Transitioning from User Experience to Product Management

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“Becoming a product manager is a logical move for many UX practitioners, as it requires many of the same skills, traits, and competencies involved in crafting a user experience.”User experience (UX) professionals are increasingly becoming interested in the business aspects of what they do. At their core, the user experience roles focus on understanding user needs and creating useful and easy-to-use products that address those needs.

User experience professionals often get frustrated when their research, designs, and ideas are not given the respect they feel they deserve. There isn’t a UX professional who hasn’t had a bad experience with a stakeholder who, despite their lack of customer interaction or knowledge of needs and workflows, overrules a research-based design on their gut feeling or unfounded opinion.

Increasingly, many UX professionals feel that they have the experience and insight to wield more authority and make a larger impact on the products they help to build. Product management is garnering more interest from interaction designers (IxDs), information architects (IAs), and UX designers looking to increase their influence and ensure user-centered product development.

Becoming a product manager is a logical move for many UX practitioners, as it requires many of the same skills, traits, and competencies involved in crafting a user experience. Additionally, product management is a common role within many organizations, making it easy to transition to a role that already exists. However, IAs and IxDs looking to make this move should examine the trade-offs if they choose this direct path to influence.

What is a product manager?

In the classic sense, a product manager is the president of the product. For the purposes of this discussion, we will define a product as any piece of software, website, web application, intranet, or technical product.

As presidents, product managers hold responsibility for the overall success of the product, including the user experience. For technology products, the user experience is a significant part of the success of the product. Product management (PM), though, also must ensure that all aspects of the product come together, including sale of the product, technology, legal, business model, positioning, branding, and marketing of the product.

To succeed, product managers need to act like leaders, not dictators, with support from cabinet members. Where a president will work with officials responsible for defense, transportation, and agriculture, product managers’ cabinets consist of stakeholders responsible for marketing, technology, finance, and other areas. Rather than by a vote-driven democracy, product managers are held accountable by their users and customers, demonstrated by revenue, profit, usage, and other market-driven metrics.

The variety of tasks and areas involved in product management necessitates that product managers be well versed in the many areas of the business.

Responsibilities of product managers

The base responsibility of product managers is to understand the market and guide the development of a product to serve their market. Because user experience professionals are often already fluent in understanding customer needs and knowledgeable about the markets for which they are designing, they have the potential to make good product managers.

Product managers have several high-level responsibilities:

* Creating a strategy for the product. They focus on the long-term horizon and creating a compelling vision for the product’s future.
* Translating that strategy into a product roadmap. With a clear vision and strategy, they lead efforts with stakeholders to identify how they can execute on that strategy.
* Composing requirements that support both the business strategy and the needs of the market. The roadmap identifies the major areas, which are then detailed out as specific actionable requirements.
* Making sure that the right features get built in the right order and at the right time. They prioritize the features based on customer value and relevance to the market.
* Ensuring proper communication with the market. By sending the right messages to the right people in the right way, product managers ensure that customers are aware of the great product they have spent time working on.

At the same time, product managers are responsible for ensuring that the detailed tactical work supports the higher-level strategic thinking.chart diagram baum-lash Product managers need to constantly monitor and revisit the strategy and adjust as necessary as customer needs, usage, market conditions, technology, and societal trends change.

Additionally, product managers are usually responsible for:

* Internal communication surrounding the product. Michael Shrivathsan describes the product manager as a “communications hub on product-related matters.” (1) This also includes being the internal face of and cheerleader for the product. Especially in organizations with many products, product managers need to generate interest and excitement within the organization about their vision and roadmap.
* External leadership and communication about their product. Many product managers are the primary point of contact for industry analysts and reporters, speak at related conventions and trade shows, operate as the external face of their product, and lead or assist with marketing and sales support efforts. Larger organizations may have dedicated roles or groups devoted to sales support, but even in those companies, product managers will invariably spend part of their time assisting with marketing and supporting the sales staff.
* Portfolio management. Most products don’t exist on their own. For example, iPod works with iTunes, Gmail works with Google Calendar, and the whole suite of Microsoft Office works together. Unless you work for a very small company, you will need to work with other product managers on a combined portfolio strategy.

The differences between product management and user experience

While the responsibilities of product managers are broad and strategic, product managers are also held accountable for tactical activities to create a product that embodies that strategy. At this more granular level, there can be some questions about how PM and UX overlap. As Jonathan Korman writes:

When I describe what I do to people who have not encountered the term “interaction design” before, I say first that “I look at users’ needs, figure out what kind of product best addresses them, and create a behavior specification for that product which the development team then uses as requirements to drive their work.” Often people say, “In my organization, we call that a ‘product manager.’” (2)

At first glance, UX roles and product management can seem amazingly similar. However, when you take a closer look, you see that PM and UX differ pointedly in responsibility, focus, and reliance.

