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Stepping Into Product Ownership as a Product Designer

Pamela Porto
September 30, 2020

As the user experience discipline has evolved over the last decade, we’ve seen a jump in the number of product designers stepping into product ownership or business analyst roles without leaving their design duties behind.


For the first time in my career, I had the opportunity to experience this dual role while leading one of our Venture Lab teams. It came with a lot of learnings as I lacked PO training, but also because I had to balance user experience design decisions while prioritizing non-design needs to meet business goals.


Is a designer the right team member to fill a PO role?

A product owner is at the center of the development cycle. They define the vision, maintain the product backlog, anticipate users' needs, and are the person accountable for the team and product’s progress and successes.


A product designer, on the other hand, understands the vision. They are the person accountable for the experience of the product and advocate for the users. To be successful in their role, they must work closely with the PO. These characteristics make a UX design person well-suited to fill this role.


However, regardless of your background, the most important thing to consider is that you must be willing to put most of your energy towards defining the vision of the product in the PO role. At least at the beginning of the project.


Within our Venture Lab framework, and with any startup, the vision at the earliest phase of the project is unknown. Having said that, any member of the agile team can be the PO if they are willing to be the visionary and final decision-maker.


Help others see the value of CX & design thinking

As the designer of the product, you understand the importance of customer empathy more than anyone else. You’re the one looking after the user. As the product owner, you’re looking at the business and overall vision of the product, while also shaping the product strategy. Navigating business decisions meant I had less time to be that design advocate a team needs to create a world-class product.


So how do you go about this?


Even though Crema is a customer-centric company, I still needed everyone on the team to be involved in the creative process and become advocates for our users. Opening this up to everyone meant I had to learn to balance their opinions, the users’ feedback, and my creative ideas for the product.


As challenging as it was with all the compromises made, it was the secret sauce I didn’t necessarily see at the time. I opened up user interviews and testing to the rest of the team, shared user feedback, gave analytics (when available), and presented industry-related data to help others see the value of design and shape the team’s user-centric culture.


Value the tension with dev leads to learn and grow

Collaborating with developers comes naturally to us designers at Crema, given that we build products in an agile environment. It’s important to work towards bridging that gap by getting developers involved in the design process early on. Not only so that they feel included, but also to quickly arrive at a solution that can be built.


Although, as a product owner, the tension was different in a healthy way. I’m a huge believer that tension in a healthy team is necessary, especially in our current living situation. Tension will only make the team stronger by encouraging an ongoing amount of negotiation and collaboration with the technical team.


Embracing high value/low effort items, forced me to see the realistic steps to accomplish our team’s goals. And to be honest the times I had a hard time framing realistic goals, it didn’t take long before the dev lead brought me back to the real world.


I’m very thankful for this type of collaboration and for our team members' ability to accept conflict: healthy conflict, that is. Nobody wants to work with a difficult person, but a little pressure and the willingness to push each other to think differently is for the best interest of the product and the team.


Finding time to design

If you’re like me, product design is what you were born to do! If you still want to design, you need to make the most of your time. Using tools like Figma helped me create a fast design process to iterate and bring new ideas to life.


To make your design time most effective, focus on what matters. Team alignment will be your secret weapon. As much as you can, align your team to a single source of truth.


Achieving alignment is hard, as designers, developers, and marketers all use different tools and have their own processes. But being on the same page will allow you to work faster and use your design to cross-collaborate on what’s important, versus tweaking small UI changes. Encouraging system thinking will help everyone in the team understand and know they have a place to go when they have design questions.


Wrap up

As a designer, I can admit that I may be biased on this subject. However, I see an amazing career opportunity for product designers to grow into product ownership roles, as we have the biggest opportunity to influence the product roadmap through our creativity and insights gained from constant user research.

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