How product managers and service designers work together

Product management and service design can complement each other and create better products/services because of it. But because both roles are pretty flexible, generalist roles, there’s lots of room for misunderstanding. To work well together, both people have to fill that room with understanding.

How not to work together

Sometimes, when two people from different disciplines start working together, they get stuck into the work without taking the time to figure out how they should work together.

In an attempt to tackle the confusion and misunderstanding this creates, we often try to define how product people and service design people should work together, which gets into trying to define terms like ‘product’ and ‘service’ as a way of drawing boundaries of responsibility and make sure people stay in their lanes.

I don’t think this is the right approach.

We aren’t trying to systematise or scale the relationship, we’re trying to nurture it. So, avoid to temptation to define things like ‘product’ and ‘service’. It becomes a purely theoretical exercise and won’t improve the relationship between product managers and service designers.

Instead of treating each other as job titles we can treat each other as people with a broad range of perspectives, experiences and expertise. And then we develop the relationship necessary to work well together.

Building a partnership

We have to talk about how one individual product manager works with one individual service designer. That’s the only way to talk about building a partnership. It’s about how two people talk to each other, create the space for each other’s perspective, not how two job titles might work together in theory. But, it might help us understand each other’s perspective. Maybe it looks something like this:

  • Service Designers merge a design methodology with a service orientation, Product Managers apply the scientific method and systems thinking in an organisational context.
  • Service Designer are user-centred, product managers balance multiple perspectives.
  • Service Designers deal with the relationships and interactions between tangible things, product managers deal with intangible and often unrelated things.
  • Service Designers go deep, product managers go wide.
  • Service Designers are usually involved with a service/product for a short period of time and are judged by their outputs, product managers are usually involved for a long time and are responsible for the quality and success.
  • Service Designers work is mostly upfront, a product manager’s work is never finished, it’s about iteration and incremental change.

All of these are good things. Good partnerships are about recognising different perspectives, skills and experiences individuals bring. The solution for how people work well together is creating the space for conversations to understand each other.

Creating the space

The space we want to create is one where different perspectives are welcome and treated equally. It’s a psychologically safety space. It has a shared expectation that no one will embarrass, reject, or punish the other for sharing ideas, taking risks, or soliciting feedback.

The relationship between product manager and service designer should be:

  • Mutually respectful of each other’s discipline, skills, expertise and expertise.
  • Equal in power, or at least reducing the power distance.
  • Supportive and encouraging.
  • Aligned to what the work is trying to achieve.
  • Understanding of the challenges the other faces.

These things are the basis for any good working relationship but it’s important to make them explicit as in many organisations there are implicit rules for things like how seniority is treated, and personalities can sometimes get in the way if one presents as more extroverted than another.

If it’s hard to say such things explicitly, user manuals for me, read me’s, etc., are a good place to start. But really, doing the hard work of creating a psychologically safe space for the partnership to live in will be worth it in the future. Spend time together, get to know each other.

Establishing who does what

Agreeing responsibilities should be straightforward as the roles are so different, but it rarely is. This can be because of organisational pressures, lack of clarity about roles, hidden agendas, etc., but also because we have all have different ideas about things.

The best answer to ‘who does what’ is to talk about it and agree responsibilities based on skills, experience, availability, etc.

If there are responsibilities that both think they should have, call it out. Discuss it.

Keeping the partnership going

Keeping working relationships positive and effective when everyone is under pressure and busy with getting the work done can be hard. It takes time and lots of effort.

A couple of tips for Product Managers to help Service Designers:

  • Provide context – You’ll have knowledge of the wider context of the market, organisational goals, technical constraints, budget limitations, team skills, supplier relationships, etc., etc. Help the Service Designer understand how these things affect their work.
  • Trust the expertise – Let the Service Designer do their thing. Give them the space to explore problems from their perspective and come up with solutions.

A couple of tips for Service Designers to help Product Managers:

  • Presenting information – Product Managers have to switch between strategy and implementation, now and future, new and existing, creating and operationalising. Understanding this means you can provide them with the right level of information at the right time.
  • Align thoughts – Product Managers think in experiments and work in iterations. This doesn’t always align with how a service might be designed. Think about how to bring those different ways together.

P.S. Talking to each other works for all roles. Even though some roles are better defined and have clearer responsibilities which make working together clearer, starting with a good relationship always makes working together easier.

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