Responsibility: Product managers are responsible for the overall success, while UX practitioners are responsible for ensuring that the interface is designed to meet users’ needs and be easy to use. User experience professionals should still be concerned with the overall success, just as sales, marketing, and engineering should be, but are not held accountable for that success.

Focus: While UX professionals focus on the interface and the user experience, product managers watch the interface and user experience, along with overall market feedback, specific marketing plans, competition, technology, profit and loss, and resources available to the product.

Reliance: Information architects, graphic designers, and usability specialists’ main focus on the interface allows them to rely mostly on themselves or others in the same role to accomplish their work. Product managers rely constantly on other people to do the execution of their product strategy. The role requires a delicate blend of vision and strategy, influence, and firm-but-fair decision-making more so than required for most UX roles.

Jonathan Korman offers perhaps the best distinction between product managers and other roles like UX/IA:
Product managers are responsible for what the product should do; other roles are responsible for how the product does that.

Conflict between product management and user experience

The most common conflict between user experience and product management roles comes into play when discussing what the product should do and how it should do that. There are often arguments about who should be responsible for defining the features and functionalities of the product. Product managers feel as though they should be responsible since they manage the product, but user experience professionals feel as though they should be responsible since they spend time researching user needs and interacting directly with customers and users.

Ultimately, since product managers are responsible for the overall success of the product, they are the final arbiters of what the product should do. A good market-focused product manager understands the market context and customer needs and makes appropriate decisions about features and functionality based on first-hand experience and all available research.

User experience professionals often chafe at this idea, feeling as though since they are closer to the customers and users, they should be responsible for requirements gathering and definition. Good product managers are just as close to their customers as user experience professionals, if not more so. Product managers should not be detached from customers, sitting in the office in meetings while user researchers are conducting research.

Good product managers understand the role and importance of user experience specialists. They value their input and use their research and recommendations to create good products. Just like the president takes advice from cabinet members, product managers should use their cabinet members—user experience, marketing, technology—to inform decisions that they need to make.

Transitioning from user experience into product management is more than just getting to call all the shots on the interface design. Product managers have an important but challenging role, responsible for defining a vision and strategy, internal and external product leadership, creating business cases and obtaining funding, sweating the details while keeping their eye on the big picture, and coordinating the various aspects that go into a successful product—marketing, engineering, finance, sales, and, of course, user experience.

Here we’ve outlined the responsibilities of product managers, the distinctions between product management and user experience, and why there is sometimes conflict between the two roles.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll cover what you can do to prepare yourself to move into product management, including what you’ll do as a product manager that you won’t do as a user experience professional (and vice versa), how you can prepare yourself for being a product manager, and common pitfalls that product managers, from a user experience background, have made when making the transition.

Read Part 2 now.

Seven Traits of Successful Product Managers, by Michael Shrivathsan

Where do product managers fit?, Jonathan Korman

Read Part 2

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. Jeff, great article. I recenlty was facing a decision between a UED role and a PM role and your advice then was invaluable. It turns out, despite choosing the UED role, I ended up doing a bit of both. I look forward to part II.

  2. Definitely an interesting article, Jeff. I look forward to reading the second part. It seems a little curious, that we always put the “visionary” person in the role of project manager. Has anyone seen a sustainable business structure where the visionary is accountable only for the vision, and the people who carry it out (developers, designers, etc.) are equally accountable for the final creation?

  3. That’s a great question, Cristos. We definitely think so, but in most organizations it seems easier to place it on the shoulders of one person, much like the coach on a sports team.

    At my current startup (of about 30 people), that’s much easier to attempt than, say, at IBM with hundreds, maybe thousands, of people contributing to the execution and operation of a product or service line of business. However, even then, I’d love to see IBM try such a program.

    Stories like this one from strategy+business seem to offer promise that larger organizations might start to act more collectively:

    Thanks for the comment!

  4. Very enjoyable article! I really like your description of the product manager’s role and responsibilities. I just posted an article at UXMatters that touched on some of the same points, in particular the conflict between product management and user experience. I don’t want to shill so I won’t post a link. But here’s title of the UXMatters article: Connecting Cultures, Changing Organizations: The User Experience Practitioner As Change Agent.

