Product management is a fast-growing career. In 2022, Glassdoor listed the product manager job as one of the best positions in the U.S. Research from LinkedIn showed interest in product management doubled in the latter half of the last decade.
With the shift to a digital landscape that was accelerated by the pandemic—along with the increasing number of technology startups—the need for people who know how to collaborate with product managers is growing. Successful product managers work with cross-functional teams, which means the need for people who understand how to work with product managers (PMs) is increasing along with the rise in PMs.
How to work with product management
If you work for a tech company, it’s helpful to know how to work with product management. While the product management profession has been around for a while, it’s still not as clearly defined as other roles. Product manager responsibilities often depend on the size of the organization, the makeup of the product team, and available resources.
What do you need to work with a product manager?
When working with product management, it’s necessary to understand the role of a product manager. A product manager is responsible for creating products that meet customer needs and business objectives.
Product managers, or PMs, sit at the intersection of business, marketing, and engineering teams. Due to their unique position in the company, they take in a lot of information and feedback to help them develop better products. When working with a product manager, one of the best ways to get their attention is to bring data. This includes quantitative data (such as product and feature usage) and qualitative data (such as Net Promoter Score, support tickets, and customer feedback given through account management). These data points help them to make informed decisions about their product roadmap.
How should product designers work with product managers?
Let’s start by looking at the job description of product designers vs product managers. Product designers ensure customers have the best experience possible and focus on usability (i.e., is it easy for people to use this product?). Product managers try to balance meeting users’ needs and meeting the needs of the business. While there is overlap in how these roles think, it’s important for product designers to keep in mind that product managers are thinking about the bigger picture. As a result, they may not be as focused on improving the user experience of one particular screen or flow (that’s where you come in!).
Here are a few suggestions for how product designers can work harmoniously with product managers:
1. Get a deep understanding of the customer.
When you work with product management as a UX designer, one of the greatest value adds you can offer is a deep understanding of the customer. Through customer interviews, user research, and usability studies, you can derive answers to the following questions:
- What are their pain points?
- What problems are they trying to solve?
- How do they interact with your product?
These customer insights make product designers great representatives for the customer in the product development cycle, helping inform critical product decisions.
2. Know the product vision.
The product vision is something the product team, its stakeholders, and the company as a whole are striving toward. This vision gives you insight into the future of the product, allowing you to design with the future in mind.
Knowing the product vision can also help you focus ideas. If you know a certain feature or function isn’t part of the core product strategy or vision, you can filter out that feedback and direct your efforts on the functionality you know will contribute to the long-term vision of the product.
3. Leverage mockups and prototypes.
As a designer, you may think in images. But many on your product team may struggle to visualize what you’re envisioning—or to put their own thoughts into a visual format. Mockups and prototypes can help you convey ideas and solutions, giving people something to respond to. It also helps ensure your team is on the same page and thinking about the same thing.
You can support your product lead by translating their vision into sketches or wireframes. This will help them circulate ideas with stakeholders and receive actionable feedback that informs how the product is developed.
How should project managers work with product managers?
If you’re a project manager working with product management for the first time, you may struggle with how to work with product management. This is because of a few critical differences between the product manager role and that of a project manager.
Here are some ways you can navigate these differences and become a better partner to your product manager:
4. Understand their priorities.
As a project manager, you might be responsible for gathering user requirements related to your product. But the product manager will decide how these get defined as user stories and prioritized in the backlog. When you’ve worked so hard to gather the details, it can be frustrating to not see them prioritized the way you might have prioritized them. Take some time to understand what matters most to your product manager and how they think about prioritization. This will help you minimize friction and improve your working relationship.
5. Keep a firm grasp on scope.
One of the hardest tasks for product professionals is scope. As project manager, you’re balancing time, budget, and quality. In an ideal world, everything would go as planned—meeting the timeline, producing a quality product, and staying within budget. But, if you’ve worked in software development for more than a minute, you know that things hardly ever go according to plan.
As a project manager, you’ll need to be flexible to adapt to the changes—and firmly communicate scope to ensure quality products ship on time and within budget.
