A Simple, Fun Way to Develop Your Product Manager’s Eye for Design

How do you teach taste? Can you teach it?

It’s a good question, and an important one for any good product leader to think about.

While designers work painstakingly on developing their eye for design, product managers have many things they need to master across a wide variety of fields.

Yet, it can be incredibly helpful for PMs to have their own sense of taste; it benefits them and their teams in a variety of ways:

  1. You can more easily appreciate quality work from your designer, knowing what to praise and recognize.
  2. You avoid suggesting ill-advised things that would hurt the user experience or drive your designer crazy.
  3. You can help raise the bar for your engineering team, by making useful critiques during the testing phase of releasing a new feature that otherwise only your designer would.
  4. You can more easily find good opportunities for inspiration to bring into your product from other apps, sites, and tools you use and discover.
  5. You’ll earn the respect of the rest of your product team as they see you make quality suggestions, and catch valid issues.

That all sounds great, but… how do you do that?

Or, if you’re a senior product leader, how can you teach others to have more taste? It’s certainly better to teach it than wait for it to naturally develop.

Today, I want to teach you one of my favorite, light-weight ways to help develop taste as a PM. It’s something I *looked forward to* early in my career when I was learning, and has kept my skills sharp as I now teach others the same way.

Taste Sessions: How to Develop Design Sense in You or Your Product Managers.

You don’t have to be Tim Gunn to help teach people to have better design sense. All you need is a simple routine and a little prep.

What you’ll do is set aside some time for a special meeting I’ll teach you to have. The key components of the meeting are as follows:

  1. Meet once a month: Make it a recurring event on everyone’s calendar so that you know it’s coming and can prepare/anticipate it accordingly.
  2. Choose an app or product category: Each month, choose a category or product type that you and the team will all download or visit and try out. This works for websites and mobile apps.
  3. Ask everyone to note a few things they like and don’t: If you have limited time in the meeting, ask people to prepare in advance. If you have more time, then you can do all of this live in the meeting.
  4. Go over the apps everyone downloaded together: Knowing that at least everyone has downloaded all the apps or visited & signed up for their products, you can now go app by app reviewing them for good, bad, and ugly of each one.
  5. Get specific about the good, bad, and ugly: When you or anyone else bring up something they have strong feelings about, take time to dig into why. Make it a discussion. Why is that interface ugly/clunky/awkward? What’s smooth or delightful about that screen, animation, or feature?
  6. Praise your team members: Praise is like watering flowers. To develop their taste, be sure to call out and praise the things you really like they noted.
  7. Suggest where you can apply this to your product: All of this work isn’t just theoretical exercise. It’s a great way to find inspiration for your product. Challenge your team to think about how the best things they saw can be applied to current and future projects.

I know it’s a cliche on the internet, but it’s true here: in just 7 simple steps, you can develop you and your team’s taste.

Here’s a few more tips around these Taste Session meetings to really run them like a pro.

1) Zoom is GREAT for this!

Too often, remote work makes things harder. I’m still looking for a good way to whiteboard remotely and have the same energy and emotion as being in person.

Yet, in this case, Zoom is a huge asset, especially if you’re looking at mobile apps. When you share your screen on Zoom, one of the options you have is to pair your iPhone, which then means everyone dialed in can now see the presenter’s phone in giant form. This is perfect for calling out little details that you’d never see looking over someone’s shoulder.

2) Have someone take notes and share them across the team

As much as this is about learning about different designs, it’s also about making your product better. Having a record of past discussions with call outs (and if you’re a pro, screenshots) to how these things can apply to your product, ensures that these discussions shift from the academic exercise to the practical application.

Best of all, if you save these in an easy to reference place, when you’re building new features, you have a library of interesting, high quality interfaces you can pull out and reference in your product spec or product thesis. This will impress your designers who are used to having to do most of the work to find inspiration.

3) Embrace your inner critic

The beauty of this process is that it’s fun, it’s easy, and it’s safe. Rather than only talking about products when you’re critiquing each of your team’s own work, you set up a safe place to critique other people’s products.

This helps people learn to be more vocal editors; since the creator isn’t in the room, it’s easier to say something they don’t like or doesn’t work for them just as much as what they love. And a big part of taste is recognizing all the ways you can do things wrong, frustrate users, or confuse them.

