A Designer’s Guide to Product Management: The Secret Sauce
What I learnt about turning my design background into product leadership superpowers at UNICEF.
“Great leaders give everyone something to believe in, not something to do”
— Simon Sinek
Four months ago, I ventured into the unfamiliar world of Product Management when I joined UNICEF’s Assistive Technology team. Being a designer, my previous experiences hadn’t explicitly taught me what cross-functional leadership or collaboration across various departments looks like.
However, in hindsight I realize that being a design practitioner had unknowingly been preparing me for the role and responsibilities this entire time!
I was tasked with heading design and development for C-Board: an assistive technology application built for children with complex communication needs.
While the experience was challenging at first, it encouraged me to grow in a fast-paced, hands on environment that facilitated ownership and impact. In this article, I encapsulate my learnings in a practical checklist on the under-recognized but indispensable qualities of an effective leader — the soft skills.
Matters of Mind: Mindset Matters
Differences in thinking between growth and fixed mindsets
“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
— Peter Drucker
- Love people as much as you love products
Go into your first meeting with the desire to get to know your team members for who they are as people: what are they passionate about? what do they like to do outside of work? what keeps them up at night? Take genuine interest in engaging with your coworkers and making good conversations. Being heard makes people feel appreciated, and will motivate them to do their best work!
- The role of humility in earning respect
Avoid taking all the credit for positive developments you feel personally responsible for. Your successes are owed to creating an environment where others are able to do their best work. Attribute your successes to the group: you are a team player more than you are a team leader. Stay humble and remember that your team’s admiration and respect are far more rewarding than stealing the spotlight.
- Celebrate failure and move on quickly
There is a saying that says “fail frequently and fast”. While I agree with failing fast, I don’t think frequent failure should be a goal by any means. Rely on the Double Diamond model and aim to fail systematically: test ideas early through quick prototypes and without heavy investment into them. Make sure you repeatedly ask ‘Why?’ and attempt to analyze the root cause — failing can lead to insights you may have otherwise missed.
- Keep contingency plans in mind for roadmaps
Get in the habit of regularly checking the initially established product timeline against the current state of affairs. It is good practice to leave wriggle room while creating roadmaps as things may not always work out as you intend them to. Use the MoSCoW technique (mentioned in the next section) to focus on highest priority tasks first and set realistic goals. Always account for the possibility of bugs, revisions, and other unforeseen complications.
One, Two, Three — Action!
A screenshot from our team’s Among Us themed Figma workspace
“Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.”
— Publilius Syrus
- Don’t forget to have fun!
This is probably the most important yet most underrated aspect of all. A major part of leading a team is also ensuring that people are satisfied and find their work meaningful and enjoyable. Try and take the extra step to customize things or decorate team workspaces! For example, when I learnt that the designers in our team love Among Us, I incorporated this into our Figma workspace and had them pick their avatar colors (pictured above).
- Prioritizing tasks: the MoSCoW technique
MoSCoW is a technique that makes you categorize tasks into Must Have’s, Should Have’s, Could Have’s and Won’t have this time’s. As someone who often got caught up in trying to incorporate the extra stuff, this approach helped me plan things more sequentially and effectively. It is good to shoot for bigger goals, but only after ensuring that this doesn’t compromise any aspects that are indispensable and crucial to the product’s success.
- Establish team culture and tone early on
Several research inquiries have found that norms tend to be emergent and established early on in a group. Thus, it is important to create a workplace that is friendly and welcoming in addition to all other key professional attributes. Collectively generating ‘Community Guidelines’ can help remove ambiguity by establishing expectations, plans of action in certain situations, and accountability through a participatory design approach.
- Balancing skills, interests and task assignments
If possible, allow people to set their tasks and own a certain feature: by taking ownership, they will be more likely to present higher quality work. Find the best fit for a task by evaluating skills and passions, and keep the roadmap and task difficulty in mind if someone is interested in trying something they don’t have prior experience with. Maintaining momentum in remote teams can be hard, so have people present work early and often.
Communicating with Care
Various forms and pathways of communication that a leader must engage in
“The art of communication is the language of leadership.”
