Transitioning from User Experience to Product Management

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This is part 2 in our series on product management and user experience. Previous parts in the series include Transitioning from User Experience to Product Management, Part 1

In Part 1, we outlined the responsibilities of product managers, the distinctions between product management (PM) and the user experience (UX) profession, and why there is sometimes conflict between the two roles.

Now, we’ll cover how moving into product management will change your focus, responsibilities, and challenges; what you will gain and lose leaving user experience work; and some ways to prepare yourself for the move.

Before you jump off the PM cliff, you should be aware of how making the leap affects your role.

What you do as a PM that you don’t do as UX professional

As a product manager, your everyday work life will change greatly. You get to take your deep knowledge of the users and use it to permeate the whole product. You were able to do this as a UX professional, but perhaps you didn’t have the official license to interact with as many decision-making groups across the company. Here are some of the ways you can do that in your new responsibilities:

Focus product strategy on customer and end user needs. This is why you make the leap.
Find the place where what user desires meet the business goals. You have been studying the customers and users for a long time; take that knowledge and make it the purpose of the product.

Help ensure user focus throughout entire product, not just the design.
The communications, policies, and pricing should all coalesce into an entire “customer experience.” We often don’t appreciate the importance of these aspects in shaping the user experience, but as a product manager you will be responsible for every aspect of the product that contributes to the overall product experience.

Balance the various forces.
It is important to ensure your product is focused on customer and user needs, but many other forces that need to be considered. Some (but certainly not all!) include:
* Sales objectives
* Marketing/branding objectives
* Technology strategy
* Portfolio management
* Budget management
* Market trends
* Competition
* Business model effects and revenue considerations (possible cannibalization, affect of changes, leveraging value, etc.)

Doing what is best for the product is a series of constant tradeoffs among internal business objectives, user needs, and market effects. As product manager, you manage tradeoffs to achieve balance where these forces meet.

Evangelize the product.
You must champion of the product both internally (to sales, marketing, executives, and developers) and externally (to customers, users, industry analysts, and the press). It’s not enough to develop a good product; you have to let people know about it and communicate the benefits.

Provide input on strategies for other products within the organization.
If you’re a product manager at a medium or large company, you’ll be in a position to influence other products as well. As you interact with other product managers across the business, you need to consider the company’s overall portfolio of products and how your product fits within it.

Challenges and forces working against you

Your new role in product management may seem all glory and power. And although your title will give you a bit more influence than you may have had otherwise, it’s not all wine and roses. There are some challenging aspects to the role and forces working against you.

As a product manager, you have little to no actual authority.
Guy Kawasaki described a product manager as “someone who has all of the responsibility and none of the power.” [1] Most of the other people working on your product will report into different management. Few, if any, staff will report to you. You must align these disparate resources and guide their work even as they get differing direction from their direct managers.

You will make and be held accountable for decisions, not recommendations.
In fact, you will make a lot of decisions and be held accountable for them. Not everyone will agree with you, of course. If you do your job well, you can justify those decisions, explain your rationale, be transparent, and people won’t be too upset or take it personally. But it’s tough.

Former user experience professionals may find it difficult that the decisions contributing to creating an experience are not necessarily the “best” for the user. Since there are other key factors to consider (e.g., other stakeholders’ needs, business strategy, business model, etc.), there will be times when a product manager has to make a conscious decision that may seem bad for users, but is ultimately the right decision for the product.

You will be at the center of regular disagreements between stakeholders.
Sales wants different functionality; development is pushing back against your timeline; finance needs new back-end functionality; business development wants changes to support partnerships; designers want to change a feature implementation; customers want a new feature a competitor just added; executives want integration with a new company product.

The product manager is right in the middle of these competing forces, and this can be dangerous political ground in some organizations. You need to manage these conflicting ideas and priorities while making progress on your strategy and keeping everyone happy (or at least not too angry).

Successful product managers balance these forces by focusing on the overall vision and strategy, making decisions that best support those higher-level objectives. The more a PM can understand about each stakeholder’s objectives and goals, the easier it is to navigate the various trade-offs you have to make. Sometimes it may mean conceding small points to obtain buy-in from stakeholders. Other times it may mean working to better align objectives across the stakeholder groups.

Management will look to you for information about the product.
The product manager is not just another player on the product development team—you will be the figurehead for the product. Whether things are going well or falling apart, whether you really have control or not, you are accountable.

