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Product Manager vs. Project Manager: Why Great UX Demands Both

Jerry Cao
By Jerry Cao on 9th February, 2016 Updated on 22nd April, 2020

With the rise of Agile and Lean methodologies, companies are clamoring to redesign their infrastructures in a simpler and more efficient way.

Project managers and product managers are usually tasked with rallying the team behind these new workflows.

In this piece, we’ll clear up any misunderstanding around project managers and product managers. The two roles, while related, handle completely different responsibilities (which means the same person shouldn’t perform double duty).

Let’s start with a crash course. 

What is a Product Manager?

The product manager handles the big picture of the product development.

They’re like the “godfathers” of the product. Often the product itself is their brainchild, and their focus is less on the day-to-day endeavors and more on the overall strategies to make the product successful in the market.

A product manager’s skill set lies within understanding the market and the customers. They are typically the advocate of the end user in business discussions — after all, the product’s success hinges on widespread adoption. Consequently, they’re in charge of knowing what the user needs, both in the product’s overall service and in a focused feature set.

The product manager is the one who asks, “What problem does the product solve?” In this role, they deal closely with UX and user flows.

As explained in The Guide to UX Design Process, their main responsibilities include:

  • Strategic idea creation — Drawing on their knowledge of the market and customer base, they must brainstorm new product ideas to target business goals.
  • Feature creation — Likewise, they suggest the features to increase the chances of success.
  • Staying current with market trends — Basic marketing skills.
  • Direct contact with the customer — Speaking directly with target customer groups to deliver what they want with more precision.
  • Dictate KPIs — State the performance indicators on which a product’s development and success can be measured.
  • Prioritize release dates — For products, features, and updates.
  • Create “blueprint” documentations — i.e., use cases or user flows.
  • Prioritize bug lists — Determining which bugs needs to be fixed first, and which can wait.
  • Work with engineering — To make sure their ideas are feasible.

The success of a product manager is the success of the product itself. Success is triangulated through sales volume, user feedback, and technical performance.

What is a Project Manager?

Project managers deal with the logistics: financial concerns, team resourcing, and meeting deadlines and scope. While they keep their distance from the actual design details, project managers look after the project as a whole and keep it on track.

Product managers create the roadmap communicating product strategy. Project managers create the timeline to execute each necessary step.  

A project manager’s most important skill set lies within understanding and organizing the team. Good project managers are masters of logistics. Great project managers are masters of relationships.

Main responsibilities include:

  • Setting schedules and deadlines — With their understanding of their team’s abilities and limitations, they set realistic project milestones.
  • Monitoring the budget — They keep the teams within financial constraints.
  • Cross-team organization — They act as liaison between all departments, both as manager and messenger.
  • Resource management — Determining where resources are needed and allocating them.
  • Problem resolution — Smoothing over any personal or process issues.
  • Status updates — Keeping stakeholders, as well as other departments, informed on the the product’s status.
  • Risk management — Foreseeing and avoiding potential risks or setbacks.
  • Scope management — Making the tough calls to balance time, cost, and quality.

Their duty is less about the product itself, and more about the procedure. Even if the product is a flop, a project manager is technically successful if the team came through on time, under budget, and met their KPIs.

The product manager, however, will have failed.

Why You Need Both

Of course, the responsibilities overlap between the two positions.

Both require excellent management and organization skills. Both require communication skills, to properly convey their ideas to multiple departments. And both require creating and meeting deadlines, though in different ways: Product managers consider market sensibilities for the timing of releases; project managers consider day-to-day deadlines to keep the entire project on schedule.

Despite the similarities, though, you still should have two different people fill each position.

Why? The short answer is that you can’t set aside enough hours in a day for a single person to fulfill the product strategy and product development process.   

Both jobs require different types of thinking as well:  

  • Product managers lean towards the abstract and creative. Their duties involve coming up with new, never-before-seen ideas (although grounded in the realities of the market and user needs). This generally involves a looser, more open mindset.
  • Project managers, on the other hand, seem to be the exact opposite. They think in concrete and logical terms, taking the abstract ideas handed to them and turning them into realities. While the product managers are asking, “What if…” project managers are asking, “How should…” They act as a reality check on the product manager, internal stakeholders, and the designers themselves.

The two roles complement each other. They examine the project from two different perspectives: one from the view of external success, the other from internal success.

Great product design is the equal result of tension and collaboration. The same person working for both sides may create a conflict of interest that’s hard to detect until revealed in the product . 

Product managers and UX teams should push the the boundaries of what an organization can deliver to meet market demand. Project managers, on the other hand, need to then push back on that vision to ensure the team doesn’t burn out. 

In the middle of that viability vs. feasibility debate is where true product innovation starts to take shape. 

For more UX and product management advice, check out the free Agile UX Survival Guide. The book is written by Germaine Satia, a product manager with nearly a decade of experience. 

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Download the e-book now. 

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