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Product Designer vs Product Manager: What’s the Difference?

March 7, 2023

11 minute read

Have you ever encountered an example of extreme form over function? Maybe, just as a wild example, a certain fruity company’s laptops chased thinness so much that their keyboards became borderline unusable. 

And what about the other way around? Function over form. To this day, Craigslist still looks like a visual migraine-inducing nightmare, but it does the job just fine.

In the digital product world, form following function or function following form are situations that often arise when product managers and product designers aren’t on the same page, have an imbalanced amount of sway within the business, or are working in disparate siloes. 

In an ideal world product designers and product managers should be working in unison, in a state of continuous discovery and improvement for the good of the product and your user base. 

But we know that that’s not always the case.

So how should these two teams work together? Where does the role of a product designer stop, and the work of a product manager begin? And, importantly, what happens when the two roles are working in sync? Let’s take a look…

In this article we’ll cover the following topics:

  • Product designer vs product manager: What’s the difference?
  • Product designer responsibilities
  • Product manager responsibilities
  • In practice product designer vs product manager: an example
  • In practice product designer vs product manager: Separating the roles
  • Product designer vs product manager: how can they work together?

Product designer vs product manager: What’s the difference?

Ok, what actually is the difference between these two roles? Well, the tricky thing here is that ‘design’ is often used as a catch-all term for ‘making something good’. So in casual conversation, you could say that a product manager’s role is to ‘design’ a better product, and you’d be right, but we need to delineate things a bit here by looking at what each role cares most about.

Ultimately, product managers think about the end-to-end product production process. So, while the look and feel of the product are right up there in their list of priorities, so are all the other potential causes for customer churn. That’s alongside managing the roadmap for everything from UI changes to bug fixes and quality-of-life updates. 

Designers have a smaller but no less important focus: their role is to make the product feel intuitive to use and look fantastic. That means that the UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) are their bread and butter.

Both roles are ones centered on continuous improvement and acting on feedback, but there’s a distinction in that product designers think mostly in visual and experiential terms, and product managers also deal with the overarching strategy – as well as ensuring the product’s overall value proposition. 

Product designer vs product manager
ding ding – round one.

Product designer responsibilities

Whilst your product’s use case, value proposition, and market fit will be shaped by a bunch of different people within the business, product designers are responsible for delivering that all-important first impression. When potential customers are exploring your website’s product page, screengrabs from your offering will be the first thing they form an opinion on. 

But that look and feel stuff is just one part of product design. Here are three core areas of product development that keep designers busy:

1. Prototyping and workshopping user journey flows 

For brand-new products still in development, product designers perform the vital task of prototyping how the thing will actually tick on a screen-by-screen basis. |

What are users presented with when your app, platform, or suite first loads up? How does the core navigation function? What’s its overall flow of use? And, importantly, how intuitive and fun does all that feel?

Designers prototype these all-important user journeys using basic, indicative templates, until the product feels natural and logical to use.

2. User interface (UI), user experience (UX), and look and feel

Those user journeys dictate the user experience design of your product, and that, in turn, dictates the user interface. UX and UI are intertwined; how big and obvious does topline navigation need to be? How do nested panels and sub-sections function and look? How can you ground the user and help them know where they are within your digital maze? 

Once that’s all settled, designers are then responsible for making it look good and feel fun to use – applying a branded color scheme, a uniform design language, and adding flourishes like animations and transitions.

3. User testing and feedback

Product design is never a solved problem; things can always be improved. As such, product designers will often work alongside product managers to solicit user feedback. That might be through surveys and focus groups, or it could mean gathering behavioral insight with tools like heatmaps and eye-tracking software.

This will help product designers understand how users are actually navigating the product, and it’ll highlight areas for improvement that designers can take responsibility for.

Product manager responsibilities

The product manager is in charge of shaping the go-to-market strategy for a product – and ensuring that it always lives up to the vision the company and its users have for it. That makes it a job of continuous discovery and agility in adapting to new markets and customer needs. 

In essence, the product manager is the product’s biggest champion and detractor; a great product manager knows what needs to change and what to prioritize. They’ll handle the following tasks:

1. Analysis and innovation

Product managers need to be able to understand what’s lacking from the product in its current iteration and oversee the process of getting it from where it is to where it needs to be. 

That means collating feedback, learning where pain points are, and working with everyone from designers to marketers to plot out future innovation. Product managers are experts at refinement, and even though they won’t be designing in Adobe XD or coding in Python, but they’ll have a firm grasp of what needs to be done.

2. Managing the roadmap

Part of that refinement is knowing what’s urgent and what can wait, and in the product world, that means managing the roadmap. At ProdPad, we’re huge advocates of the Now-Next-Later roadmap framework, which incentivizes identifying problems and solutions instead of deadlines. 