What you do as a UX professional that you won’t do as product manager

Those making the transition from UX to product management will take on exciting and challenging new responsibilities. At the same time, you may miss some aspects of UX:

Product managers do not get dirty hands.
This is one of the hardest challenges for those used to being involved in pixel-level decisions. Most of the detailed work will be delegated to other people. PMs that spend more than a brief period of time dealing with product decisions at the detail level are not doing their job well. Product managers need to be more strategic than tactical.

Product managers do not have the luxury of shooting for perfection and the theoretical ideal.
The joke is that user experience people always answer a question with “It depends.” As a product manager, it may depend, but that’s irrelevant. It’s not about what theoretically should happen, it’s about what we should do right now in this situation and why.

You will need to get comfortable with the idea of “good enough” and be OK with decisions that may not be ideal for the user but make optimal use of limited resources.

Product managers do not make recommendations about the core areas of the product.
This is the opposite of the point we made above. While UX practitioners make recommendations constantly, product managers make decisions about the strategy, high-level user experience, feature set, marketing plan, pricing, and other aspects of the product. The reason we mention this again is to encourage you to reflect. If you like making recommendations or have difficulty making decisions, you’re probably not cut out to be a product manager.

Product managers are not artists or expert practitioners.
They are not the go-to person for any one aspect of the product. Instead, they need to know a bit about all aspects of the product. They serve as captains or coaches and drive the bus. In this capacity, product managers lead partly by working with those around them to ensure the strategy and vision are reflected in other areas such as marketing strategy, UI design, and copywriting.

It may be difficult to adjust to not being the expert in any one area. Learning how to lead other experts towards a shared goal is a challenge that will serve you for the rest of your career.

Work better with your PM now

If, after learning about the “behind the scenes” of product management, you are interested in making the move, there is one very simple way to get started: work more closely and productively with your product managers now. This is a worthwhile strategy even for those do not have the traits, skills, or desire to be a product manager. Better understanding of the responsibilities and challenges that that other team members face can help you as a UX practitioner adjust the way you work with these other roles and ultimately help you become more valuable, respected, and influential.

As recovering, er, “former” user experience practitioners, we have identified areas where UX practitioners can work better with product managers. These are some of the best ways to feel out a new role and can help you no matter whether you actually make the move.

Don’t want for a product manager or other team member to request a specific research activity or design deliverable. In many cases, other team members will welcome your initiative and ideas. At other times, there will be differences in opinion, but action brings those out in the open quickly and focuses the debate on something concrete rather than theory or conjecture.

We do not suggest you be sly or hide things from the product manager, but his or her signoff on every action you take is not necessary. This is one case where it is better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Ask product managers what their goals are for their product.
Asking about goals is great for two reasons. First, it makes them think about the product goals, which they may have never explicitly considered before. If so, you have an opportunity to be a trusted advisor and help them establish the goals.

Second, if the product manager has established goals, you will have a very clear set of objectives and expectations. If their goals do not make sense, you can get clarification, identify where you are not in alignment, and determine how to make corrections.

Help your PM factor in all aspects of a design and evaluate alternatives.
Don’t just propose designs and wait for a decision. Prepare yourself to discuss the impacts of specific design choices. Present the reasons behind your decisions and how they relate back to the broader vision and objectives. Listen to what the product manager says about the design, and probe for the reasons behind their objections and endorsements.

Make strong recommendations and include the big picture.
By giving counsel supported by evidence and experience, you become a more integral part of the product and will be seen as more than just an ancillary consultant. This will also provide practice on making decisions in the face of conflicting evidence and varying factors, which can be useful if you decide to move into product management.

Show your grasp of the big picture in your work, and you will be a more important member of the team and show your potential for greater responsibilities, no matter what direction you decide to take.

Help product managers get out of the office!
Product managers should not need coaxing to meet with customers and users in person, but many do. You can help by asking them when they last met with a customer, bringing them along on formal or informal research, or telling stories about valuable meetings with customers. Invite them along next time, and if they say no, keep asking.

If product managers are going to meet customers on their own, ask to go with them. In addition to learning about customer needs, these are great opportunities to spend time with your product manager and learn more about his perspective, interests, and goals.

If you really cannot get product managers out of the office, bring users and customers in. At that point, there’s absolutely no excuse for product managers (or anyone on the product development team) to not be interacting regularly with customers!

