5 min read

The overlap between Product Managers and Product Designers is product thinking

I briefly worked on a team with no product manager during my time at Meta. The Engineering Manager filled that role while we looked to hire a new PM. Never did it become more apparent to me how crucial the role of a PM is.

The EM did a solid job of handling many of the tasks typically assigned to a product manager: he was great at generating ideas with the team, defining metrics, and prioritizing what to work on.

However, after three months without a PM, I noticed that people on the team weren't really communicating with each other. No one knew what the other person was doing. We had no idea what other teams were doing that might overlap with what we were doing. The gap was noticeable, and we all tried to fill parts of it. However, it became undeniable that at a complex organization like Meta, you need someone technical that spends all of their time on knowing what's going on, unblocking people, keeping track of progress on our metrics, and prioritizing our focus. In other words, you need someone who manages the product built by the designers, engineers, content designers, UXR and data scientists.

After our new PM joined, the team found a much stronger focus and rhythm.

So it's evident that product managers are necessary. But how does what product does, overlap with what design does? Why are there tensions between these groups so often?

The answer is that in most cases, neither the Product Manager nor the Product Designer spends enough time on Product Thinking.

What is product thinking?

Refer to Julie Zhuo's article for a detailed definition of product thinking. Below is a short summary definition by me:

Product thinking is two things:

  • Do you have an intuitive sense of what makes certain products successful and which aren't? Can you articulate that intuition? This is sometimes called Product Sense.
  • Can you figure out the right problem to solve for both the customers and the business interests and the right way to track if you've solved that problem?

In my experience, neither PMs nor designers are usually good at this. Most designers start with "The UI needs to be simplified," and most PMs begin with "We want to increase engagement." Both often start with "Leader XYZ asked that we do this."

Most designers aren't even expected to do this type of work. Even if they call themselves "Product Designers." I was the same way for most of my career. But, I never saw anyone model how to do it correctly until I joined Meta.

When product designers and product managers both understand product thinking, and collaborate together on defining what will make a product successful, the tension between the discipline dissolves and makes way for phenomenal collaborations.