The Product Design Department

What is the role of the product design department?

I have always felt that the product design department should bring creativity, empathy, cognitive science, and problem solving to every possible facet of a company. Unfortunately, this is usually not the case. Design is often relegated to “make it look pretty” tasks. It is my belief that design’s role should centered around the following topics:

Generating Value

Acquiring money is the reason most organizations exist. Every department in the company is there to help in that process. Sometimes the value generated is short term and sometimes long. A design department (and frankly everyone else) should think about their work in terms of how much value it generates.

The two metrics that ultimately matter are revenue and growth. This can come by increasing adoption, net new sales, upsells, or decreasing churn. As a designer, you should always be thinking about how the feature you are building can be marketed and sold.

One technique I use is to always design with realistic data. If you have a realistic situation the user would be in, with realistic data, then the sales and marketing folks will understand it better. Those screens could even be used in a sales cycle, as-is, before the product is even sold.

Lastly, design departments should think deeply about the vision of the company and create (in addition to their other work) prototypes that show how that future might unfold. This helps in many ways but most crucially helps the vision of the company come to life in front of people’s eyes. It inspires and helps create value. I call these “concept cars”.


Differentiation is the most strategic asset a company can have. Specifically in the field of technology, product differentiation helps avoid a “race-to-the-bottom” where the cheapest competitor wins. Differentiation allows a company to charge more and makes the custom base more fanatical. The question is “Where do the different ideas come from?”

The answer is the design department. After all, these are supposed to be the creative people. Unfortunately, this is something they do not teach in boot camps and HCI programs. It kills me that STEM is dominating in our schools and creativity programs are being cut. (Post for another day)

Differentiation allows the company (sales, marketing, training, etc) to rally behind that different method and capture large segments of the marketplace. If you are the only one who does something in a particular way, then you have a better chance to find loyal customers.

Company Alignment

Visionary companies are 1% vision and 99% alignment.

– Jim Collins & Jerry Porras–Harvard Business Review

Most people are stimulated more by the way something looks than by a textual description. The design department is uniquely skilled in making a textual description into visual representation. Whenever my team designs something, we start showing it to other people from every department in the company. The product is not yet built, but it starts to align people on what the vision and mission is. They can even give early feedback to avoid pitfalls.

Many organizations leave alignment up to the product management team. This is a lost opportunity for the design team to have a “seat at the table’. You don’t get a seat for just existing. You get a seat because you are an integral part of the process. When you are showing people designs and aligning them, you automatically gain credibility when decisions are being made. (Read about the details of the acceptance process)

Increasing Loyalty

In the book Do You Matter?: How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Company, Robert Brunner explains how design can make people care more about your company than your competition. I used these techniques at Marketo in multiple ways to create a marketing operations identity that people associated with strongly. Some techniques our design team worked on directly:

  1. Colorful, fun, and kinetic UI
  2. Strong emphasis on meetups and community forums
  3. Clear and enjoyable documentation
  4. Contributed to training, support, marketing, and sales processes

The design department can bring creativity, empathy, and design thinking to every other department. We even helped finance collect money more effectively. If your design team is not helping these other departments, it is a lost opportunity. If you manage a design team, you should be reaching out to these departments to build bridges so helping them is wanted and possible.


In my roles and responsibilities framework, I posited that PM should own the problem space and Product Design should own the solution space. However, there are different kinds of research and it gets complicated who should be driving what. For example, one can research the following areas:

  1. Markets: The personas and their problems
  2. Requirements: A target problem
  3. SME (Subject Matter Expertise): Specific domain of knowledge related to that problem
  4. Competitive: Alternative solutions to that problem
  5. Usability: How a particular design might perform for different groups
  6. Results: Usage, Sales, and other results

That is alot of different kinds of research and PM, Eng, and Design all need to know the details.

Key Question
Who does the original research, summarizes, and explains it to the other groups?

Here is a quick DACI model I would propose:

Type of ResearchProduct MarketingProduct ManagementProduct

You might think some of these should be driven by product design rather than product management. However, if product design drives, let’s say usability, then they would be coming up with lots of “problems”. If they are responsible for the solution then they would be responsible for both problem and solution. The product manager is still responsible for the priority of what gets worked on. However, they would not have had first hand knowledge of these problems and would likely deprioritize them.

Therefore, it is unwise for designers to be the driver of both. Thus, logically, PM should be the driver and design the contributor for most research.

Do you have usability problems? Maybe this is a possible root cause?

Current Design Departments

Let’s simplify it into two typical models:

Model 1: Strong Design

  • Equal Partner to PM/UX
  • Knows all of the details
  • Owns design decisions
  • Collaborates directly with Eng (sometimes without PM)
  • Relies on creativity, collaboration, and design
  • Design makes original flows (not PM)
  • Drives process and change management

Model 2: Weak Design

  • Does what PM and Eng says
  • Does not know all the details
  • Does not own design decisions (PMG/Eng do)
  • Never collaborates with eng without PM chaperone
  • Does user research / usability testing
  • Relies on data
  • PM makes original flows
  • PM drives process

Now, of course, it is a spectrum and companies often fall somewhere in the middle. Also, different people within the design department may fall intro different areas as well.

The main point of this post is that the Product Design department could be delivering more value than you may currently be getting from them. It all depends on what role they have and how they think about delivering value.


Whatya think?