Compassionate Design

Designers have all had the mantra of user-centeredness beaten into them. But how many apply that same understanding to their business and engineering partners? I’m beginning to suspect too few.

I hear startling amounts of complaints about product managers:

“They told me to rip out the best part of the design!”
“They said ‘just copy x’!”
“They want to ruin the experience with ads/upsells/etc!”

When I ask these designers what motivated the product manager to say that, I get shrugs or “They clearly don’t understand design” — which is not an answer to what motivated them to say what they said. It’s a judgement. And an opt out of responsibility for the situation.

When I ask how the product manager is compensated or what will happen if the product fails, I often get a blank stare. I have chatted with designers who understand every emotional nuance a consumer expresses while selecting a vacuum cleaner, but not a clue what their product manger does all day. Let me help; understanding is the beginning of compassion.

Product managers can be fired or demoted if a project fails, even if they did a “good job”. They are responsible for product success, which is different than being responsible for doing good work. Product folks are not promoted for keeping schedules on track, writing great specs, having a team that works well together… they are promoted for their numbers going up. If numbers go down, even if it’s because a competitor launched something that cannibalizes their product, they are still responsible.

Businesses are like people; they have to work their way up maslow’s hierarchy. Many are still at the survive and grow phase. Imagine a business is a lion pride struggling for subsistence on the savannas of Africa. The product managers are the lionesses of the company; they feed the pride and ensure that the company makes payroll. Would you want to explain to your cubs that there is no dinner because another lion got the antelope first?

The “best” part of your design may distract from the core goal.
Copying X may reduce risk that users won’t perform a key goal.
The ads may be the only way they can make money.

If the design is beautiful and innovative but the audience doesn’t take to it, product managers have trouble feeding their family. If product managers miss deadlines and then miss a market window, they may find themselves demoted or job hunting. Is it surprising they might prefer to launch a poor design on time to a welcoming market rather than an amazing delightful design delivered to a reluctant market? You may disagree with this approach, but that doesn’t make it invalid thinking.

Knowing you are responsible for your company and your family is stressful. It’s the kind of stress that leads to phrases like “Just copy Google,” and ” Let’s just put in a Facebook like button here.” Once, back when I was a young practitioner, I was arguing for a design I was certain was the better one. The product manger looked at me almost in tears with sheer frustration and said “Why won’t you just try the button on the right?” At that moment, I knew I was a jerk.

Imagine yourself filled with compassion and curiosity. Listen to what your partner (call them your partner!) is saying. When they say something you find outrageous instead of arguing, pause. Breathe. Ask “Tell me more.” Be them with all their fear and desires. Focus on what will make the product succeed, and your partner succeed. Help feed the pride.

It is a practice, like yoga. In yoga, when you are mediating and you find yourself wondering if you should get a pedicure after and what to eat for lunch. The instructor then says “Don’t get angry at your mind for wandering. Just gently let the errant thought go and return to your practice.”

You will slip and hear yourself saying

“My client’s an idiot”
“Product just trashed the design.”
“Those pinheads have no clue.”

Gently forgive yourself and, like in yoga, return yourself to considering their needs and pressures and finding ways to help. We are just humans, trying our best to make our way in this world. I’m sure you would love it if your product partner would consider your goals; but someone must go first.

You will be a better designer. You will work with happier people. Your designs will pwn the marketplace.

Also read The fallacy of “They Don’t Get It


Add Yours
  1. 1
    Jeff Lash

    Great points — I’d argue that you could replace “designer” with “engineer” and “design” with “technology” and it would make another just-as-relevant argument.

    “Great” designers are not just ones who can come up with elegant, usable, and beautiful designs, but ones who understand and support the broader business goals. In my presentation User Experience and Product Management: Two Peas in the Same Pod?, I list some things that designers should do (but often don’t; slides 36/37), and what designers can do to work more effectively with product managers (slide 41).

    Blog: How To Be A Good Product Manager

  2. 2

    Agreed; I think Engineering and design are more alike as disciplines than different. Your talk and work is AWESOME; all should follow it.

    You remind me of a talk I gave at Stanford to product managers desperate to figure out design and designers. They really want to make the relationship work; they know they must make it work, but it’s often not easy.

  3. 3

    As a designer turned product guy, I agree.

    I’ll add that in the research I’m doing now for a book* sometimes a product or service fails the customer not because the design wasn’t acceptable to the customer, but because a competitor’s product won with a better design, as with Wesabe vs. It’s the product manager that usually pays attention to the competition, but in this age of experience design the designer needs to be a little product manager as well.


  4. 4
    Adrienne Tan

    I think you’ve expressed the frustrations that Product Managers feel very eloquently. I certainly related to it.

    As a Product Manager our role during the design process is also to explain the WHYs which we sometimes don’t do because of the stressful situations we find our businesses in.

    I think what all (product managers, designer, engineers etc) of us need to bring to the design and development phase is our ‘humanness’. The word compassion describes that beautifully.

  5. 6

    Great commentary and seeing both playing out in a certain situation, it’s fascinating to see agencies still fixated on pixels or boxes & arrows and not on the bigger experience ecology that the product is just one small part in…

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