Caroline Miller, Senior Product Manager, with Alice Toth, Lead Product Designer
At Stride, designers and product managers collaborate throughout the entire product development lifecycle This leads to a richer and better-rounded understanding of both stakeholder and user needs. The earliest design and product collaboration opportunity is during stakeholder and user interviews.
Read on to learn about best practice for the division of responsibilities between design and product for both stakeholder and user interviews.
Creating a Discussion Guide
Once the stakeholders and primary users have been identified, the product manager and designer meet to discuss their overall goal for each interview and the details they’re looking to get out of the participants. The outcome of this collaboration is a discussion guide that will help keep them on track during the interviews.
This guide isn’t a script but rather a collection of questions and topics that are closely tied to the interview goals. Having a guide, rather than a script, allows for conversational tangents during the interview while providing a reminder to collect the core information. These guides, by the way, are not static. If multiple participants are bringing up a similar topic, update the guide to explore that topic in future interviews.
Clarifying Interview Roles
Designating the facilitator and notetaker roles beforehand results in a smoother interview and yields better results. The facilitator leads the conversation, manages the overall direction, and keeps an eye on the clock in order to wrap up the interview in a timely manner. The notetaker keeps track of what was said and highlights any nuances or emotion, along with any new topics uncovered during the conversation.
As to who takes on which role, our preference is to have the person responsible for leading that segment of discovery do the facilitation. Their familiarity with the interview’s primary focus allows them to better direct the conversation towards the information needed to create any post-interview artifacts and determine next steps. Generally, product managers facilitate stakeholder interviews and designers facilitate user interviews.
The stakeholders to be interviewed are likely domain or product experts within the organization. They can provide the team with context for the overall project by explaining the business domain and the problem that needs solving.
One-on-one interviews with stakeholders are a great opportunity to build a relationship with them by eliciting their ideas; hearing their concerns, issues, and risks; and learning what success means to them. In addition, interviews can uncover any prior research or artifacts that may be relevant to the current problem. All this information helps the team in their journey to prioritize the business problems.
For stakeholder interviews, the best practice is to have the product manager facilitate the interview and the designer participate by bringing their perspective to the table to ensure that the user-specific objectives are met.
Designer Objectives in Stakeholder Interviews
In addition to understanding the business domain, the designer is also looking to gain an understanding of the current process and the users who are directly or indirectly involved. The designer is looking for the stakeholder’s view of what the users need to accomplish.
The stakeholder’s most valuable input is explaining the end goal that the business wants the user to achieve, not necessarily how the user should achieve it. The information from these interviews feeds directly into the designer creating models for both the users and the domain.
From a user interface perspective, the designer is also looking to understand how this new product (or updated product) fits into the digital product ecosystem. Or, if there are no other products, whether or not the stakeholder has given thought to how they want this one to be perceived. In that regard, both design systems and change management are topics that should be touched upon and explored in more depth in later discussions.
Although there are many contexts in which a product team should talk to users, here we’ll focus on the "generative" user interviews that often take place at the beginning stages of a product life cycle. These interviews cover the users' current workflow and a typical day in their life.
Through this, the designer gains an understanding of the problems that the product team can then prioritize, along with any limitations that the existing systems or solutions present. This helps the team align on a user-centric way of problem-solving.
The designer leads this process and facilitates the interview. The product manager participates by bringing their business-specific context and objectives to the table during the interviews.
Product Manager Objectives in User Interviews
The art of product development that both designers and product managers must practice involves finding the overlap between the business objectives and the users' needs. To that end, the product manager’s key responsibility is to define the product vision and prioritize the roadmap to achieve that vision. The roadmap and vision are informed by many factors, such as: stakeholder perspectives, the competitive landscape, product-market fit, and the business objectives.
In addition to these, user input is a major contributor to the roadmap. It helps validate and de-risk the assumptions that underlie the priorities and ideas that come from other sources and stakeholders. In user interviews, the product manager should be listening for whether the user’s needs align to the product vision and business goals, or if previously held assumptions about user needs should be re-thought.
Talking to users will also reveal needs and features that haven’t been previously considered. Throughout interviews, the product manager should listen for those insights with a focus on evaluating whether helping to solve those problems for users is supportive of the business goals for the product.
We hope these thoughts will encourage you to pair with your design or product counterpart more often. If you’re already pairing, let us know what works for you! What practices best enhance your product-design collaboration? How has pairing made your product better?