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How Product + Design Work Together To Build ‘A Better Future’

3 Tips from Jared Spool (Strategic UX) and Roman Pichler (Product)

Compared with other software development disciplines, product management and user experience (UX) design are still pretty young professions. That said, they’re maturing rapidly and growing more specialized every day. As their evolution continues, it isn’t always clear who’s responsible for what on a product team and how best they can work together (we offered guidance on this topic in a post last year). Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that UX designers and product managers seem to get in each other’s way on the road to success.

This post canvasses the views that Roman Pichler (PM) and Jared Spool (UX) recently shared in consecutive podcast episodes of Product Momentum. What’s most intriguing about both conversations is how they each arrive at the same desired outcome – improving the lives of end users – despite taking parallel paths.

Jared calls that desired outcome a better future, while Roman describes it as the positive change a product should create. But both agree that whatever the solution, it’s less about building shiny new features or making things look pretty (i.e., outputs). Outcomes always trump the digital knickknacks we create along the way.

From Tactical UX to Strategic Influence

“Most UX teams, if they have any UX effort at all, it’s tactical UX,” Jared said. “And by tactical UX, I mean a bunch of folks who have really great skills and can create designs and do usability tests and write fantastic content. They typically work at a very low level in the organization. And if they’re seen by the upper levels of the organization, it’s as sort of a ‘make it pretty’ team.”

As important and essential as their work is to the final outcome, designers are limited to how much they can contribute to it. Jared’s advice to UX designers is simple, but powerful: reach beyond your tactical design activities and embrace strategic UX.

We can call it a movement, an approach, a transformation in the way organizations actually start using all the things that UX has to offer – the obvious talent and technical capability, the knowledge, the experience, the expertise – but strategic UX makes sure the organization is competitive, that the organization is actually solving big problems, and that the organization is providing the best possible solutions.

Product Strategy Is a Shared Objective

Roman argues for the empowerment of product managers to make strategic decisions. But not unilaterally. Instead, he advocates for a shared strategy developed with the extended product team that includes UX design, engineering, internal stakeholders, and development team representatives.

His collaborative approach to developing and articulating product strategy ensures that it’s not just a directive from the top – but instead is a shared vision that leverages the collective intelligence of the team.

It’s not enough that product strategy resides in the head of the CPO or Head of Product. Nor is it sufficient for the strategy to be articulated to the product team; both are necessary, but neither is sufficient by itself.

Unless the people involved in progressing those products actively participate in determining what the product strategy is, Roman added, there will be fatal disconnects in its execution.

“For me, that’s a real issue because it means that in the worst case, teams miss out on the benefits that a strategy delivers: an understanding of the positive change in the user experience that leads to a better future for all.”

UX and Product Strategy as Collaborative Pillars

An overlay of Jared’s and Roman’s insights presents a compelling, even hopeful, narrative. It doesn’t necessarily reject the well-chronicled antagonisms between Product + UX. Instead, by making this more about why and what (the desired outcome) than how and by whom, it may serve an even brighter purpose by providing guidance to help navigate the interplay between the Product and UX design roles.

The integration of strategic UX into product decisions, coupled with the shared formulation of product strategy, is not just complementary. It is essential to each other’s success. This cohesive approach ensures that products are not only designed with a deep understanding of user needs but are also strategically positioned to achieve the organization’s business goals.

At the 2023 Product + Design Conference, Radhika Dutt opened her keynote address by describing the limitations that challenge effective product development approaches. She spoke of –

  • Engineering-led teams that build solutions in search of a problem;
  • Sales-led teams that build whatever it takes to generate revenue;
  • Design-led teams that focus empathy on the lived experiences of real people; and
  • Product-led teams that are guided by the product’s potential, dissolving the line between “the business” and “the product.”

The fact is, as Radhika pointed out, each approach by itself is insufficient to deliver the outcomes our users desire. Even a product-led approach, which at least tries to find a balance on the path to transformation, falls short. To be successful, Radhika emphasizes a vision-driven approach, which most closely aligns with Jared’s and Roman’s recommendations.

As Jared explains, product vision is the delta between two possible futures: the “do nothing different” future you get when you embrace the status quo, and the “do something different” future you get when your outcome-driven focus is inspired by the change you want to bring to the world.

Bridging the Gap: Product + Design Building Better Outcomes Together

Taken together, Jared’s and Roman’s insights underscore the reciprocal, even dependent, relationship between UX and product. It’s a holistic approach, where strategic product decisions are informed by deep user understanding and collaborative effort; it’s what sets apart successful products from the also-rans.

Okay, so how do we get there? A few tips from Roman and Jared:

1. Exploit the Tension. It’s important to embrace the creative tension that exists organically between UX design and product management. Rather than viewing this tension as a hindrance or constraint, use it as a catalyst for creativity and innovation. This tension, when navigated collaboratively, can lead to the discovery of novel solutions that are both user-centric and strategically sound.

2. Shared Understanding and Ownership. Effective product development requires the combination and balance of skills that lean on a cohesive working relationship among team members and stakeholders, cemented together by a common, well-articulated vision.
Suppress the urge to grab (or cede) power. Bridging the gap between UX and product occurs when we share ownership and accountability for addressing user needs. Software solutions are not created in a bubble, as Radhika pointed out. A shared vision not only aligns our efforts, but it also ensures that decisions are made with a 360-degree view of the product’s impact on users and the business.

3. Continuous Evolution. As user needs grow more complex and the tools we use to address them become more sophisticated, so too does the professionalism and maturation of product management and UX design as disciplines. This continuous evolution offers yet another point of convergence; in a rapidly changing market, an organization’s agility in adapting and refining strategies based on user feedback and market trends is crucial.

Product is much stronger when paired with good designers, and design is much stronger when paired with good product managers. Perhaps design leadership coach Jesse James Garrett said it best, in his keynote also at the 2023 Product + Design Conference, when he offered the following advice to product people and his fellow designers:

  • Turn toward the center, not the extremes; that is where you’ll find your partners.
  • Lean into the overlap; you have more in common than you think.
  • Product done right is user-centered; design done right is product-minded.

By bridging the gap between UX and product management, organizations can create products that both delight users and drive business success. This integrated approach is not just a strategy; it’s a philosophy that champions collaboration, empathy, and continuous innovation as the cornerstones of product excellence.

Register now for ITX’s 2024 Product + Design Conference, June 27-28. Early bird pricing ends April 23.

Peter Sullivan's portrait Picture

Peter Sullivan is Producer of ITX’s Product Momentum podcast and a student of Product and Design processes that work. As ITX”s Marketing Content Lead, he spearheads our efforts to deliver thought leadership that helps Product makers and UX designers understand and shape the future. 

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