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From Design to Product Management

Coaching designers, I noticed that the desire to switch from Design to Product Management is common. After spending several years in UX, it is natural to become curious about the phases that precede design: market analysis, ideation, customer validation, prioritization, etc. Some of this interest comes from frustration with existing product managers, while another part stems from the desire to grow and evolve. But the path to making this transition is unclear. What courses to take? What to read? How to find the first product job? Although this transition can feel uncertain, moving from Design to Product Management is attainable: many of your skills will transfer to the new role and give you a competitive advantage, while other skills can be learned on the job—as long as you carefully pick your first products and find a supportive manager.

Many design skills are transferable to product management.

Although product management and design are different disciplines, many of your skills will be transferable. Most importantly, your ability to think about user problems will remain a critical asset. While it is so natural for designers to think about the user, not everyone can do it: others (even other PMs!) may jump to discussing the technology, specific features, or messaging around the product. But you know from your design experience that jumping to tactics is counterproductive until you completely understand your customer's problem. Your experience will serve the team by keeping everybody focused on the right questions at the right time. Hence, your ability to hold the user front and center will remain essential and help you stand out in your new role.

Another valuable skill easily transferable to the new job is your ability to visualize ideas. This skill will allow you to communicate your vision to the team effectively. While most PMs solve this problem by creating PowerPoint slides with some diagrams and lots of text, this artifact only gets the team so far. Such vision presentations leave much room for interpretation and often fail to inspire the team. Luckily, you can do more: create vision prototypes and videos to convey what you have in mind and set the direction for the team. Your stakeholders and your scrum team will appreciate the added clarity. Thus, your ability to visualize ideas effectively will help create alignment.

Your third valuable asset may seem trivial, but it's not: it is your knowledge of how to work with designers! Remember how frustrated you would sometimes get when a PM was being way too vague or, on the contrary, too specific in their request? Remember how you would spend extra cycles trying to agree on what is needed? Well, as a PM, you will do better. You know how to present your asks in a way that gives designers room for creativity and exploration but defines clear boundaries around the task. This will eliminate extra cycles and allow designers on your team to do their best work. Your experience being a designer will inform your way of working with your design team.

Finally, another transferable skill you possess is ensuring the quality of UX implementation. Unlike other PMs who might miss UX defects at the end of a sprint (or worse yet—a release), you will not let that happen because these details have always been important to you. After each engineering sprint, you will be able to see how your product is shaping up and catch any deviations from the design. Moreover, if you find any discrepancies, you will now be able to have them fixed — unlike before when you had to negotiate priorities with your product manager first. Now it will be all within your control, and you will b able to achieve flawless design implementation.

In summary, after transitioning to the new role, you will find that many of your design skills are still relevant and give you a competitive advantage over other PMs. Your abilities to think about user problems, visualize your ideas, work with other designers and catch minor UI defects will help you in your new role.

You will be able to learn other skills on the job.

While many of your existing skills will remain relevant, you will be able to acquire the rest on the job. Of course, product management takes more than good design, and it will be essential to learn the core of this role. Luckily, it is not rocket science, and it is entirely possible to learn it as you go by being reflective and seeking mentorship. The most critical competency you will need to acquire is business acumen. Indeed, this is the core of the product management job, which is why there is a saying that a product manager is the CEO of one product. You will need to learn how to find product-market fit, test your ideas as cheaply as possible, measure everything you do in terms of business value, and much more. Yet, while it may sound intimidating, you can figure it all out by reading good books, thinking through the work at hand, and asking your manager for guidance.

Another skill that will be critical to learn is managing customer relationships. Although you probably have other people in the company that focus solely on customer relations, you will need to master this skill too. As part of your work, you will be interviewing customers to learn their problems, presenting solutions to get their feedback, holding their hands to adopt your product, and maintaining relationships with them to be seen as a trusted partner. This part of the job may be pretty uncomfortable because it requires much more social exposure than the job of a designer. Yet, you will be able to develop the necessary soft skills with time; if an impossible introvert like me has been able to do it, you will also be able to.

Finally, one more skill you will master on the job is consensus-building. As a product manager, you will not have any direct reports, but you will need to influence many people to follow your vision. This will require more than excellent communication skills. Apart from being a good communicator, you will need to learn how to manage the requests, desires, and expectations of numerous stakeholders, such as your engineering, sales, marketing, product success, and many more. Sometimes these people's opinions will contradict each other; sometimes, they will be far from your own. While these people do not own the product roadmap, you will not be able to ignore their views; you will need to bring them on board to succeed. Luckily, this skill will also come naturally with practice. In fact, practice is the only way to learn it, and your mastery will grow continuously over time.

All in all, although there will be a lot to learn in the new role, and you should be ready to be a beginner again, it will be possible to learn new skills while working on your first few products. Competencies like business acumen, customer relations, and stakeholder management will come over time if you regularly reflect on what you do, think critically about your next steps, and learn from your actions.

Remember to find suitable first products and a supportive manager.

Although this role change will require you to learn some new competencies on the job, you can smoothen the transition by carefully choosing the first few products you own. First, it may be helpful to start with products that require a lot of design work (as opposed to, say, a change of data model or building new integrations). This type of work will allow you to fully leverage your existing skills while adding a few new responsibilities at a time (e.g., writing user stories and working with engineering). Thus, you will be able to remain confident even though you have a lot to learn. The second tactic to help you make this transition easy is to continue designing — for now. Although you can delegate it to a designer immediately, keeping this responsibility with you for some time can be more comfortable. Holding on to your design responsibilities can give you more confidence: even though there may be gaps in your product management skillset, you are still delivering tremendous value. Not to mention, your engineering team will appreciate the quick turnaround from having one person play the roles of a PM and a designer. In short, choosing frontend-heavy products and using your design skills fully will help you feel more confident while changing positions.

Another way to smoothen this transition immensely is by working with a manager who is willing to help you fill the gaps. I cannot stress enough how important it is to find a good leader—it is critical for any tech career, but especially so when you are in a vulnerable position of learning a new role. So find a leader who sees value in what you bring to the table and wants to invest in your growth. In contrast, a manager who is hypercritical and controlling would make this transition near impossible (they can make your life miserable without any transition, too, so why work for them, to begin with?). So choose your manager wisely.

In summary

It is quite natural for a designer to want to move to product management after some time. A product management role gives one a broader range of responsibilities, more visibility, and a higher impact on the success of the product. In addition, stepping into this role gives one a shot at fixing what often appears to be broken: unclear prioritization, poor front-end execution, and constant descoping decisions. While this opportunity is appealing, many designers don't know where to start and feel intimidated by the journey ahead. Yet, while there will be bumps along the way, moving from Design to Product Management is attainable. As you start this transition, you will find that many of your design skills are still relevant and give you a competitive advantage. Although you will be missing some core product management skills, you will find ways to learn them on the job. Finally, you can make this whole journey smoother by choosing products that allow you to leverage your existing skills and relying on a supportive manager who can help you grow in the remaining areas.


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