One of the questions that gets escalated to me most often these days is some permutation of, “What is the difference between product management and interaction design?” It is particularly hard to answer questions like “where does one end and the other begin?” These are not simple questions to answer because the roles do have some overlap and it is important that both of these roles collaborate closely in any organization.
Before I answer the question, I should say two quick things:
To me, product management is really about two things: 1) defining and assessing the market opportunity. 2) working with the cross-functional product development team to discover a solution. Here are some of the core activities that come to mind:
Of course, the job of a PM on a good product team becomes very iterative. Few, if any, good products are developed linearly. Instead, new information and insight is yielded throughout the process, which drives updated requirements and solution-validations.
Interaction design (IXD) is a partner organization to the product organization, much like engineering is. (More on this later…) An IXD’s goal is to build something that is usable and valuable for the end-user. A good IXD gets at this goal in two ways: 1) getting to know and understand the user 2) thinking through (in detail) and ideating potential experiences for the user. Some of the core activities that come to mind:
The interaction designer has a lot of work cut out for herself. The key to doing a solid job is to have the time needed to do the right kinds of discovery as well as being iterative in conceptualizing solutions. Again, learning about the customer is not a linear process. Often times, new information and insight is brought to light in the middle of the design cycle. This is why being agile and iterating on design is so important.
It doesn’t matter how detailed we are about dividing up roles and responsibilities between IXDs and PMs. At the end of the day, they both have a lot of shared responsibilities. They both need to be connected to customers and stakeholders. They both need to be iterative and work with end-users to understand if needs are actually being met. They both need to be willing to change their deliverables (whether they are product requirements or prototypes) based on new insights that are brought to light.
Product management and interaction design is a close collaboration no matter how you slice it. I view PM as a bit higher-altitude when it comes to defining a solution. IXD is closer to the ground, and has much more of a hand in defining how the experience comes together. While both groups need to work to respect boundaries and allow the other group to do its job, they both need to work hard to be on the same page. If PM and IXD cannot work together in harmony, then you are destined to have a product that just doesn’t feel right.