  5. Thanks for the article, and strangely one of my first jobs at my current employer was to, I quote: “go find out what the hell it is the product management team do”, which did make me think, ‘what the hell have I taken on here’, and as a company we have now moved too far towards classic product management. Yet, the team I am curently in are now pushing the user and consumer experience back into the mix, placing the user back at the table … as occasionally product management, as a discipline, can get tied down in the documentation, process and development cycles, anf forget to deliver what was originally the optimal user experience.

    Will read with interest the next chapter, and also reference some of the books/articles quoted here … perhaps this will help in the ‘crusade’ to get the user back at the table! … and help me in what next step to take.

  6. Very interesting article…and reflective of the fact that UX professionals are gaining more and more clout as good business thinkers–because it simply makes good business sense to involve the user in design of a new product.

    Even at product companies like Yahoo! and Google, you will see a variation of product teams and their emphasis they place on user input and research. What UX professionals like researchers and IDs is that there is often a huge linkage (think overall meta data strategy, ad serving, eyeball ownership, etc.) between products that must be taken into account.

    The core challenge of a product manager (and probably what separates the wheat from the chaff) are those who can diplomatically listen and advocate all sides of an interaction decision, look for the common areas between business needs (defined by the site or feature owner) and what the users actually care about interacting with, and make smart decisions about tools, features, and content.

    Can’t wait to see part II!

  7. I dig the article definitely agree with your comment about PMs being as close or closer to their customers and market (or they should be) in a lot of cases. In organizations where UX practicioners work across products/markets or as consultants and don’t have the in-depth domain experience, it amazes me UXers would assume otherwise.
    Wondering which role do you see making decisions about the design/ideation process in terms of research questions to answer and number/medium/fidelity of prototypes which facilitate the internal and external conversations/vision?

  8. Thank you for sharing your experiences in the article. I’m so glad to see this topic start making the rounds in our profession. At some point I can see many in our profession make the gradual transition to either product management or even start their own businesses. It’s a very natural progression as long as we are open-minded to seeing the big picture and learn how a business is run.

  9. Thanks for your comments, Michael and Madonnalisa.

    Matt – After part 2 of the article, I believe your question will change slightly. Let’s revisit after that gets posted next week!

  10. I agree that a natural path for designers is to run the product itself.

    I made the transition to product management type activities by learning about all the disciplines peripheral to design, but critical for product design. These are engineering (software or otherwise; for physical products, it would be product design/mechanical engineering), sales (advertising, online and offline, business models), project management (various methods of whipping people onto a schedule), and, of course, traditional product management which is still a growing field in internet product development due to the speed at which products need to launch.

    If you are thinking about making the change, I would encourage you to learn as much as you can about the other disciplines, learn enough about them to be dangerous (ha! a menace to those who would trust you with that knowledge!), and gain experience in working in those areas if possible.

    Nothing is better than working in an area of expertise. It gives you first hand experience dealing with the issues and gives you street cred to those who look for you for direction in those areas, and also to respect you if you need to make a call in someone else’s area of responsibility.

  11. Back in the old days, outside of Silicon Valley, “user experience” for many people used to refer to the system that surrounds the product, including services, customer support, distribution points including the retail channel, etc. Somewhere along the way, user experience became synonomous with user interface design. That confused me at first — I always thought it was weird that user experience would be seen as an aspect of the product, rather than the product being seen as an aspect of the experience. The argument for product managers reporting into user experience managers always made complete logical sense to me, but it never matched reality. Since the reality was that UX managers were UI designers, it made more sense in practice for “user experience” people to report to product managers rather than the other way around.

    But now that we’re seeing renewed interested in systems design (eg, Peterme’s Stop Designing Products

  12. *this part dropped from the previous comment*

    …I wonder if there’s a role for a “president of the user experience”, a user experience manager, that manages the portfolio of products and services that make up something like the iPod system. Individual product managers manage, say, the nano, iTunes music store, iTunes video, peripherals, etc. and report into a user experience manager that allocates resources across the products according to the user experience strategy. What do y’all think?

  13. Hi John,

    I like that idea! I would think that it is most likely (at this point) to manifest as a VP/SVP of Product Management that originally came from UX background. That person would do much of what we do as individual product managers – bring insight of how users experience our products into the development of the entire portfolio of products (and, thus, knit together multiple user experiences). Seems like back to the future, no?

    One thing we don’t mention here is that the progression through product management could possibly be part of a path to the executive offices. In effect, that would be taking UX to CEO, rather than CXO.

    Anyone else have ideas?

  14. “Traditional” product managers are responsible for every aspect of their product — the features and functionality, the design, the production, the distribution, the pricing. So, in that sense, they are responsible for the entire “user experience” associated with the product.

