Program Managers vs. Interaction designers

Recently Joel on Software posted about how to be a program manager and he lists UI design as one of the skills program managers should be responsible for. It’s no surprise that people who call themselves UI designers, such as the folks on on the interaction design mailing list, have taken notice and are mostly unhappy.

(Back story: The idea of program managers, roughly a sergeant level generalist who drives projects, is an idea I like.  It’s a job role Microsoft started in the late 1980s . It’s a job I had in the 90s).

Which gets to the question of should PMs do design.

The easy answer is yes, if they are good at it. Most are not. Most do not know this because they’ve never met an interaction designer, someone who does it professionally for a living. Simply because Fred is better at it than his peers, he assumes he is good. It’s not his fault exactly. Most computer science programs and business schools never talk to design schools. Certainly not about how much they need to learn from the other. And most program managers in the world are hired from computer science and business schools.

Anyway, the better teams at Microsoft figured this out over a decade ago. They did one of:

  • Hired full time UI designers and usability engineers.  (In 2003, when I left, there were over 400 of these people employed at Microsoft).
  • Created a special role called a UI PM, who was the PM good at design who led the UI work.
  • Or both.

VPs that cared about ease of use invested in these assets, and just as important, built a culture around ease of use taking priority over other considerations.

However, in most cases the above investments had moderate impact on product quality because these people never receive sufficient power to overcome the other 20 PMs running around. Sometimes all the PMs are ignored anyway by the programmers but they are in denial about it, so it’s moot until that fight for power gets sorted out.

The program manager model is just one idea for diving up work. It’s a good model, but does have it’s problems. On larger teams it’s too easy for PMs to get lost in their egos and self-interests, each one fighting to make a great feature, inside of what becomes a mediocre product.  It’s also a role that depends on culture, you can’t just graft it on and expect it to work as it impacts everyone.

Program management works best on smaller teams, or in organizations where the PM can have significant power. Once you have 15 or 20 of them running around it gets hard to sort things out. Imagine 15 or 20 film directors trying to work on a film together. If you give them enough power, you don’t need many film directors. And if you don’t need many, it’s easier to find ones with all of the talents you want, including the ability to design user interfaces.

The bottom line: program managers are generalists

At the end of the day it doesn’t matter who makes the UI design decisions provided they are good and they ship.  If you’re a PM, your primary obligation is the quality of what goes out the door. If you have someone other than you available who is good at design, your top priority should be to get out of their way, just as you would for someone good at programming, testing, or any other role. Find other things to do to keep busy – I’m sure they exist. The value of the PM, or any manager, is their ability to fight for the best use of everyone’s time, including their own.

If ease of use is truly important in what you’re making, odds are it deserves the attention of a specialist or two who can dedicate their energy to it. If nothing else, they can teach you some of the stuff you don’t know you need to know. PMs can rarely dedicate their attention to anything, as their value is their ability to co-ordinate and lead.

The bestselling book I wrote about program management, Making Things happen, has several nice chapters about how to lead design and customer research, and advocates the above advice.

5 Responses to “Program Managers vs. Interaction designers”

  1. Vishal Iyer

    While the role of a User Experience Designer is still evolving, I’m not aware of many companies that don’t have them.

    Developers designing the interface was a paradigm that was prevalent until around 10 years or so back (its still exists in many places, especially in enterprise/internal tools), but Program/ Project Managers doing it is something alien to me. Can you point to some instances where this happens in practice?

  2. Scott

    I have to say first off that I’ve seen just about every single role in software development own UI design decisions at one company or another. Just because I’ve seen it doesn’t mean it worked well or I’ve seen it often, but having an instance doesn’t mean much.

    That said – at just about any startup company in history, the programmers were in fact also project managers, also designers, also testers, and also marketers. That’s the strongest example I can offer: when there is enough work to be done, and few people, role definition doesn’t matter much.

    Game designers, much like film directors, drive creative work and some project management decisions as well. Pick your favorite game of the last 5 years and I’m sure people in leadership roles had their hand in design as well.

    The Microsoft PM model dates back to the 1980s. Most major consumer products from Microsoft since then had Program Managers who likely designed some, if not much, of the user interfaces in the product.

    Netscape, Aldus, Adobe, and just about any other 1980s or 1990s software company often had lead programers, the managers of line level programmers, who made feature decisions, if not user interface decisions.

  3. Drew Kime

    “Simply because Fred is better at it than his peers, he assumes he is good.”

    I’ve often had the opposite experience. I’ve worked with people who were *supposed* to be the specialists. And I kept asking questions that seemed obvious to me and they respond, “Oh, yeah. I guess so.”

    Yes, I’m talking large enterprise internal IT, where it’s rare that anyone *on* the team had a hand in *building* the team. You get whoever is available, based on HR classification.

    It’s incredibly frustrating to spend half of every day thinking to yourself, “But *you’re* supposed to be the expert in this stuff!”

  4. Scott

    Drew: Sure, incompetence is everywhere! :)

    My sole point was that someone might be undeniably a local UI expert, and still not be very good at UI design. He just has no way of knowing.

    Well, that’s not true. There are plenty of ways on this little internet thing to find out where you stand, but most people aren’t looking hard to find out what they don’t know. Or looking for tough feedback on things they take pride in.

  5. Vishal Iyer

    You refer to the classic hard v/s soft skills issue. We really don’t need journalists, graphic designers, architects, artists etc do we?

    Its also common in start-up’s to have developers do business modeling & strategies too, but that changes as the company grows. Developers are no doubt the starting point for most start-ups, its the tech industry after all…but User Experience designers are now standard fare in the average Fortune 500 company.

    The most common model I’ve seen in recent times (specifically web companies like Yahoo, eBay, AOL etc) is to have separate dev, design teams who in turn report to Business leads. That seems to be an appropriate model to me.


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