designer looking to move into product ownership roles, this has several implications. First, she’ll need to become extremely interested in the competitive product landscape, understanding how market dynamics are shaping alternative approaches to the same value proposition. Next, she’ll need to become aware of more strategic approaches to design, thinking about how a combination of feature decisions, timing, and delivery models contribute to a user’s perception of value in her product. Finally, she’ll need to dust off those old, fundamental skills of think-aloud usability testing, and constantly beat a drum of simplicity and reduction. A designer in a product role is about as far from a pixel queen as one can get; strategic design is about usability, not beauty.

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