Part of the roadmapping process is outlining OKRs (objectives and key results); the product manager should have a deep understanding of what you’re trying to achieve, and how to check that things are proactively moving in that direction.

3. Shipping, QA, and testing

In digital products, ‘shipping’ essentially means ensuring that the rollout of product versions happens on time and within budget. Product managers rally various teams to ensure that these deadlines are met, including overseeing the QA process and – if testing flags any urgent issues – working on steps to rectify things.

In practice product designer vs product manager: an example

Let’s imagine your company ships an app that functions as a front-end email client called MailBoxy. It’s a roaring success, but the work is never done, and you’ve got a laundry list of feature updates planned in the roadmap.

For the product manager, the task is to align teams on where the priorities are. That means meeting with department heads, listening to their concerns, and seeing how they match up with real-world user feedback. At the end of the day, the product manager massages that list into a roadmap of things that need to happen first, and ensures that everyone’s happy with what needs doing.

It’s decided that the next MailBoxy update needs to include a major UI change: currently, users are finding it really hard to schedule their emails at the point of sending. So the product manager puts that right at the front of the roadmap, and then the product design team gets to work. 

Here, the product designer(s) will workshop various solutions for making the ‘schedule email’ user journey more simplified, and ensure that the button to do so is made much more obvious. They might run a focus group to see how different versions of this system compare, and which ones users find the most intuitive. 

Once everyone’s happy with the function and the design, the product manager will oversee the dev team’s implementation of this new functionality, oversee the testing and QA process, and ultimately be responsible for getting that update shipped.

In practice product designer vs product manager: Separating the roles

In any line of business, it’s wise to ensure that different roles are clearly defined and have well-understood boundaries. By this we mean: people need to know where their responsibilities are, and are not.

But that doesn’t mean you should park these people in separate siloes and leave them to their own devices. This isn’t a product designer vs product manager situation – there should absolutely be collaboration and some natural overlap in their responsibilities. After all, everyone’s north star goal should be the same: making a great product.

In smaller companies, it’s usual to find people wearing many hats, but really, a product manager should define the strategy, and the product designer should work their specific flavor of magic to ensure that the UX and UI of the product fulfill that strategy.

Does that make product managers superior to product designers? Yes and no; it kinda depends on the makeup of the company. What’s important is that designers are given the tools, information, and direction they need to design compelling experiences. And that direction usually stems from the strategy being defined by the product manager.

Product designer vs product manager: How can they work together?

Unless you’ve got some big egos on your hands, product managers and product designers should naturally work really well together. They’re both working towards the same goal, and while product managers should take a keen interest in design, a great PM will be able to defer to the design team for the fun stuff.

If you really want these roles to gel, here are a few best-practice tips:

1. Communicate often

How often does the product manager actually sit down with the product design team? Regular, consistent meetings are a must if you want everyone to have the same idea of what the priorities are and where the user’s needs aren’t being met.

Face-to-face is great, but in a post-COVID world, the medium doesn’t really matter as much as the frequency. Product managers should book in a couple of weekly meetings: one with the product design head, and one with every department together. We know nobody likes meetings for the sake of meetings, but when you’re building and evolving a product, there’s no such thing a too much communication.

2. Know where the buck stops

This isn’t really specific to the relationship between product managers and product designers as much as it is a rule of thumb for every interdepartmental relationship: make sure everyone knows who’s doing what. 

It can be easy to accidentally allow responsibilities to slip between the cracks, and even easier to end up with duplicate work from overzealous team members who’re just trying to help. The product manager needs to be on top of this and – by setting clear goals – ensure that if something’s got to be done, everyone knows who’s responsible. 

3. Define shared OKRs

Teams that understand what their key objectives are are teams that know how to prioritize. Aligning everyone around a set of OKRs (objectives and key results) is an important way to align product teams – and keep designers focused on what really matters.

Defining your OKRs should be a collaborative process. Product designers might have some amazing ‘nice to have’ ideas, for instance, but if those updates don’t directly influence your objectives, then they ought to go on the back burner. Likewise, product managers need to be able to show designers how user-suggested changes will positively affect the product.

In other words, great product managers know when to say ‘no’, and great product designers should be informed enough to want to say ‘yes’. 

Aligning on OKRs is a surefire way to work within those parameters. 

4. Use a shared roadmap 

If you really want to align product designers, product managers, and everyone in between, you need to use a shared roadmapping tool that puts everyone on exactly the same page. 

A roadmap that shows what the immediate focus is, why, and how you’re going to get there – alongside OKRs and scope for comment and collaboration – is the simplest way to create a company with a true sense of purpose.

ProdPad helps product teams build out a considered and curated roadmap full of quick wins, feedback-based ideas, and long-term goals alike.

It’s a seamless and lean product roadmapping experience that streamlines collaborative ideation, goal tracking, feature update planning, and experience gap closing – all without messy Gantt charts or easy-to-miss deadlines.

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