The Taxonomy of Product Managers (for UX Designers)

Designers and developers I lead (my students, employees, and clients) have been asking a lot this week about product management: who does product management, how it's distinct from project or account management, how to divide responsibilities between product, design, and development. The answer (naturally, since I'm a designer) is "it depends," but I'm going to share what it depends on.

I taught an introductory design course not too long ago with Morten Lundsby Jensen, who's more of a hybrid product manager/designer. When it came to demystifying product management, we had an amazing conversation (which involved drawing on the walls, as it often does at General Assembly), in which we discussed our experience and did some pattern recognition, to create a taxonomy of four common types of product managers. I've shared those below, with some thoughts on how to work well with them. 

Ideally, the product management role is responsible for the business of what products and features your cross-functional software development team should build and when, in what order. There's a great deal of variation, which in my experience clusters into the four common types below. [Note that some of the variation I've seen is in the job descriptions and requirements of the companies they work at, and some is in the background and disposition of the product managers themselves.]

1) The Once-And-Future-CEO

This product manager might be the head of the department, or the first PM at your company. This person almost certainly has an MBA, and has probably founded her/his own company, which may have been acquired by yours. This product manager is a big vision thinker and talker, is great talking big picture with customers and supporting Sales. They can definitely help you figure out what your product wants to be when it grows up, but may have a hard time releasing an MVP that's "less than" full functionality, or helping you prioritize which among equally desirable features to focus on first. As a designer, you'll definitely need to be specific about the feedback you need from this person, and be willing to iterate how you ask. This person's a great advocate for including design in decision-making, if you can get on her good side.

2) The Technical Product Manager

This product manager is almost always amazing to work with. S/he likely has a CS degree, and/or may have been a developer before. This PM uses those tech superpowers to help you figure out what your competition is doing, flesh out requirements, determine the "killer feature," help build street cred with the developers, and build something that's amazing from all sides (technology, business, and end user value). This person might not have enough "pull" with executives or prospective customers, however, so you'll have to team up to double your influence. The best possible combination, in my experience, is when a badass Once-And-Future-CEO runs the department, and hires the TPM to help execute.

3) The Project Product Manager, aka the "Get Sh*t Done" Product Manager

This person has conquered Jira, Confluence, and your procrastination habits. S/he always knows who's doing what, who's waiting on whom for what, and what it's going to cost each day someone lags on a deadline. This person may also have an MBA or a CS degree, but is most comfortable up the elbows in implementation details. They understand every step of the process from ideation to release engineering, and have strong relationships with the smartest person in each functional area. If anyone, anywhere is being vague or hand-wavey, they will zero in on it like white on rice, and flag up (with both kindness and razor-sharp clarity) exactly how that's going to screw the company up six months down the line. 

This PM might frustrate the designers in being unwilling, unable, or uninterested in answering the "whys" that UX designers inevitably are seeking. Hopefully, in those cases, there's a CEO or another type of PM around to work with you on the big vision questions. In the best of possible worlds, there's a project manager who keeps the schedule, leaving the product managers to work strategically on defining what goes in the product and how you collectively should get it there. 

4) The UX-y Product Manager

This person, like you, might have social science or even design degrees. They might have an MBA. They might even have been a designer before they were a product manager. Either way, they have worked in environments where they didn't have a UX designer, and had to do your job themselves. They might enjoy wireframing or user testing, and might be prone to sketching as a way to ideate. This person should be the easiest to work with, because they speak our language and understand the value our methods deliver.

A warning, however: DO NOT GET TERRITORIAL, or butt-hurt if you think they're trying to do your job. Even if they like to create design deliverables. You must figure out how to collaborate well with them, and divide the work between you based on consent and mutual respect. Fight them, or pitch a fit, and you're a net resource drain, in which case you should not be employed there. The UX-y product manager is the best possible advocate for UX design to participate effectively in the product development process. Don't let your insecurity screw that up. 


Regardless of which Product Manager you're working with, always remember (as my friend Christina Wodtke has written) that the product manager is the one left holding the bag if the team doesn't deliver. It always behooves the designer to befriend the product manager, figure out what makes them tick, establish shared goals, and gain their trust. The moral of the story: Work well with any and all of these product managers, if you want to ship great products that have maximal business and end user impact.