    As Chris mentions, many companies have a person (or, in larger organizations, several people, often at different levels) responsible for portfolio management across the products. In these cases, it’s much less about individual releases and features/functionality and much more about creating a roadmap and vision for the system.

    In other organizations, there are people responsible for the “horizontal” aspects of products — those elements that are common to many products, such as search or login for a suite of web applications. These product managers are responsible for “internal” products or services (e.g. Search Product Manager), which warrants a different approach and scope than a product manager responsible for a customer-facing product but shares many of the same fundamental responsibilities. In this case, the “service” product manager’s role is to serve his customers — the other product managers responsible for the customer-facing products — as well as the customers and users of those products. This focus on the shared elements and shared experience can help reduce reinventing the wheel, improve consistency across a product suite, and overall create a more cohesive user experience strategy.

  15. Chris, Jeff, and John: I think product managers will in the future certainly have a line to the most senior levels of corporate management. Jeff hit the nail on the head, though, when he mentioned the horizontal aspects of products and a portfolio view of how these pieces fit together.

    The product managers who can first collaborate with other product managers, sell a user experience concept vision that builds organizational (and research) alignment, and have that result in a more seamless user experience across the product offerings will be primed for higher-level leadership positions.

    Consider the following real-world integration challenges (with varying levels of completion):

    1) eBay acquires PayPal. How does eBay make PayPal the preferred “individual” merchant account system for users of its online auction product? What are the interaction designs that accomplish this? How do UE teams from both companies collaborate on the best solution? Who leads that process and how?

    2) Yahoo! Mail and Yahoo! Calendar are related products, in large part due to the market’s existing familiarity with MS Outlook (which provides both services in a client tool). Yahoo! mail has a sidebar nav to allow the user to get to Calendar, while Calendar offers navigation to Mail through a tabbed navigation system. Both tools launch the other application in separate windows. Which product gives up or adapts their existing nav structure

    3) Google acquires YouTube. What is the process for shifting existing Google Video content to the YouTube platform? What features and placements get moved or adapted…and where?

    Product managers have to collaborate with other product managers, leaders serve as arbiters between UE teams, and everyone should keep an eye out for the user and user research to inform and probably direct interaction decisions. These are difficult business challenges and product managers who can pull it off are excellent candidates for higher positions within product companies.

  16. Michael’s examples are useful in pointing out how increasingly blurry lines are becoming between products. Convergence between hardware, software, and services accelerates that even more. Because of that, I think it’s an interesting time to explore alternative role definitions than the traditional product management function. (though I agree with Jeff and Chris’ point: “Becoming a product manager is a logical move for many UX practitioners…Additionally, product management is a common role within many organizations, making it easy to transition to a role that already exists.”)

    For example, though strict definitions of which-is-what can be tough to settle on, I often find it more useful to think of web applications as services rather than products. In many service industries, including retail and banking, it’s the channel manager rather than the product manager who tends to wield greater influence over the user experience. For example, while a company like Barclay’s employs many sophisticated finance folks as product managers to develop new financial products like iShares , your experience as a customer tends to depend less on the features, benefits, and presentation of any one product, and more on how you’re serviced with it — inside the branch, on the Web, etc. The Web channel manager has to make sure he or she is able to bring together enough different products and package them correctly to sell them to you and service you effectively. Most people don’t complain, I hate my Citibank Access Plus Everything Counts Gold Checking product. They say, I hate calling customer service, or Citibank doesn’t have enough ATMs.

    Similarly, your experience at a Wal-mart store tends to be defined more by the effectiveness of the store manager in making sure the store is clean, the aisles are navigable, the workers are friendly, the selection of products is broad, etc than by the effectiveness of the Rubbermaid Fire Resistant Line Wastebucket product manager. In both the Barclays and the Wal-mart example, successful design of the experience tends to have a lot to do with managing scope of the channel — are enough different products offered to satisfy customers while still keeping to a number that can be effectively managed by the business so that they can service them consistent to the brand promise of the company. Wal-mart’s ability to offer new products is constrained by their ability to keep the cost down and to make space to display them effectively at the store. Nordstrom’s ability to offer products is constrained by their ability to offer friendly, knowledgeable service around them. For Wells Fargo Online, it’s being able to offer access and easy transfer between a full range of checking, savings, mortgage, and investment products.

    These scope management problems are fertile ground for learning about creating great web application services. Yahoo, as Michael points out, has the exact same problems as a Wells Fargo — how do you bring the information contained in multiple products like Mail, Calendar, Search, Messenger, and Local together in one interaction point (“channel”) so that the combined suite is truly more valuable than each individually? So does Verizon Wireless. Mostly they haven’t figured out how to rise to the challenge yet.

