PF#58: UX Design for Product Managers

PMs need to understand design to empathize with the value and practices of that role

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I was inspired this week by a Tweet from Hà Phan to write an article on UX Design.

I am not a UX Designer but I have dabbled for many years. For me, seeing this Tweet, made me want to take some notes and see what I could learn. In part, because I am currently looking to build out a Design function with a startup I am working with (DM me if you need to know more).


TL;DR — UX Design has multiple sub-areas of expertise. I have collected the top recommended books for product people that are new to UX Design and created a public Amazon list for your easy reference: UX Books for PMs. For easy reference jump down to Where to Start.

My top pick from the bunch, for Product Leaders including Startup CEOs, to get a quick understanding of UX and how to build this capacity in your org is: What CEOs Need to Know About Design


The Recommendations Brought Back Memories

I don’t recall any specific coursework to UX when taking engineering, MIS, or management classes back to my undergrad work. The closest material may have been from Organizational Behavior Management, where I learned about user studies and the Hawthorne Effect.

Early in my career, I believed I had a deficiency in understanding my users.

I think, it first arose when I researched best practices for writing requirements around 2004. I eventually discovered MRDs, PRDs, and Use Cases. Before this time I think I was mostly winging it to be honest.

Through these practices and artifacts, I was learning about a big focal point was market and user research. Not just how to solve the problems but understanding the real context first. The “user persona”, “actor”, or “stakeholder” were foundational.

Additionally, I was lucky enough to be thrown in front of existing and prospective customers frequently. Usually, it was to help sell. Sometimes to train them. Sometimes to offer support or discuss our roadmap for the future.

What I learned in these encounters is that customers often asked for specific solutions to their problems. Sales would happily say yes to all of them (I am only half-joking here). Yet, with a few curious questions, I was able to learn a bit more and find their underlying motivations behind those requests. Also, I could learn how important it would be to solve these problems.

By 2005, I was buying books to accelerate my learning and had joined the PDMA devouring their Visions magazine and Journal of Product Innovation Management.

One of my first UX books was targeted at getting more out of my user research. When Hà asked for recommendations, Neil Churcher (@neilchurcher) called out Observing the User Experience as being an excellent benchmark. This was the book really started me further down the road of UX Design.

Somewhere around then I learn about Edward Tufte and his amazing book The Visual Design of Quantitative Information. The books educated me on visual design history, chartjunk, and much more. Often cited from this book is the amazing information visualization from a civil engineer named Charles Joeseph Minard dating back to the French invasion of Russia in 1812-13.

By this time I was getting a good sense that this field of study was much bigger than interviewing users and how to visualize data. As the field has evolved rapidly since the 1970’s we have coined terms like Human-Computer Interaction, User-Centered Design, User Experience Design, Visual Design, Interaction Design, Information Architecture, and Usability. Wrapping all of these up we now often use the word Product Design.

In truth, this broad field seems to have evolved as rapidly as technology itself in the last 30 years.

What should a PM learn about UX Design today?

Let’s agree that we should not get too hung up on terminology and titles. It is more about the concepts and practices that really matter. Titles and scope of responsibilities can differ across organizations.

As a start, it is vitally important the PMs understand why UX Design is important to both users and the business. How can good design increase CSAT and sales? How can research help determine priorities and reduce market risk?

Next, we need to consider that there are some practices of UX Design that are often carried out by Product Managers. In particular, this can be user research and prototyping in smaller teams. Maybe even writing micro-copy within the application.

As organizations and teams scale, PMs may have less of this opportunity but understanding the purpose of these practices and tools commonly used can be helpful in improving internal team communication.

Finally, PMs must understand where UX Design fits into the product development process of the organization. Both from a high-level process perspective and how work technically moves through iterations and into engineering.

Once you have all of these basics covered you will then be more effective in working with this vital contributor to the product team.

Where to Start?

This is where that amazing list of recommendations finally comes into play. Here is how I break-down some of the top recommendations from the Twitter community.

Books on Why Design is Important

For those that need to first be convinced the Design is important to your products. These are the books to get started.

  • How Design Makes the World by Scott Berkun

  • Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

  • Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug

  • The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick

Details on Design Practices

If you are already a believer in the value of Design, then these books get you started with practices that work.

  • Build Better Products by Laura Klein

  • Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal

  • Observing the User Experience by Mike Kuniavsky

  • Sketching User Experiences by Bill Buxton

Building Design into your Organization

If you are in leadership, already believe in the value of design to your business, but need to know where to get started, how to hire designers, and how to further this competency within your organization these are the books for you.

  • What CEOs Need to Know About Design by Audrey Crane

  • Sense & Respond by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden

  • Org Design for Design Orgs by Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner

In Conclusion

I became a believer in the importance of good design a long time ago when I saw users struggling with my B2B software. We always focused on the buyers and since they often didn’t involve users in their purchase decisions it didn’t make sense to prioritize design.

Then came the iPhone and social media apps with their design concepts that users, even non-tech savvy users, started to encounter frequently. This elevated expectations for how software should work for the users. They started complaining to management more about poorly designed business software.

Next came freemium SaaS products and product-led growth in general. Tech was entering the workplace from the bottom up. Not via procurement procedures or winning over executive decision-makers that never actually use the software.

If you are in Product Management or Product Leadership, UX Design is not a nice-to-have that can wait for later any longer.

For your reference: For me right now, What CEOs Need to Know About Design is helping me figure how to build a new design org. You can find all the books recommended above and many more on my Amazon list: UX Books for PMs.