5 min read

The overlap between Product Managers and Product Designers is product thinking

During my time at Meta, I briefly worked on a team that had no product manager. The Engineering Manager filled that role while we looked to hire a new PM. Never did it become more clear to me how necessary 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, prioritizing what to work on.

However, after 3 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, and we had no idea what other teams were doing that might overlap with what we are doing. The gap was obvious, and we all tried to fill parts of it. However, it became very obvious 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 what our focus is. In other words, you need someone that manages the product that's being 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 absolutely clear 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 Product Manager, nor Product Designer, spend enough time on Product Thinking.

What is product thinking?

Refer to Julie Zhuo's article for a detailed definition of product thinking. Below 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 start 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. I never saw anyone model how to do it the right way, 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.