    So, maybe channel management is a good place for UX professionals to seek to learn from, and to move into. What are some other “service management” roles that might be good adjacent functions to explore in addition to product management?

  17. I’m glad John posted his comment about channel management. At my company Web Channel Management is looked at as being the place to ‘move into’ — not product management. From my experience, product management is seen as too IT-flavored; meaning that despite best intents, the UXers turned product managers find themselves bogged down with technology support and performance aspects, or with stakeholder assurances to CEO rather than UX or Marketing.

  18. Great article. You should pimp your blogs more. They’re fantastic.
    * Chris Baum:
    * Jeff Lash:

    Now my complaints:

    “Product managers are responsible for the overall success, while UX practitioners are responsible for ensuring that the interface is designed to meet users’ needs …. While UX professionals focus on the interface and the user experience, product managers watch the interface and user experience, along with overall market feedback, specific marketing plans, competition, technology, profit and loss, and resources available to the product.”

    Though useful as a way to introduce product management, these distinctions are pretty arbitrary. They encourage everyone engaged in a project to ignore systemic “business” realities that should be at the forefront of their minds.

    And, from the other end, it encourages designers be ghettoized as “those people who don’t get “overall market feedback, specific marketing plans, competition, technology, profit and loss, and resources available to the product”.

    Similarly, the notion of a vision shepherd seems like a good idea for some organizations, but ultimately that represents a leadership failure. Good leaders (and good team members in general) communicate vision in a way so that it is shared, so that everyone involved shares, owns, and collaborates on that vision.

    How do product managers not own anything by letting everyone else own it? Why does “management” always suggest “ownership”?

  19. One of the challenges is that our whole discipline would have been a lot further (as would have been many of our careers) if IT would have had both Project Managers and Product Managers in their methodologies years ago. I’ve struggled in my career in IT ‘not’ to be a Project Manager because I was always by default doing product management activities, but had no career path to make that formal. Because all project work is not seen as inherently creating a ‘product’ (or service) our challenges start way down at the organizational work structure.

  20. Austin — First, thanks for the plugs and glad you like our blogs. Second, thanks for the comments — you’ve brought up some good issues that are worth discussing and clarifying.

    Without getting too much into semantics, I think your first comment is really about what “responsibility” means. I wholeheartedly agree that “systemic ‘business’ realities … should be at the forefront of [everyone’s] minds.” The technical writer should care about the overall product’s success and the competition and the pricing and marketing plan and everything else — but at the end of the day, they are “responsible” for making sure their part (documentation, content) is aligned with those overall goals. Sure, if you’ve got a team of 2-3 people, you don’t split up responsibilities as much, but in most organizations you’ve got at least a dozen people if not many, many more.

    The best way to balance these is to have shared goals and individual responsibilities. Everyone working on a product, regardless of their role, should have the same goals — revenue, usage, on time / under budget, etc. Those need to be aligned across the team. However, each individual has an area of responsibility. I don’t think we’re “ghettoizing” UX designers by saying that they are “responsible” for the UI and user experience — that’s the deliverable that UX designers need to produce! Software developers need to produce working code. If you’ve got UX designers and software developers who are spending more time on “overall market feedback, specific marketing plans, competition, technology, profit and loss, and resources available to the product,” than their main deliverables, you’ve got a problem.

    Also, regarding your comment that “Good leaders (and good team members in general) communicate vision in a way so that it is shared, so that everyone involved shares, owns, and collaborates on that vision,” I again agree vehemently. That goes back to the shared goals that I described above. The vision needs to be owned by the team but articulated and led by the product manager. The PM needs to make sure that everyone understands what the goal is and why, and make sure that focus does not drift from that vision. It would be nice if the PM could communicate the vision once and then be guaranteed that the end product would align with that vision, but in reality you do need a “shepherd” to reinforce the vision and strategy on a regular basis and make sure that the tactical decisions being made support that vision and strategy.

  21. Thanks Jeff and Chris for the nice informative article!

    I have a doubt. How a person could plan a transition from Technical Writing profession to Product Management profession. This would typically in the scenario when the organization you are working in do not have any Product Manager.

    (In this regard, I agree with the views by Paula Thornton. The struggle is keeping yourself away from being a ‘Project Manager’ or anything that becomes quite obvious for a Technical Communication professional to end up in.)

  22. You’re certainly welcome, Manoj. This article was a blast to write, and we hope people will stretch to wherever they desire – be that INTO UX rather than away from it.

    Theresa Putkey did make several suggestions in her story about “leveraging technical communication”: into UX. Check it out!

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