Friday, December 21, 2007

Design and Product Management

This is a letter I wrote to Jeff Flash after reading a presentation he wrote and posted on his blog about product management.

I downloaded and read your 10 Tips for New Product Managers presentation. Thanks for sharing this.

I have some feedback and a question for you. I was wondering what your ideal stakeholder diagram is. There was one included from someone else (showing product management in the center surrounded by sales, marketing, management and engineering) and then several from you. The last one you show has pretty much everyone being invited to the party but I was wondering what your simplified version is. I'm sure the list would change based on the industry-domain of the product but again, there is probaly a high-level version that would relate well to a majority of products.

I ask as someone who has worked with product managers for about 15 years. As a designer, I've always had close interaction with product management, sales, marketing, engineering, senior management, etc.. But it is rare that design is represented as having a direct relationship
with product management. You'll often see it as an off-shoot of marketing or engineering but rarely as a direct link. I think this is wrong. In my 10 years at Sony, design always reported directly to the CEO. Even though we worked very closely with the product teams and business units, we also had independence. The relationship between Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ives (SVP of design) at Apple is legendary but underlying that relationship is a firm belief that design is a core component of what Apple does. This doesn't diminish the importance of marketing or engineering at Apple (also centers of excellence), it just represents an approach to product development that says business and engineering aren't the whole equation.

You make many great points in your presentation like surrounding yourself with experts. Its possible to create great products by including a designer in your expert circle even if that's not the way the company is organized. But I think the best approach is to have it structured into the organization. At Microsoft, design reported to engineering for many years and I think it shows in their products.

There is a ven diagram [see image below] that I have seen that represents a design perspective. There are three overlapping circles, one represents business... looking after what is "viable", the second represents engineering... making things "possible", the last is design which looks after what is "desirable". It may be too simplified or too design-centric but does capture a different point of view from those that over emphasize sales and marketing.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. I was curious to hear yours on the issue.

This issue has been discussed at many different companies and conferences. Every group likes to see themselves at the center of the universe or at least on the A List. But I think the debate goes on about whether design is or should be on that list.
This is the diagram that designers often show as the major stakeholders for product development. But while simple and clear, it raises as many issues as it addresses. Among them,

  • Is it over simplifying the case to have a single circle representing all business issues? Within this circle are sales, marketing, finance, management, legal, biz dev, etc. How many of those groups deserve their own circle? Is it always the case or dependent on specific types of products?
  • Does design deserve its own circle? Is it over simplifying the case to say that design is responsible for making things desirable? What about useful, usable, simple?
  • Where is the voice of the customer in this diagram? Is each group responsible for knowing what the customer wants relative to their domain or is there a circle missing?
  • Should product management be at the center of the diagram or should the user be there?

I don't know the answers to all these questions. My general perspective is that design provides a key role in the development of projects. We can visualize the end product faster, earlier and more accurately than any other stakeholder. As a function of budget, our circle is usually much smaller than the other two. This is the crux of the value offering. We provide a key role at a relatively low price. The seat at the table is therefore justified by the high value / low cost offering. You can always consider us work for hire and subservient to one of the other circles but then over time, that's exactly what you'll get.

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