In the early days of software development, designers were nary to be found. And even when they were involved, it was in spot roles like icon creation, or logo fashioning. There wasn’t awareness of the role a user experience designer could play because there were no such people.
That said, it was obvious, that left to their own devices, many software engineers made terrible user interfaces. There were exceptions. Design-minded engineers would not only make great user interfaces but invented the very language of user interfaces that we use today. But for most engineers a little help was in order. Thus was born the role of the Product Manager. (In some companies this role is sometimes called Program Manager). And in some companies there are Program Managers and Product Managers (and even Project Managers) dividing the roles even further.
Generally, responsibilities for folks in the “PM” role often include some combination of:
- Understand the customer and the market.
- Define the functionality of the software.
- Shepherd the project to completion on time and on budget.
- Outbound marketing.
These are important tasks, and they need to be done. But the modern User Experience Designer is encroaching on this space quickly and the Product Managers aren’t happy about it. To truly have a holistic view, a user experience design leader must understand their customer and market as well as define the functionality of the software. Design is not about putting a veneer on top of some functionality that’s already been created. Design is about creating a holistic package that delights the customer. Design is about understanding what plumbing needs to exist so the ultimate customer experience can match expectations. And good user experience design leaders are stepping up in this role.
What’s left for the Product Manager? Essentially project management and outbound marketing. As for project management, this is a thankless task that should be performed by whoever controls the engineering resources. They are the ultimate contractor getting the project built and should be doing resource management and planning on their own. As for the outbound marketing, a quality user experience design leader will be involved in this as well making sure that the marketing materials are a holistic extension of the user experience. Actually to be more accurate, a design leader will recognize that the marketing materials ARE part of the UX and treat them accordingly. Ultimately the marketing is a promise that the software itself needs to deliver on. It only makes sense that one person would oversee everything from the promise to the promise-keeping.
It must be the goal of every aspiring User Experience Designer to eliminate the need for Product Managers who do anything other than outbound marketing. The need for someone to go-between the marketer and the engineer is over. User Experience Designers worth their salt should be performing this role, and running rings around Product Managers. An MBA from Wharton, or a CS degree from Stanford does not qualify you to understand customers as human beings and design end-to-end experiences that make them happy. This is not to say there aren’t some great design-focused MBAs and CS majors. But they are the exceptions, not the rule.
When you see a company where the role of product definition is performed by someone other than a user experience designer, this is a comment on the state of the profession as a whole. If you are a Product Manager, it’s your job to groom a crop of talented User Experience Designers to take your job. And if you’re a User Experience Designer, you need to compete for that role by stepping up and showing your mettle.
If we want to live in a world where most of the software created makes us feel as if care, and thought, and love was put into it, then helping designers earn their way into these roles is a mission we should all share.