Product Management & UX: similar, but different

PM

“Do you think Product Management and UX could merge to be one role?”.

I came across this question on a Product-focused forum several days ago and since this was the umpteenth time I had encountered this idea of Product Management and UX being similar or interchangeable, I felt compelled to throw out my thoughts on the topic.

 

What exactly are we talking about here?

My experience with Product Management and UX – particularly in France where both jobs are still maturing and rapidly gaining popularity – shows that there is quite a bit of confusion, misunderstanding, and even, mythology, around these jobs and the people that represent them. So where does the confusion and misunderstanding stem from?

First off, there is the fact that both jobs involve, at their core, a thorough understanding of the user’s problems/dilemmas, needs, wants, and desires. And while tasks such as user research are classically seen as a User Experience activity, there’s no questioning the fact that the information gleaned from user research is critical for both the PM and the UX person(s) to follow through with their work.

Secondly there’s the stark reality which shows that every company puts its own spin on “who” a Product Manager is. For some, the PM is a marketer; for others, a techie with some additional soft skills thrown in; and for others, a sort of glorified secretary or yes man who executes exactly what business wants. Period. And the same goes for UX – sometimes it’s the person who makes it all look pretty in Photoshop. On other occasions it’s the person who does wireframes and then makes it look pretty in Photoshop. And then there’s the case where the UX person is responsible for the user, and customer, experience aspect of a product  (and there’s a valid argument that can be made about the fact that User Experience implies Customer Experience and therefore, they should not be dissociated, but that’s another discussion).

To further compound things, there’s also the fact that in some companies you have a PM and no UX representative (and vice versa). And what about those companies – usually startups – that don’t have either and seem to be doing just fine? It can certainly lead one to question the value of either role and wonder whether if it wouldn’t be best to merge them.

 

What about the mythology?

As I mentioned earlier, there’s also a certain mythology around PM and UX – more so around PM. While User Experience has a fairly established definition and scope, ask what a Product Manager is/does and you get responses like mini-CEO, product owner (an attempt at SCRUM-izing the Product Management role, but still vague), and someone who helps a company ship the right product. Ask what the scope of responsibility is for a PM and at a minimum it resembles this:

Product Scope 1

Ask what sort of degree or educational background a future PM should have and here again you get a mixed bag of options. I’ve encountered amazing PMs who hold degrees in subjects as varied as English, Computer Science, and Psychology. And what about professional background  -which road leads to PM-hood? Well let’s see, here again some PMs I’ve worked with were previously developers, UX, marketing managers, sales representatives, account managers, and jazz musicians (he still is an excellent PM).

 

Where does this leave us?

As you’ve noticed I’ve placed more of an emphasis on Product Management in this post. Not because it is more important but because, based on my experience, it suffers more from misunderstanding and mythology. And it’s also to point out that the job isn’t limited to one functional area. As I pointed out in this article, PMs have to wear different hats. They have to interact with practically everyone in a company. This means they need to be able to speak developer, speak marketing, speak UX, speak sales, speak Quality, and most important, speak stakeholder. The PM is the bridge that links stakeholders to everyone else, be they external or internal to the company.

This “bridge” aspect makes the PM accountable for a very wide scope of items. This accountability is what really distinguishes the PM from UX and is the reason why they cannot be merged into the same role – the PM has to oversee and ensure timely delivery of UX deliverables, but the UX team is not responsible for timely delivery of user stories, for example.  The same person, throughout the course of their career, could go from being a Product Manager to a UX team Manager because the soft skills needed for both are quite similar, but that’s as far as it goes. Both roles are distinct and necessary, and when done right, they’re a great complement to each other.

As both roles continue to evolve, as the market and users continue to evolve, successful Product Managers will have to shift from being business centric (which is the more dominant case nowadays) to become more user centered Product Managers, more closely resembling Marty Cagan’s definition of a PM:

…the person responsible for discovering and defining a product that is useful, usable and feasible

Useful and usable can only be determined, ultimately, by the user, not business. So as PMs place more of a focus on these two elements, this will indeed bring the roles of UX and Product Management closer  (but not cancel out each other), which can only lead to more authentic and relevant products. One hopes.

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