Studying and preparing for your PM role

So, you want to be a product manager? Not sure where to start? In addition to focusing on the ideas described above, you can start adding to your knowledge of product management to get a feel for what you’ll need to focus on as you start to make the move.

Think about the steps you took when you started in user experience. Books, blogs, conferences, discussion groups, organizations, and mentors all probably played an important role. The same opportunities are available if you’re interested in product management.

A great introduction to product management is through training and conferences. Apologies for the shameless plug, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention our pre-conference session at the 2007 IA Summit: So, You Want to Be a Product Manager. This half-day workshop will focus on how to make the transition from user experience to product management, including how to most effectively leverage your current skills and how to avoid potential pitfalls.

Other training classes related to product management are offered by many organizations, including:
* Pragmatic Marketing
* 280 Group
* Blackblot
* ZigZag Marketing
* Silicon Valley Product Group

Plenty of great blogs discuss product management. You might start with these select:
* Roger Cauvin’s blog
* Pragmatic Marketing’s blog
* SVPG Blog
* The Product Management View
* Tyner Blain
* Michael on Product Management & Marketing
* How To Be A Good Product Manager (by co-author Jeff Lash)

While there are not as many books written on product management as user experience, these staples can anchor any product manager’s library:
* Winning at New Products: Accelerating the Process from Idea to Launch, by Robert Cooper
* Software Product Management Essentials, by Alissa Dver
* The Product Manager’s Handbook, by Linda Gorchels

Additionally, aspiring product managers would be wise to read up on general management responsibilities such as leadership, management, marketing, finance, technology, and strategy.

There are two major organizations for product managers: PDMA (Product Development and Management Association) and AIPMM (Association of International Product Marketing and Product Management). Both offer training, conferences, local groups, and other product management resources.

Also, use your professional network—maybe with the help of a service like LinkedIn—to find product managers with whom you can set up informational interviews or discuss product management questions. Product managers within your company may be able to mentor you, and product managers from other organizations can give you a different and potentially more honest perspective.

As you learn more about product management and think about making a move, talk with your own manager. Most good managers will be glad to help someone grow personally and professionally, even if it means helping them move to another position within the organization.

So, DO you want to be a product manager?

We have tried here to provide some insights gleaned from making the move to product management ourselves. Choosing such a path can leverage your understanding of how people use products and give you an opportunity to suffuse that insight through all aspects of a product and experience.

If after reading these articles you’ve decided that product management is not for you, that’s great-there are still plenty of other ways you can take your career, including everything from being a manager to starting your own company, continuing to practice design or beyond.

No matter what you choose, we hope that you have learned something from our experiences. Best of luck!

banda_headphones_sm.gifWant to learn more? Listen to Jeff Parks in conversation with Jeff Lash and Chris Baum in Boxes and Arrows’ FIRST EVER podcast… (but not our last!): Download the MP3




  1. This was a great series of articles. I recently just shifted into a PM-ish role and the topics brought up here really helped me get in the right mind set for what I am not going to be doing previous developer-ish role. Well written and thought through. I look forward to more articles on PM-ing.

    Aside…I just stopped by B&A today via the newsletter and didn’t know the new site design had been rolled out. It looks great!

  2. Jeff, Chris, I would love to hear your thoughts on how UX professionals can help support/handle bad product managers and how product managers can help support/handle bad UX professionals… πŸ™‚

  3. Great questions, Livia. Not sure I can answer them that well, but I’ll try.

    How can UX professionals help support/handle bad PMs: A lot of the ideas described under “work better with your PM now” are a great start, but the real question is how do you know if you’re working with a bad product manager? There are probably specific things — actions, decisions, approaches — that make you think the PM is “bad.” Depending on what those are, your approach may vary. You’d work with a PM who makes bad decisions differently than a PM who makes no decisions.

    I tend to think of it this way — there are really few people who are “bad for the sake of being bad,” like the bad guys you see in the movies and on TV. Instead, “bad” people in the workplace are likely not “bad for the sake of being bad,” they may just be uninformed, uneducated, or inexperienced, have a different view on things, or lack the necessary traits, competencies, or skills for the role they are in.

