Product Leads & Strategic Designers

by Luke Wroblewski July 31, 2006

In Design Group Organization I outlined the structural relationship between Product Leads (designers responsible for a specific business unit’s product designs) and Strategic Designers (designers who lead the integration of corporate strategy and product concepts) within a large design team. In this organizational model, Product Leads and Strategic Designers often work on the same product but in different roles and at varying capacities.

During the ideation phase of a new product, the Strategic Designer is heavily involved. They work with key business stakeholders and corporate or product strategy teams to illustrate a vision of success through product concepts. They use the power of narrative and visualization to collaboratively develop a product vision that corporate stakeholders ultimately sign-off on.

During this process, the Product Lead is involved but does not need to absorb the overhead of the strategy development process. As a result, they remain able to direct the efforts of their design team on existing products for which they remain responsible. The Strategic Designer is handling most of the hands-on work and meetings for the new product.

As the ideation phase moves closer to implementation the Product Lead becomes more involved. They begin to work closely with the Strategic Designer on more detailed information architecture and interaction design concepts. Gradually this process generates a complete design spec for the new product. During this period, the Strategic Designer’s involvement lessens as the Product Lead takes on ownership of the product.

Though having two designers working on the same product in different capacities may initially seem problematic, I’ve found the working relationship to work well in practice because of different designer skill sets and interests. In particular, some designers are tremendously adept at visualizing a complete product experience and how it maps to business and user goals. Other designers excel in the ability to get recurring product updates out the door quickly and efficiently.

These skills often correlate to career goals. Strategic Designers are likely to be motivated by opportunities in product and corporate strategy teams whereas Product Leads often prefer roles that enable more direct product ownership.