You are here because you are facing a product designer vs. product manager conundrum and can’t decide which to hire for your project. According to a McKinsey & Company report, almost 80% of product managers participate in design activities and go-to-market decisions. On the other hand, product designers focus on product ideation and development to create a product that satisfies user needs and expectations.
Are you still unclear about the differences between a product manager and a product designer? That’s alright because we'll dive deep into each role in this guide. By the end, you’ll have a clear picture of who product designers and product managers are and which to hire for your project.
What’s in this guide:
- What is a product designer?
- Who is a product manager?
- Product designer vs. product manager: The key differences?
- Which should you hire?
What is a product designer?
Product designers are the brains and hands behind building a practical, functional, aesthetically pleasing, and valuable product. A good product designer plays several roles during product development, but all those roles lead to the same goal – Ensuring end users get a user-friendly product that satisfies their needs and delivers value.
A product designer delivers a valuable product that meets user needs by first researching target users to understand them. The research provides insights into end users’ preferences and pain points. A designer then uses the insights to tailor a product to solve user problems and deliver an excellent user experience.
In large companies, product designers typically work with a team of stakeholders, including product managers, engineers, and other designers. Also, product designers work in various industries, and the exact role of a designer varies between industries. For instance, a product designer’s role in a SaaS company or other businesses that offer digital products may include:
- User experience designer
- Customer experience and information architect
- User interface designer
- Interaction designer
In a company that makes physical products, such as electronics or furniture, the above roles won’t exist.
Below are some of the essential responsibilities of a product designer building a SaaS product.
- User research: User research or UX research involves studying target customers to understand user needs, preferences, pain points, and motivations. A product designer will use insights from the research to tailor the product to be as valuable and user-centric as possible.
- Prototyping: Designers start with wireframes or other forms of low-fidelity prototyping to showcase the intended product’s design and test the design concepts. If a low-fidelity prototype is well-received by users and other stakeholders, a designer can begin high-fidelity prototyping. Hi-fi prototypes cost more to make but more accurately depict and simulate the final product’s visual design, user flows, and more.
- User interface (UI) design: UI design involves building an app’s user interface to ensure maximum usability and a smooth user experience.
- User experience design: Product designers also serve as UX designers during product development. The role involves creating a user experience design with a straightforward and intuitive user journey. The user journey is the steps a user will take with your digital product to achieve their goals or complete tasks. The best product designers make UX design decisions based on research, data analysis, and test results.
- Interaction design: Interaction design focuses on making a digital product as user-friendly as possible. It covers the design of your digital product’s interactive elements. Users should find the elements easy to access, identify, and use.
- Information architecture design: Information architecture design involves organizing information effectively. Doing so delivers an intuitive user experience that allows users easily navigate your app or site to find information.
Every individual in a product designer role should have these skills:
- Research skills: Researching and data interpretation are must-haves in every designer’s skillset. A product designer will conduct user research with surveys, user interviews, and usability testing to understand user needs and behavior. Insights from the research help designers build attractive products that help users solve real-world problems.
- Testing: A product designer should have the skills and tools to test if they have a good design and identify areas of improvement. Besides testing concepts and prototypes during development, designers should continuously test launched digital products to verify and optimize their performance.
- Communication skills: Communication is essential for successful product development. For instance, a good designer talks to users to understand the user problem and tailors the product to solve it efficiently. Also, communicating with stakeholders and team members to provide feedback and updates about development progress is necessary.
- Design thinking: Product designers must be creative to build functional apps that are aesthetically pleasing. These designers require graphic design and visual design skills to bring their creative ideas to life. Design tools commonly used for product design include Sketch, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe Photoshop.
Who is a product manager?
Before reading this product designer vs. product manager guide, you’ve probably heard people use the terms interchangeably. While there is some overlap between the roles of a product manager and a product designer, the positions are quite different.
Product designers research users to understand user problems. Product managers, on the other hand, look at user problems, prioritize them, and assign tasks to developers based on the prioritized problems. The prioritization ensures that product designers focus on developing features and tailoring the product to solve pressing user problems. Taking this route ensures that the finished product delivers optimal value to the end user.
In summary, product managers organize and oversee the product development process and the work of designers. They guide the process to ensure the achievement of business goals. Besides the product design team, other team members a product manager works with to achieve business objectives include developers, marketers, and stakeholders.
Below is a breakdown of a product manager’s key responsibilities during SaaS product development:
- Product vision and roadmap creation: A product vision clearly states a product development project’s expected outcome or conclusion. On the other hand, roadmapping lays down the steps to take to achieve the stated vision. A product vision should be in line with the company’s business goals.
- Market and competitor analysis: A product manager should understand the target market for the product. Understanding the market will help a manager develop a plan to penetrate it and succeed. Also, analyzing competitors will provide insights into pricing, barriers to entry, and more.
- Product development strategy creation: A product manager develops a product development strategy that covers everything from assigning tasks to product launch and marketing. The strategy will serve as a guide for the entire product development process.
- User research: Product managers conduct interviews or use on-site UX surveys to discover and understand the critical issues customers face. They then identify the most relevant problems to solve and task product designers with creating features to solve those problems.
- Determine metrics for success: A product manager will track the product development process before and after launch to measure its success. Metrics managers track to measure a project’s success include customer lifetime value (LTV), customer acquisition cost (CAC), monthly recurring revenue (MRR), customer conversion rate, and churn rate.