Establish the quality bar.

Being a good PM means being willing to stand up when something doesn’t meet the necessary quality bar. You can use these discussions to talk about tradeoffs like this and where your company feels the standard must be (i.e.- When would you delay a ship because it’s not good enough yet?)

4) Share responsibility

There’s not a ton of work to do to run a monthly meeting like this, but you do have an important decision to make: choosing the category or type of app/product.

One of the best ways to handle this is to rotate within your group who picks the app. Chances are, your example will inspire others to choose good categories. All they have to do is let everyone know a few days beforehand and the rest is the same each time.

Remember: Make it fun! You can learn from just about any app category regardless of what your app or software does. I’ve gotten great ideas for enterprise SaaS from consumer games, product led growth ideas from social networks, and many more unexpected crossovers.

5) When it’s your turn, be strategic

When it’s your turn to organize again (as you delegated to rotate through everyone) you should be strategic in your choices; for example, if your team is focused on onboarding experiments, you can focus on specifically looking at onboarding and choose a category and products you think does it well.

Don’t shortchange your efforts on this; leadership by example is one of the most important parts of making this successful. If you take looking at apps seriously, and choose a good category, so will your team. Yet, if you are careless, sloppy, or forgetful, it will be a lot harder for this habit to stick and grow with your team.

6) Encourage your junior team members to level up on their own

If some of your team members are very new to this, give them some reading to help raise their self-awareness and perspective when they use apps. This will help them both have a better critical eye, and most importantly, start to understand *why* they may like or dislike something.

In my experience, these books can really help:

  • The Non Designer’s Design Book: This book covers all the basics of fonts, colors, layout, and other fundamentals.
  • The Design of Every Day Things: This book will change how you look at the products and objects you use every day. This then can translate to looking at software.
  • Don’t Make Me Think: This book lays out fundamental rules of web design. The title gives you the most important lesson of all: don’t make your users think, and teaches it well through colorful examples.

By meeting once a month, they’ll have time to chip away at these books; every time you meet, they will understand more and more, while not being dependent on this one meeting for their learning. They’ll also likely then impress their colleagues as their critical eye will seem to rapidly improve.

7) The Veteran Move: Invite Design in

I would highly recommend you start out with just you and other PMs at your company (or if you’re too small, PM friends at other companies). It gives you all a chance to get comfortable and sharpen your skills without fear of being judged by others.

However, as you do all get more comfortable and develop your critical eyes, consider inviting designers from your team to join. It’s a great way for your designers to teach your PMs a bit and for your PMs to earn some respect and build more rapport with people they work with regularly.

Keep in mind that the size of your group does change things. Once you have more than 6 people in your group it may become difficult for everyone to get a chance to speak. When that happens try the following:

  • Keep track of who participates: In large groups, it’s easy for people to fade into the background. Make sure that doesn’t happen by making note and calling on anyone too quiet or seeming to check out.
  • Call on junior team members first: It’s easy to agree with your boss whether due to intimidation, a demand to be a yes man, or simply wanting to sound smart. By calling on junior team members first none of those things can happen.
  • Split the group up: If your group is creeping into double digits, it’s time to split it up. It’s better to meet in small groups and everyone actively participates, than a large audience only watching. I personally prefer groups of 2-6, and would split any group larger than 8, but use your best judgment.

While a little preparation can go a long way here, the best thing you can do in these meetings is to be a good moderator. That’s how you recognize people are checking out, ensure junior team members participate, and see when the group is getting too big. You’ll also see who may work best so that when you split your group, you match people up well.

A little taste goes a long way…

Developing the skills of your PMs, or even honing your own skills, can be something that you put off week after week after week. It’s hard to get it to the top of your to do list.

That’s why rituals like a monthly Taste Session can be the best hack. With limited effort, you and your peers or PMs can improve your design sense.

Want help developing the PMs in your org? Feeling isolated as the only PM at your company? I coach product managers to help them be at their best. Whether you need help mastering interview customers, reducing churn, improving your stakeholder relationships, or teaching new PMs all the skills they need to succeed, I can help you.

You can learn more about the work I do here, or sign up for a free call to discuss your challenges to see if I can help you here.

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