— James Humes
- Encourage others to share ideas freely
If you give others room to grow and share their thoughts and ideas without feeling judged, you will be surprised at the diverse perspectives you can gather. Don’t shoot ideas down pre-emptively: make sure you are fully grasping what they are getting at by asking follow up questions to understand their reasoning. This approach will help everyone gain broader perspective and deeper insights in team meetings.
- Giving credit but sharing blame
It is important to pay attention to how you phrase certain statements. Make sure you recognize people and express gratitude early and often for the work they do: if someone did an amazing job on a task or made extra effort, highlight that at meetings! However, take collective responsibility through “We” statements if someone made a blunder instead of pointing fingers. Chat with them privately to offer support in fixing the situation.
- Constructive feedback instead of micromanagement
While reviewing other people’s work, make sure you are respectful yet genuine in your feedback. Ask questions such as “Did you consider X as a possible pathway? What made you choose Y instead?” and politely voice your concerns. Instead of micromanaging others by giving tiny, specific solutions, guide your team member to arrive at the answers themselves. Ensure that your team gets the support and resources needed to flourish.
- Speak less and listen more actively
If you constantly think about how you’ll respond while someone is talking to you, you’re doing it wrong. You can practice active listening by focusing solely on being in the moment. Summarizing key points and relaying them back to the speaker helps show attentiveness and establishes that you properly comprehended what they said. Nodding your head, maintaining eye contact and a forward leaning, open posture are good practice as well.
“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”
— Oprah Winfrey
Having the opportunity to work on this project was quite eye opening. It is now clearer to me than ever that I value compassion, inclusion and impact in my work.
My principles drive me to build products that push beyond simply “doing the job” by focusing on creating memorable and meaningful experiences instead.
Not only was our team able to successfully complete a complex project, but it also served as a defining experience for who I hope to be as a professional and what I stand for.
So, at this point you’re probably wondering…
What’s the secret sauce?
It is every good designer’s superpower — simple to grasp but challenging to perfect. Going into a product management role, applying this transferrable skill in all aspects of your work will not only allow you to motivate and inspire others, but also build products that are innovative, inclusive, and easily usable. Leaving all assumptions at the doorstep and seeking to understand every person for their unique selves is where true leadership begins.
I’m a product designer with a background in Cognitive Science and Psychology. Friends and coworkers tend to describe me as curious, perseverant, and team-oriented. 𝗠𝗶𝘀𝘀𝗶𝗼𝗻: Building equitable experiences, empowering communities, and striving for social good. 𝗖𝗼𝗺𝗺𝘂𝗻𝗶𝘁𝘆: 💌 Growing the largest 501(c)(3) intercollegiate volunteer community at 𝘋𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘭𝘰𝘱 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘎𝘰𝘰𝘥 🎨 Starting an accessible design community with educational and interactive events at 𝘍𝘳𝘪𝘦𝘯𝘥𝘴 𝘰𝘧 𝘍𝘪𝘨𝘮𝘢 💉 Creating a platform to track COVID-19 vaccine distribution management at 𝘉𝘭𝘰𝘤𝘬𝘤𝘩𝘢𝘪𝘯 𝘢𝘵 𝘉𝘦𝘳𝘬𝘦𝘭𝘦𝘺 𝗪𝗼𝗿𝗸: 🧘🏽♀️ Leading design for a soon to be launched VR mindfulness experience at the 𝘖𝘤𝘶𝘭𝘶𝘴 𝘚𝘵𝘢𝘳𝘵 𝘗𝘳𝘰𝘨𝘳𝘢𝘮 🔊 Prototyping an assistive technology app for children with complex communication needs at 𝘜𝘕𝘐𝘊𝘌𝘍 🎮 Designing the Sims and Bejeweled mobile gameplay as a game design intern at 𝘌𝘭𝘦𝘤𝘵𝘳𝘰𝘯𝘪𝘤 𝘈𝘳𝘵𝘴 𝗛𝗼𝗯𝗯𝗶𝗲𝘀: Singing opera, photorealistic 3D modelling, exploring sleep science, writing on Medium, and creating educational resources