6. Consider dependencies and unknowns.
If you’re used to working in traditional (non-software) project management, you’re probably used to projects that are clearly defined. The opposite is true for products: they don’t usually start with a lot of definition. Product development starts with a problem to solve—and there are usually multiple solutions to a problem. Once you choose a possible solution, you still may not know everything that goes into developing that solution. Hence why products become more defined over time. These differences are often why working with product managers can be difficult for project managers at first.
If you want to be successful in project managing a product, be patient and understanding. Things will change—that’s part of the job. Remain flexible and stay in constant communication with your product manager to make sure you both can release a product you’re proud of.
7. Help them understand and communicate risks and blockers.
A key part of the project management role is risk and issue management. As a project manager, you’re looking for potential problems that will impact your product development and release timeline. When issues arise, consider the benefits and tradeoffs of each possible solution. These will help your PM make the best decision possible about how to move forward.
How should product marketers work with product managers?
One of the biggest differences between product managers and product marketers is who they focus on. PMs think about the user, the person actually using the product. Product marketing managers tend to keep buyers front and center. There can be overlap in these two audiences, which is why product marketers can be such great partners for product management.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when working with a product manager as a product marketer:
8. Remember that product roadmaps change.
As a product marketer, you’re responsible for the go-to-market strategy for new products and features. This puts pressure on you to determine how to position new features or products, as well as establish a timeline for release communications.
This can create tension—you want a clear idea of what’s being shipped and when so you can communicate to customer-facing teams, but product managers don’t always have that level of clarity in advance. As their development teams work on the product, they’re learning more about unknown complications and limitations. Understanding that this is a natural part of the product development process can help you establish more reasonable expectations when preparing for a release.
9. Focus on the problem being solved.
You may have heard about the Jobs to Be Done Framework. The basic principle of this framework is that people don’t buy products, they buy solutions to jobs they need done. So you could say that people don’t buy shelves, they “hire” shelves to organize their home so it’s not overwhelmed with clutter.
Product teams may use this approach to position the problems their product is solving—and it can help you, as a product marketer, to think about how to frame new product features. Instead of focusing on the feature itself, ask yourself, “What problem is this feature solving?” The product manager you work with can help answer this question, informing your messaging and positioning for the release.
10. Keep your customer front and center.
A big part of the product marketing role is an understanding of the customer and market. Product marketers perform market analyses to get a feel for the current landscape—the buyers, competitors, and potential partners. This information helps PMs with decision-making about which projects and features to prioritize.
Product marketing managers also do market research to determine the appetite of the market for new product development, and to gather insights into consumer needs and preferences. They turn this information into buyer personas, which are leveraged by marketing and sales teams as part of their outreach and campaign development. Great product managers will familiarize themselves with these personas to better understand potential customers and what they’re looking for from a product.
Some more tips for collaborating with PMs
No matter your role in an organization, there are some key principles you can keep in mind when working with product managers.
11. Understand their product development process.
Take some time to learn about the methodologies they use (e.g., Kanban, scrum, agile). Some good questions to ask might be:
- How long are your sprints?
- When do sprints start and stop?
- What does the product development lifecycle look like?
- What do your release cycles look like?
The answers to these questions will help you understand how they work, so you can determine the best way to collaborate. For example, if you know that their release cycles happen once a quarter, you’ll have a better idea of when to propose an idea or when to expect a new feature to ship.
12. Be okay with improvements going on the backlog.
One of the core responsibilities of a PM is prioritization. They know they can’t do everything—and they need to stay focused on the product vision and the most high-impact opportunities.
Product managers (or their product owner counterparts, in larger organizations) will keep a backlog of improvements and ideas. If you suggest a new initiative or product improvements, they may end up on the backlog. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean they won’t ever get implemented. To make a case for why something is important, gather metrics and data that show the impact of the problem/potential solution. This will aid in getting your suggestion prioritized.
You could also write user stories for your ticket, which will make it easier for them to pull the item out of their backlog and into a sprint when bandwidth frees up.
Final thoughts on working with the product manager role
At the end of the day, everyone wants to develop and release good products. Achieving this goal relies largely on how you work with product management. And to better partner with this function, you need to understand the product manager role. This understanding will help you tailor your interactions and expectations. Product management isn’t always an easy job—but by implementing these tips, you can make it a much better experience.