    I’m not sure how a PM would handle bad UX professionals, as that’s luckily something I haven’t had an issue with in my career. My gut reaction is to say that if the UX professional really is not doing their job well — bad designs, poorly-run usability tests, poor documentation — then the PM really needs to find another UX person or do their job for them. This is a sticky issue, since in some cases UX reports to the PM and in others UX is part of a central group. Also, I’d question whether the UX professional really is doing a bad job or whether they’re doing their job well and just pushing back against maybe a bad PM πŸ˜‰

  4. Good answer Jeff – by ‘bad’ PM I mean PMs that aren’t fullfilling their responsibilities or are trying to butt in on UX professionals responsibilities. And though I expect some of that from the inexperienced PM, that’s really not acceptable from the person hired to a PM job and has been in the position for 5 years. πŸ™‚ You would expect these types of people to just go away by sheer force of selective evolution (product is not yileding expected results, bye bye product manager), but that doesn’t necessarily happen (in an organization that is not well grownded in value metrics, a bad product manager could hide for years!)

    Ultimately, the product manager has final say on things, and UX professionals need to respect and expect that. So, the issue is not them being difficult or a communication problem. My question is about a PM doing a poor PM job. While a product manager can fire the UX professional (because of the nature of the relationship: client/service provider), the UX professional shouldn’t have to fire the product manager (either directly – firing them as a client, or indirectly – having them fired by reporting on their behavior to the organization). You can certainly get a product manager fired, but I’m interested in how we can fix the problem. The question is really, gow can we HELP, instead of how can we GET RID of them?

    What you mentioned in “Challenges and forces working against you” in the article, is geared towards the product managers – my question is, how can we (UX professionals) help them when they are not cutting it in those areas? Maybe I’m a romantic thinking I can do that, but as a general rule I try to reinforce positive behavior and provide feedback on negative behavior.

    I want to hear what your thoughts are, from the product manager perspective, on what a UX professional can do to help when a product managers wants to be an artist and shouldn’t, when they want to get their hands dirty and shouldn’t, when they are going for perfection or the impractical theoretical ideal and shouldn’t, or make recommendations and muscling them through because of their authority and shouldn’t, when they should evangelize the product, but don’t, when they should provide input on strategies for other products within the organization but don’t, when they should focus product strategy on customer and end user needs, but don’t, when they should help ensure user focus throughout entire product, not just the design, but don’t, AND when they should balance the various forces (sales, Marketing/branding objectives, technology strategy, portfolio management, budget management, market trends, competition, business model effects and revenue considerations) and don’t do a good job!.

    Too much? πŸ˜‰

    And maybe something that may help frame this conversation, is that I’m interested in a scenario where the UX professionals don’t report to the product manager, so it’s not a problem of managing your boss, but more about managing your client.

  5. Great points, Livia, but there’s no easy answer, which is why a lot of user experience professionals are looking to go into product management.

    If you ever read workplace advice columns — is one that appears in my local paper — you know that sometimes the only advice to a problem at work is essentially to learn to accept it or change your situation.

    There are plenty of things you can do to try to deal with bad product manager including: the suggestions we listed above; having an honest discussion with the PM or the PM’s manager; working with others to influence the PM; giving up small issues to get the big wins; working around the PM as much as possible; building a coalition of others to argue your case; gather executive support. My guess, though, is that you’ve tried all of those things already and you’re looking for something else.

    Unfortunately, this is probably a case where you either to learn to accept it or change your situation. Accept it doesn’t mean giving up, just accepting that there’s no easy fix and it’s going to be a tough, long battle in many cases. Changing your situation means looking for a new role within the organization or look for a new organization. I think many UX professionals like the organizations they are a part of, they are just looking for a better and easier way of influencing change so that products are developed and managed in the right way, which is why more and more UX practitioners are choosing the former and looking at a product management role as a way of working towards the same end goals, just from a different direction.

  6. Great articles!

    As someone who has made the transition, I definitely think you touched on some extremely important points.

    I found that my experience as a project manager and as a UX practitioner were invaluable to me when it came to transitioning to the product manager role. Project management taught me how to understand the importance of the team, while working in UX taught me how to understand my customers. Product managers must strive to know their teams, their customers, and their products inside and out to the best of their ability. Without good insight into these three factors, the decision making process gets really scary.

    The piece of the puzzle that was most difficult for me during the transition was learning how to prioritize. It can be a very difficult shift in mindset from searching for the ideal UX to having to make a practical decision based on business needs. It’s interesting to note that the prettiest designs and the clearest UX don’t always make for the best converting/selling products, and that fact alone can be hard for some to deal with.

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