A product manager’s guide to making design decisions

You can’t make a decision if you don’t know what your options are.

A popular, profitable product is nothing but a series of product decisions made right. We product managers know that the roadmaps, backlogs and estimations don’t count at all. Not compared to the product itself anyway.

We have to build something that people love and are ready to pay for. And we have to get there first, otherwise someone else will. So the most important part is to make a few critical product decisions fast. If you can do it, you can give momentum to your not-so-shiny product, get better numbers, and become a hero in your team.

So, what does it take to make those decisions?

1) Options over instincts

You can’t make a decision if you don’t know what your options are. That’s obvious, but most people don’t take ideation and brainstorming seriously enough.

Many product people think of themselves as some weird version of Steve Jobs, who can find out the best solutions alone by simply looking at the problem.

Aside from the fact that this mindset ruins your team morale, the sad truth is that, in most cases, your first ideas are not the best possible solutions.

A wise product manager gives space to the team to ideate. Sometimes, you even have to push them a little bit to do it.

Designers, for example, are usually the creative types. It’s their profession to ideate, so they know how to do it well and how to involve other people, too. A good design team can help a lot in finding possible solutions to your problems. It’s very easy when someone maps the solution space for you and you just have to choose the best direction.

2) Customer insights over opinions

Picture this – self-confident ‘leaders’ in the same room fighting endlessly about a topic. Familiar situation? Surprisingly enough, asking more smart people doesn’t always help you make better decisions.

What actually helps is gathering more and better customer insights. You as a PM need to be the one in the room who knows your customers the best. You have to know their pains, struggles and successes. Their problems and goals. You even have to know them better than they know themselves. That is your job.

To achieve that, you will need to get fresh customer insights regularly. You have to do interviews, user tests, field research, etc. Of course, you could say that it’s very time consuming, and you would be right.

At my company, UX Studio, we delegate designers to clients, but also, one or more UX researchers, too. It’s a highly convenient setting when there is someone on your team who’s sole responsibility is to bring fresh customer insights to you every single week. These insights can help you to cut the debate short, and make better decisions within a short timeframe.

Field research at an airport

3) Better questions over numbers

Data-driven company, right? In our digital world we have the luxury of making decisions based on hard facts. Or do we? Most people underestimate the effort needed to get useful data.

The best companies have dedicated data teams. If you don’t have one, you can still appoint someone from your developers to help you in answering the questions based on real data. But you will also need someone who can ask the right questions.

When we design apps, we usually ask a lot of questions like “How many users tried this function within the first week?” Oftentimes, we just can’t get answers from the technology side.

In a nutshell: have someone who can ask the right questions and someone who can mine the data and come up with an answer.

4) Participation over bureaucracy

The best is when everybody is in the room when it comes to making decisions. Things can get slow when someone who has to be involved isn’t available.

We work in week-long design sprints, and we learned early that every party needs to be represented on our weekly design meetings. So, we always make sure to send a meeting invitation to at least one business leader and someone from the developers to attend.

Our designer can present the ideas they had come up with the last week and our researcher can tell about all the user insights they can think of –  but without every stakeholder at the table, it’s all just words. Design, business and development need to make decisions together, on the spot.

So, what are you supposed to do when one of the top managers has to be involved but he’s impossible to get hold of? My best advice is to identify the most important decision points, and start to organize a meeting 2-3 weeks before those.

You need some experience to know when those points will come, but it’s not impossible. We usually have a short week-by-week plan for the coming 1-2 months, so we know when we will need others to participate.

Our team facilitating a persona workshop with the decision-makers at HBO Europe

5) Common ground for everyone

Sometimes you don’t even have to be involved in decision-making. If everyone is on the same page, your teammates can make decisions without you.

But how can you trust your developers, for instance, to know everything about your business and make the right decisions all the time?

If they, too, take part in product-planning brainstorming sessions and workshops, they won’t come to you with everything.

When we start working with a new team, we usually first do a persona workshop together to clarify who we are building the product for, and we together identify their goals, problems and motivations. We always insist that product owners invite not only marketing and strategy people, but also at least one person from the dev team. This way, we make sure everyone is on the same page, even before starting anything.

In my experience, those PMs that apply these five simple directions into account make better product decisions, and faster.

Brainstorm with the team, listen to customers, dive into the numbers when it is needed, invite everyone to build a common ground, and be there for the important moments.

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