Product Manager vs UX Designer – what’s the difference?

It seems that in the last few years Product Manager and UX Designer have become interchangeable roles in many organisations and start-ups. I personally have been dragged into projects where as a UX Designer I was put in the role of a Product Manager in less than a week, “Now-you-lead-the-product” kind of situation. Yes, I know it might be challenging to decide whether you need the two professionals or just one person to do everything that’s product and UX related.

So, to clear the air, in principle – yes, UX Designer and Product Manager could be the same person, as long as he or she has the right skillset, experience and time for the two roles. I believe that in reality this could only happen if this person is entirely dedicated to the product, they perfectly understand the business objectives, the market, the end user, the rest of the team and in the same time, they have a deep UX knowledge and experience. How many superheroes like this do you know? Well, that’s what I mean…

I’ve listed some of the main skills and characteristics that each of the positions should have:

Product Manager

Knows the market
Has deep understanding about the end user
Deals with product planning and product budgeting
Has deep UX and UI understanding
Has decent dev understanding
Communicates with all people involved in the project
Understands and constantly communicates the business objectives

UX Designer

Designs the start-to-end experience of a certain product
Has deep understanding about the end user
Has hands-on UX experience and skills (wireframing, prototyping, user testing)
Optimises the product
Has deep dev understanding
Understands and follows the business objectives
Is helpful to have good UI skills (applying the final art to the product)

Imagine we split a product development process into 2 main parts – user and business, then the UX designer is dealing more with the user, while the product manager is dealing more with the business part, BUT they always meet in between and sometimes even overlap.

If the responsibilities of the two roles are clearly identified within a team and the Product Manager and UX Designer are sticking to what they’re expected to deliver, then I think you’re on the right track. Yes, arguments might arise sometimes, but as long as they’re not ego issues rather than product decisions, that’s perfectly normal.

I think the risk of having one person for everything (even if you find the superhero) is that he/she will never have enough time and brainpower to come up with and execute all strategic decisions and operational tasks that a product development requires.

To be completely honest, I believe that for early stage startups the product manager role could easily be split between the founder and the UXer, each of them being responsible for specific parts of the project. The reality is that if you’re the brain behind a certain product idea you’ll never find someone more passionate and knowledgeable about the product at a reasonable cost. Plus at this early stage, a product evolves so much that only the founders could keep its integrity and should take key product decisions. I’ve seen many founders that after losing focus (and sometimes even faith) in what they’re doing, they start bringing people on board giving them titles and expecting them to fix a messed up product. But this is a topic for another blog post…