How Product, Design, and Engineering Collaborate
A lean and user-centered product is hard to build, validate, and market quickly. The key to achieving this mission is to establish balanced teams of product managers, designers, and engineers that work together agilely.
The fundamental difference between designers and engineers is that the former is a left-brainer while the latter is right-brainer. And product teams are the golden brainers who aim to strike a beautiful balance. So, what is their role in the product-making process?
Role of each team:
Product managers (PMs) typically manage products. The product team’s task is often to understand and align the product’s strategy with the overall business case and plan.
However, designers use their knowledge to blend user needs with business goals and validate an idea into a tangible solution.
As for engineers, they are the team responsible for converting the vision and the tangible solution into a living product that users will like.
However, they all work towards the same objective-
“One aim, One goal, One Fabulous Platform.”
Another key person in all of this is the stakeholder, who defines the vision and the deliverables, gives the timelines and provides the budget for all the teams to work and collaborate.
In other words, if designers, engineers, and PMs are the party attendees, the stakeholders are the ones hosting it.
Importance of Research for all the teams
For the three teams, what matters the most is the user and market research.
Stakeholders and PMs must conduct market research to gather customer needs and market drivers. Competitive analysis is a subset of market research that helps gain insight into what the competition is doing today and what they plan to do in the future.
Market research can help segment markets, document the purchase behavior of the target segment, realize new market opportunities, and scope the area of improvement.
Moreover, market research also helps designers find the answer to the following key questions-
I. Which products are known to consumers?II. How satisfied are customers with the products available?III. Could market products be improved?IV. Is there interest in new products or features?V. What are the needs of the customer? Are they being met?VI. How does the user experience fit into this?
User research, on the other hand, involves engaging with the target audience. In terms of the product or application under consideration, it means understanding their expectations, behaviors, and pain points. User research can be conducted methodically, both qualitatively and quantitatively.
The goal is to ensure that the insights from users are helpful at every stage of product decision-making. Although user research provides design solutions that simplify, add value, and are productive for the user, it is also imperative to realize that user research pushes us to create simple, practical, and productive solutions.
Researching users provides the foundation for design strategy; essential for both design and engineering teams to plan their deliverables. It helps design products that the user needs. In addition to that, the teams have the data to back up their decisions to the stakeholders. In addition, they can identify early adopters using user research and reach out to them for quick feedback along the way.
One thing to note here is the striking difference between B2B user research and B2C user research. After all, B2C users make decisions on emotions than logic. Moreover, B2C decisions happen personally, whereas B2B decisions are made from a business perspective. Naturally, as the concept of usage differs, so does the end-product.
All this valuable information is drawn from the market, and user research to help stakeholders, PMs, designers, and engineers work towards an informed, contextual, user-centered product.
The struggle of choosing an approach:
All said and done, from our experience, we have noticed that decision-makers struggle to set up the cohesiveness amongst teams based around the user and/or market research. They either go forward with the vision-driven, design-driven, or product-driven approach.
Being vision-driven is making decisions and taking action based on that vision regardless of user research or market research. As there is no grip on market readiness and no empathy towards users, there is a high chance there will be discrepancies in the teams’ understanding, which will cascade into the look and feel of the product.
Moreover, there is no room for the product to scale in a vision-driven approach as the roadmap does not have the scope to accommodate changing user demands.
Teams that follow a product-driven model develop their product first and then search for a market. As a general rule, it assumes that great products bring great customers, who, in turn, bring in profits and revenues.
Anyone who has lived under the sun will tell you that this notion is simply not true. This approach will harm the product, design, and engineering teams as the resulting product will hardly succeed without clarity, no roadmap or strategy, and no focus on the user or their needs.
Moreover, in this approach, there is a lack in usability as the focus is given to products and features, resulting in heavy and cognitive-heavy screens.
However, this is how most SaaS companies build their products. Hence, when they approach us for a redesign, they need to modularize the platform mainly for the licensing, packaging, and distribution to their customers.
We have worked with clients who assume that our teams prefer this approach being one of the top design studios. We might be a little biased towards this approach, but we have learned from experience that this approach does not work at all times. Using this approach helps identify the main pain points early, fix them, and address issues that would otherwise go unnoticed. The changes are timely and accurate, saving resources for our clients.
The risk, however, is that the business vision gets lost in this approach. When teams start with this approach, they quickly realize they do not understand their business model. Without a proper business approach, there are bound to be clashes between the PM, design, and engineering teams.
How to enable design, engineering, and product teams to collaborate?
As teams have collaborated over the years, there have been many changes. Thus, there is no secret sauce. Many methods have worked better with some projects than with others — and many methods have been a disaster with others.
Here are principles that we see working:
Considering everyone as users
As designers, we prioritize users’ needs and pain points. Once we consider PMs and developers as our users, it becomes easier to determine how they want to function and collaborate.
Starting from designers to engineers, everyone as a team must be flexible. We need to adopt workflows that are both lean, iterative, and suit cross-departmental needs.
A product based on empathy takes everyone into account and not just what code will optimize the designs. When engineers design the interface to build the product, they sometimes forget about people — resulting in a user flow that may be askew, the UI not up to the mark. It is helpful to familiarize developers with the basics of UX and encouraging them to empathize with those for whom they are creating.
Although Cliché, communication is crucial to teams’ success.
There should be a sense of unity and coordination, a mutual understanding of expectations, and a collaborative approach. Communicating the ideas and being open about the thought process behind the work is essential, whether with the team, the organization, or the end-users.
Collaboration is about principles, not tactics
Collaboration between design, engineering, and product teams is not a one-off thing; you cannot just turn on a switch and hope things will keep on running.
It must be an ongoing process that needs to be embedded in the principles and evolves with each new addition. All of this may seem hard to achieve, but we have to remember that successful cross-functional teams help meet organizational goals and, ultimately, more success. That means satisfied customers, more money, and more market share. Win-win-win.
This blog is drawn from the live webinar we conducted on 6th October 2021.