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Design is a Skill (that I don’t have)


As a product manager, I really appreciate design. I know I’m not good at it myself, but I notice poor design literally everywhere. You’ve heard about “stupid doors” that require a sign to tell you whether to push or pull. Ever gone to the airport? Signs are everywhere.


Signs are evidence of poor design.

Documentation is evidence of poor design.


Ever gone to a buffet with silverware and drinks at the beginning of the serving tables? Holding a drink and silverware, and a plate, I have no hands left to serve the food. Poor design.

Ever used Teams? I want to move a task from one Planner to another. How? Which is the target planner? Blog, Tasks, Tasks, or Tasks? (Gee thanks! That’s really helpful).


Ultimately, I made a unique “bucket” on the target planner so I could identify the appropriate planner.


Ever watched your grandparents use their TV remote? They’re so confused you must hack their remote to suit their needs better.

I was on a Facebook forum for product managers. Someone asked, “What is your favorite prototyping tool?” There were some common answers like PowerPoint, Figma, and pen-and-paper. My answer was: “A qualified designer. Design isn’t product management.”


Alas, many product managers are designing solutions, not because they have the skills but because there are no designers. As I’ve said for years, product managers design because they suck less at it than developers do.


It's a common problem these days. Many product managers (and their leaders) think that product managers also do design, project management, sales support, and cover for any under-resourced or under-skilled departments.


What is discovery?

Great product managers listen to the market continually to understand unsolved persona problems and identify friction for those who buy and use the product, while ensuring that the work they do benefits both their organization and their customers.


That’s discovery, not design.

It’s strategy, not tactics.

What is design?

In order to design a solution, begin with a deep understanding of the people you want to help, usually by researching and defining a persona.


The persona document reveals:

  • Relevant information about the persona such as their environment and abilities

  • The friction or pain the persona wants to address

  • The outcomes they hope to achieve

  • The skills and knowledge about similar products

Roku's remote is a study in simplicity. Up, down, left, right. Just point and click. Are you lost? Press the home key. There are dedicated buttons for the most popular streaming services.


It's so simple a child (or your grandparents) can use it.


The designers explored the most common usage and designed a remote optimized for streaming.


One team designing solutions for older people wore safety goggles smeared with Vaseline to simulate what it's like when you can't see well. They experienced the persona's environment. As a result, they increased the contrast of the buttons—no more grey on black buttons. They added "dots" to the buttons so the persona could identify the button by feel.


What is a product manager to do?

Identify the problem

Tell a story. Provide context about the problem so your designer knows what the problem is, not how to solve it. Ideally this is written with the design and development leads.

A problem story is "what" not "how"

[Nikki Dowlman correctly pointed out that the Notes section should not refer to "buttons" which implies an implementation—because do we even need buttons?]


Identify the persona (who has the problem)

Build a profile of who should be delighted by the solution. Base the details on research—don't just MSU (make stuff up).

Identify the persona who has the problem

Brainstorm solutions with your creative team

Explore the story with your creative team—your developers and designers. Don't tell them the solution; discuss the problem with some specific examples.


Design is a skill. It is a skill I don’t have. It’s a skill most product managers don’t have.


Every product needs a designer.


"Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it's really how it works."—Steve Jobs

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