- Business management: Managing the business requires coordinating cross-functional teams, including sales and marketing teams, to achieve desired results.
- Implement best practices: The product manager will coordinate the development process to ensure it adheres to the latest industry best practices. Also, the manager’s supervision should ensure that the finished app or website meets the stated product requirements.
A product manager should have many of the same skills as a product designer, as well as the following:
- Strategic thinking: Building a product vision and roadmap that aligns with business goals requires strategic thinking. Strategic thinking involves identifying opportunities and challenges and leveraging them to build a plan for achieving long-term goals.
- Project management: A product manager coordinates everyone involved in the product development process. Coordinating multiple team members to achieve the same goal requires project management skills.
- Agile product development: Modern product managers apply agile product development practices to collaborate effectively and iterate quickly. The final goal of agile product development is to build high-quality user-centric products.
- UX/UI design: A product manager doesn’t personally code or design, but they should still be knowledgeable about the process. Otherwise, they will lack the ability to supervise and vet a product designer’s work effectively.
- Data analysis: A product manager should track and analyze user behavior, product usage, and market trends to inform product decisions.
- Communication: Product managers manage and collaborate with cross-functional teams. They also interact with customers and other stakeholders. A product manager can’t fulfill these roles without effective communication skills.
- Empathy: A product manager who can’t empathize with user problems and pain points will have trouble understanding the target market. If a product manager can’t understand the target market, they can’t coordinate product development to provide a solution that satisfies user needs.
- Marketing: Since a product manager handles the business side of product development, they must have the skills to understand and exploit the market landscape. This includes knowing how to reach out to potential users and convert them into paying customers who generate revenue.
Product designer vs. product manager: The key differences?
After viewing our product designer vs. product manager comparison, you can see both experts play important and sometimes overlapping roles during digital product development. However, you shouldn’t use the titles interchangeably because their exact responsibilities and skill sets are different. Below are the five main differences that set the two roles apart:
Product designers focus more on designing and building a SaaS product with a superb user experience and visual design. Delivering such results requires ensuring that the product looks attractive and has a seamless and intuitive interface that matches user preferences.
Product managers, on the other hand, focus on the overall business strategy. They guide the development process to ensure that the final product meets user needs and the company's strategic goals and objectives.
Most product designers have mastered design, user experience, and visual arts. They also have prototyping, wireframing, and coding skills. Product managers can have the same background as designers but with added business skills. A product manager’s skills typically include market analysis, marketing, project management, and business strategy.
Product designers manage product design, prototyping, and testing. They also optimize user experience to ensure optimal user engagement and satisfaction. On the other hand, product managers take care of product roadmapping, feature prioritization, and everything else needed to ensure a successful development process. Also, managers ensure seamless collaboration between teams across the company and that the final product matches stated business goals.
Product managers generally charge more for their services because they have bigger responsibilities. Also, the actions and decisions of product managers have a greater business impact than a product designer’s.
Product designers answer to product managers because managers monitor and supervise the design team’s work. For example, a product designer must get approval for designs and iterations from the product manager. If an iteration does not tally with business goals or user needs, the manager will rein in the design team to make necessary corrections.
Which should you hire?
Hiring product managers and designers can benefit your product development process, but which expert should you hire? Below are the factors to consider to help you decide who to hire when looking at product designer vs. product manager.
- Project goal: If your priority is to develop a user-centric product that solves user problems and satisfies user needs, an experienced product designer is ideal. On the other hand, hire a product manager if your priority is to build a product that meets business goals. The business goal may be revenue generation, niche domination, or something else. Your manager will guide the development process to ensure it aligns with achieving your stated goals.
- Skills and experience: Product managers have relevant experience in market research, product strategy, and business development. The typical product designer is more experienced in user research, interaction design, and visual design. Hire the expert with the experience and skills most relevant to your project.
- Team composition: Do you already have a product designer? If so, round up your team by hiring a product manager. On the other hand, if you already have a business expert on your team but lack UI or UX expertise, then hire a product designer.
Product designer vs. product manager – Do you need both?
Creating a great product and having a smooth product development process requires a product manager and product designer. With the expertise of a product designer and manager, your product development team can look forward to benefits like:
- Better understanding of user requirements: Having a product manager and designer means you have an expert who understands user needs and another who can turn identified needs into product features. Combining these skills leads to a customer-centric product that delivers an impressive user experience.
- Cross-functional team collaboration: A product designer handles mostly the graphic, UX, and UI design aspects of product development. However, developing a SaaS product requires the expertise of other professionals. Having a product manager on your team facilitates teams across your organization working together to ensure product development succeeds.
- Improved development process efficiency: Your company is more likely to achieve its stated business goals if you have a product manager. The manager will guide your development process, ensuring the design team’s efforts align with your business goals.
- Faster time-to-market: A product manager ensures that product development completes on time, preventing cost overruns and launch delays. With a product manager monitoring your project, design teams can iterate quickly within the agreed time frame, leading to fast time-to-market.
In summary, having a product manager and designer on your team brings different perspectives and skill sets to the table. The collaboration ensures that your finished product is functional, user-friendly, attractive, and aligned with business objectives. If your product solves your customers’ most pressing concerns and provides an excellent user experience, your SaaS company is more likely to succeed.
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