UX Designer as Product Owner

Posted on February 17, 2011.
UX Design vs. Product Design: A two-headed beast?
UX and Product Owner: The two-headed beast!

For the past 4 months I’ve been functioning as the Product Owner for my Scrum team. Interestingly, I’m also the UX designer for the team. Many articles point to the challenges, at times seemingly insurmountable, that this dual-role creates. While those challenges are indeed rearing their, err, challenging heads, let me recap how the team has worked through them.

Challenge #1: There is not enough time to be the PO and the UX person

Both roles are full-time jobs. How does one reconcile and/or prioritize the obligations pulling in different directions?

The answer is to get those obligations pulling in the same direction. The PO has the business’ needs in mind. The UX designer has the user in mind. But, the UX designer’s job is to bridge the gap of business and customer. By having both those needs clearly defined and in the same person’s brain, a synergy is created which allows the singular UXPO (yes, I like that) to conceive early design ideas that already conform to the business’ requirements.

Challenge #2: developers need constant direction about what’s coming in each iteration.

The UX designer, working in parallel with the rest of the team, is constantly providing assets, answers, and feedback. The PO is looking ahead to the next iteration, as well as the next theme. The challenge has been focusing on the present and the future at the same time.

The way I’ve handled this is by splitting my time in the iteration. Early in the cycle I work on the immediate needs of the team. The thing you’ll find is that even if you’re employing Lean UX tactics, you still design well ahead of the dev team’s capacity very quickly. This turns out to be a good thing when you’re the UXPO as it opens up days in iteration for you to look towards the next set of cycles. What I’ve also found effective is, as you’re deciding where to focus in the near-term, bringing in the team for quick brainstorms, affinity mapping exercises and design studios offers perspective, insight and a welcome (short) break for them from the monotony of long coding days.

But wait! There’s more! The added bonus is that by involving the scrum team in these activities, they’re a part of the planning, know exactly what’s coming up and are already bought in to the plan (because they helped create it).

Challenge #3: Approval cycles can be notoriously long. How can the UXPO keep the trains moving while securing executive buy-in for the team’s efforts?

To solve this challenge I’ve had to become a UXPOlitician (hot!). I have a vision of where I’d like the product to go. While we execute tactically on the immediate needs I’m constantly chatting, formally and informally, with my internal stakeholders. We bounce our new ideas off of them and get a read of the general vibe. This shapes the vision and we discuss it further. By having these conversations well upstream in the process, our review cycles focus on the very tactical elements of the work – not the strategic choices we’ve made. Those decisions were settled a while back outside of the iteration machinery allowing us to keep the cyclical nature of Agile development moving forward at constant and, hopefully, increasing velocities.

These are just three challenges I’ve faced as the UXPO. What have you faced? How have you solved it?


18 thoughts on “UX Designer as Product Owner

  1. Great post! Wondering what your thought are on the skill set needed to be successful as a UXPO. Because we have such a small UX team, a lot of our POs will have to take on the UX designer role as well – becoming UXPOs. However, they do not have a UX background. I am a little concerned that the PO side of their brain will dominate. Hoping some good mentoring will counter that. Thoughts?

    1. I’ve found good PM/POs can get user-centered concepts but translating that into good UX design is a harder nut to crack. I may be biased but while I’ve seen many UX people grow into PM/POs, I haven’t seen many product managers grow into good designers. I’ve seen more success in finding a way to relieve PM/POs of the burden of providing UX by growing that role in the team.

      1. Tim, I agree that not many product managers have grown into good designers, but, I see the reason to be more around perceptions on career progression than around skills. Before taking on a formal UX role/title, I had transitioned from being a BA who did UI design on all my projects to being a product manager highly engaged in UX . My experience in product management actually helped me get better at UX design. I now focus on UX more than PdM simply because I enjoy it a lot more, but, on projects where I land up playing a dual role, I like that I can influence the product roadmap through the insights I gain from UX research.

    1. Very true. Notice I didn’t say it was easy or desirable 🙂 but for those caught in this role, I thought these tactics could help. nnThanks. nn[Jeff]

    1. It’s not easy and, as mentioned below, not necessarily something I’m advocating. However, I know folks find themselves in this position, as I have, and these tactics have worked for me to keep the trains running and the experience good.nn[Jeff]

  2. Having the UX guy act as the PO is not unusual. The PO is a Team Member who usually does something else, be it architecture, business analysis, project management, coding, whatever. However, when a Team Member puts that big bullseye on his chest (becomes the PO) things change. There is never enough time to do it all. Luckily, you have discovered the solution – let the Team self-organize to help. Remember that all the responsibilities you have (except for that bullseye) are actually responsibilities for the whole Team – that’s the definition of self-organization. Let your Team shoulder the load, let the ScrumMaster facilitate, and wear that bullseye proudly!

  3. Might work on a small team. Can’t help but wonder what would happen when the CEO tells the UXPO that they need to trade-off some aspects of design in order to meet a certain budget number. Could the UX side of you be able to swallow your pride and principles for the sake of the ROI that keeps a product afloat?

    1. You bring up a fair point. I think many UXPO’s would have a hard time playing down their UX side to appease a metrics-driven request. That being said, a good UXPO would work hard to find a solution that met the business’ needs AND maintained the best experience possible.nn[Jeff]

  4. I held this position with a previous employer (client-side) and it was the most satisfying role I ever held.

    It was an awful lot of hard work at the start when the team was new and unaccustomed to working in this manner, because a large element was team leadership. But I was able to prioritise user stories based on their value to the company and customer rather than trying to balance a portfolio of different products and projects all vying for attention.

    Finally the team became more settled – sprint planning and scrums became routine and the scrum master was able to manage the day-to-day running, so as Head of UX I could focus on my main role and include prioritising the changes on the website.

  5. I agree with your  sentiments, especially in terms of “Lean UX” it makes a lot of sense. 

    Are we assuming that this is good practice for startups and small teams only? In this case I would agree – a UXPO is healthy for the good reasons you make above. Spot on. :)Larger operations however I think are a totally different matter because the risks and responsibilities are higher. As @markoot:disqus and @twitter-178018154:disqus suggested, it’s asking a lot. The POs responsibility is to take the business requirements from the stakeholders and organise the team to ensure they produce something that meets those requirements. The responsibility for the PO can be huge and if a wrong decision is made, it could be disastrous. Therefore it requires complete focus as there is a lot to take into consideration. At the same time, the lead UX designer has a similar level of responsibility but this time to ensure that the design is successful to meet user needs, also taking into account the business requirements. This too requires focus because again if wrong decisions are made, its bad news.If these roles are combined its just way too much load on this single person.

    In this case going back to your tweet (http://twitter.com/#!/jboogie/statuses/89317791416598528), there needs to be clear definition between UxD and PO in terms of prioritisation in the backlog. I’m not suggesting UxDs shouldn’t be involved in the prioritisation process, I do myself for example because its important for communication. But if the business responsibilities lie with the PO, this is where it should stay. If a UxD starts to take this on, blurred boundaries could make understanding where faults lie down the line very difficult. Therefore, as a UxD, I advocate that priorities are set by someone else to keep this clean. It doesn’t mean though that we are less effective.

    So I guess the question is, where should the line be drawn in terms of organisation size when they should switch from startup UXPO to separate PO and UxD responsibilities?

  6. Am curious if you are also a visual designer or what deliverables do you produce as the UXPO? Also, do you have a background in User Experience or more of a background in Product Ownership? Thanks!

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