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The Product Manager’s Role in Software Usability

There was another fantastic post a few weeks back from Scott Selhorst over at Tyner Blain. This entry from his foundation series had Scott covering the topic of user experience disciplines. Software UI design is an area that has been near and dear to my heart ever since I majored in human factors engineering as an undergrad. From then on, regardless of my official role on a software team I have always tried to apply what few UED skills remain in my toolbox to try to deliver software where the users have been a prime consideration.

Scott’s post was followed by a reply on Roger Cauvin’s blog and an unrelated entry from Joel Spolsky. All of these got me thinking about the contribution that a Product Manager should make as it relates to software usability. I see there being three UED aspects to our role.

First, the Product Manager must help the rest of the team understand how the user expects the system to behave. This key contribution to effective user interface design is a fantastic insight that Joel Spolsky boils down to a single sentence-

Something is usable if it behaves exactly as expected.

Seems almost laughably simple, but I think it is a non-obvious concept that all Product Managers should work to internalize. I don’t know if we need to follow Joel’s advice and tattoo it backwards on our foreheads, but it would probably make a great quote to stick on a post-it on your computer monitor whenever you are doing work that will directly impact the user experience.

Next, effective Product Managers must help their teams measure whether or not they are meeting the users’ expectations. This is the point made by Roger in his reply to the Tyner Blain post.

Your product manager’s role is not to be an information architect, graphic designer, or usability expert. However, she should specify, in measurable terms, how usable the product should be. The usability requirements are the metrics by which we judge whether the designers have done a good job.

Although we have to realize that sometimes user expectations will be purely subjective and impossible to quantify, product managers must do their best to create measurable criteria by which usability requirements can be evaluated.

Finally, the Product Manager must be a key advocate for usability and the overall user experience. What exactly this aspect of the role entails will be different from company to company.

In some small startups, the Product Manager may need to be the person to step up and lobby for the hiring of information architects and graphic designers. If those resources can’t be acquired for some reason I agree with Roger that Product Managers should not try to take the place of the experts, but we must instead do whatever we can to at least bring those voices into the process by any means possible. Even if is nothing more than applying a little knowledge picked up from reading The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, injecting some small amount of user-focused design into the engineering process is something that a Product Manager must be willing and able to do when needed.

In larger companies with dedicated UED resources the Product Manager will be able to focus more on being the canary in the coal mine. Do the up front work to understand the users’ expectations and create measurable requirements for the design team, but then be ever vigilant and prepared to raise the alarm if usability starts to fall ever so slightly out of the software development equation.

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