Pivoting to Product Management?


For the record, I think we should remove the word “pivot” from the jargon. I’ve never been a fan of buzzwords and I’m just not gonna start now. But today’s post is exactly about what I wrote in the title. Can (and quite frankly, should…) designers make the move to product management? What does it even mean? Join me after the break for some thoughts on how this could work.

Breaking Down Barriers

I’m finding that as I move higher up the design track in companies, the type of design work that I’m interested in doing is traditionally done at the “product level” which can create an inherent tension when it’s not widely accepted that designers can’t fulfill this role on projects. It is an unfortunate reality that in many companies that the only way to become a product manager is to either go to business school, or graduate up from an Engineering team. This is perhaps the most traditional way of thinking about the role of product management, especially here in the Valley. But why not designers? Why is there such a stigma against a designer moving into a role like that?

In my personal background, I’ve started businesses way back when I was an idealistic young college grad, trying to make my mark on the world with a couple other guys to create a creative agency. It didn’t go that well, since we didn’t know too much about running businesses at the time. But that experience of running (or not running, depending on how you look at it) a company helped formulate a lot of how I thought over the subsequent years.

In essence, in order for a designer to move upwards, companies truly need to think differently about what “product management” actually means. In today’s world, it goes way beyond possessing technical expertise or business savvy. It requires understanding the customer, which aligns directly with what design is all about. Yet the barriers still exist. Designers are constantly relegated to the role of “stylist” or “visual production artist” because people simply don’t believe that someone with creative thinking skills is equally capable of functioning in a broader, business-like capacity. Before I held my first real corporate job, I ran a couple design businesses, and I’m sure my experience is not unique. Yet the stereotype persists.

Getting Beyond the Surface

I do realize that not all designers are cut out for the PM role. But I’m not saying that it’s a requirement that all PM’s from now till the end of time come from design teams either. As I mentioned, I’m suggesting that companies look deeper into what “product management” really is about and create pathways for groups beyond just engineers and business/marketing folks to assume the role.

This also means that designers, too, should look deeper into what design and design thinking has to offer a company. I mentioned in the post about designing in agile that there is a type of design that’s about the big picture. Making things easy to use, being a user advocate, and thinking systematically about products to make great user experiences is really at the core of what good interaction design is about. Furthermore, many experienced designers have the tools and skills to both heuristically evaluate the usability of a product, AND the right processes to measure the user experience in the form of usability evaluation. So why wouldn’t someone with a UI/UX design background make for a great product manager?

The answer is that those things would help someone make a truly great PM. But without the desire from the individual grow beyond the traditional role of design, and the company recognizing how good design can contribute to the business, there’s really no way for things to change.

Changing the Game

As much as I wish the industry would change, there just isn’t a whole lot of precedent for designers moving into product management. From what I’ve seen over the years, it’s been more of the exception, rather than the rule. But I think things are changing. The Designer Fund, for example, is a way for designers to get some angel funding and other support for all their product ideas. There are more and more designer-led startups. The seeds of change are out there. It may still take some time, but I do think we’ll be seeing things change in the coming years.

So that’s what I think. Now I’d like to hear what you think. Should companies pull designers into the PM role? Do designers in your companies think more deeply about their contributions? Or are they just visual stylists? Post your comments below!

Pivoting to Product Management?

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