Is product a UX rival or partner?
Friends or foe?
Friend or foe?
12 January 2023
Sometimes it can feel like UX and product are pit against each other. But remember: we’re all on the same team.
Venus and Serena. Tom and Jerry. FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. 
What do these individuals, characters, and football teams have in common? When they meet, whether it’s on the tennis court, in an animated short film, or on the football pitch, their—and our—emotions are heightened because of their well-publicized rivalry.
According to the Oxford Language Dictionary, a rival is “a person or thing competing with another for the same objective or for superiority in the same field of activity.”
UX research and product. Are we rivals?
Let’s break that down a bit more. Are we competing for the same thing?
When it comes to the tasks that make up our work roles, the answer is: yes, we are in competition. 
Rivals compete for the same thing
This rivalry is well illustrated by a 2021 Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g) article entitled UXers and Product Managers Both Say Others Intrude on Their Work (part two here). They asked their respondents questions stemming from the following topics:
  1. Do other roles overstep on the work of PM and UX, and, if so, how often? 
  2. Which roles overlap with PM and UX? 
  3. Why does duplicative work happen? 
  4. What are the effects of work overlap? 
  5. Who do PM and UX think is responsible for which activities and deliverables? 
  6. Who holds the power at the organization?
The results from the survey with UXers and PMs (372 responses) provide evidence that UX and product are often duplicating work. The survey found that role overlap is common, and overlap is particularly pronounced according to UXers. Further, UXers feel the job overlap results in a negative impact—and this perception is significantly more pronounced for UXers than for PMs.
Let’s focus on research practice in particular. The NN/g survey asked respondents about three research tasks: discoveries, user interviews, and user testing. For all three tasks, PMs and UXers differed significantly in the extent to which they assigned them. 
For example, 19 percent of PMs said discovery was UX’s job, and 73 percent of UXers thought it was their job. Less than half (46 percent) of PMs thought it was UX’s job to perform user testing, while 88 percent of UXers wanted this responsibility. 
These views extend beyond who does the task to which topic should be researched: “Deciding which areas the UX team will research was the clearest example of appropriation: UXers thought UX should do it and PMs thought that PM should do it.”
Doesn’t sound great, does it? 
But wait. Let’s back up for a second.
Is this NN/g survey representative of what’s happening at your workplace? Maybe. But maybe not. 
Company roles are not equal to roles held by a global discipline 
As a UX researcher starting a new role, did you have any assumptions on your first day? For example, that you were going to clash with PMs or POs? 
How did you feel when you were reading the results of the survey above? A bit disturbed? Anxious? (Especially about how one of the largest sources of conflict relates to research tasks?). Maybe I’m assuming here, but I see researchers talk about this conflict all the time.
Like with Venus and Serena, Tom and Jerry, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, the rivalry between research and product is often discussed. Like here. And here. And here
However, please remember that this survey does not look at relationships between PMs and UXers within a particular organization. They are looking at respondents from a variety of organizations around the world.
The survey takes PMs and UXers from companies who most likely have different approaches to product development.
For example, a UXer who answers adamantly that research is their task may have a conflict-free situation at their work. This could be exactly true for a PM who conducts research as part of their job at another organization that doesn’t have researchers. Because this survey looks at global answers, the responses do not confirm or articulate an internal conflict.
My goal is not to pick on the NN/g survey. Rather it’s a great example of why it’s important to be aware of the pitfalls of industry-wide research. 
But don’t assume a specific rivalry with product before you even get started. Instead, do in-house research to learn more about your company’s culture and ways of working.
From rivals to partners
“Partner” is an antonym for rival. According to the same dictionary: “either of a pair of people engaged together in the same activity” but also “any of a number of individuals with interests and investments in a business or enterprise, among whom expenses, profits, and losses are shared.”
Let’s also zoom out from this focus on who does which tasks. Whether PM or researcher, we have been hired to further the success of our companies. The tasks we do are the tactical part of a larger strategy toward business success. 
When you get to know your product allies, start with this. Focus on your shared point of reference and the passion you bring to your job to get there. After all, a huge part of the reason we find ourselves confused over who does what task is because the work is meant to be collaborative.
I propose the following perspective: Research and product are not rivals. We have the same high-level goals and bring different skill sets to the table. 
We need to communicate how those skill sets translate into responsibilities, then work as partners to reach our goals. And let’s bring those product people (and other non-researchers) into our process so they can learn and appreciate our skills and mindset—from how we hire, to how we work, to how we share.
Tomorrow may not be your first day in a new role, but it could be the first time you start the day asking the question: How can we address this perceived rivalry with our product counterparts and work together to create a productive, collaborative, partner relationship?

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