Product trios is a great team setup to do product discovery, yet working in this type of close collaboration is not for everyone. Designers need to be prepared to be able to stand on equal grounds with product management and engineering.
☕ Product trios for designers
Product trios - a product manager, a designer, and an engineer working together - are awesome. Each time I got to work in one, I felt positively challenged, energized, and owned the outcomes, while the work we did was more efficient and led to a better product besides being more satisfying to do.
So why don’t more organizations and design teams adopt working this way?
Product trios are not exactly a new idea, at least working in cross-functional teams has been part of the agile movement for some time. Generally, the idea that multiple diverse roles or perspectives working together leads to better outcomes is widely understood and accepted.
What makes or breaks cross-functional work is how the roles understand what they do - and how they collaborate. This is where product trios are different. In a trio all roles contribute, make decisions as equals, and own the outcomes as a team.
Combining the three core roles, typically product management, engineering, and design, product trios bring diverse perspectives, expertise, and insights to the table. In most organizations, these would be also the exact job titles, but it’s more about the skills needed, so other skill distribution setups are possible. Rather than a boss-report relation, the trio’s collaborative structure ensures a well-rounded approach to creating and enhancing products. This makes product trios a successful organizational pattern for product development.
Trios are also usually part of a larger product team, containing most often additional engineers, data people, or QA - depending on the org setup.
Naming this collaborative structure as trios is also slightly misleading, as it can have more than three people or a different division of roles. For example, one really good team I’ve worked in had a product designer, a product manager, an engineering lead, and a UX researcher. But obviously, more people in the trio change the flavor of collaboration and add communication overhead.
Where the trios really shine, is working on product discovery - that is untangling what is the right product to build. This usually means figuring out the various aspects of how a new idea fits into the product, considering customer value, usability, feasibility, and business value. Teams would want to learn about these aspects as fast as possible through research, spikes, prototypes, and experiments - which needs close collaboration from the trio.
While the wider product team is kept in the loop, the trio does most of the work in discovery. The team might participate in some workshops, but they are brought into the outcomes once the discovery converges.
For efficient collaboration within the trios, they would usually set up their process (for example lean UX, double diamond, and opportunity solution trees - but it’s up to the trio to have a defined approach). The more important part is how their rituals are set up - how they go about their daily work. These rituals can include regular stand-up meetings, design sprints, user research sessions, and collaborative decision-making discussions.
The challenge with product trios for many design leaders and design teams is, how they support the individual designers in this setup and how to provide a central direction. Since every designer works in their own product trio and product team, it’s almost like having a distributed design team even if everyone sits in the same office space.
Designers need seniority to work in a trio. They need to stand on equal ground to the other functions, meaning confidence in their process and work, stakeholder management and communication skills, and being able to facilitate and drive the design work.
Junior designers (or designers who have never worked in such a collaborative way) struggle. Leaders need to figure out a way to support them, just providing the usual mentoring through 1-on-1s is not enough. Two ways we made this work in the past is to always hire senior designers and pair junior designers with a senior until they level up to mid-level.
Central direction is even more tricky but is vital. Users won’t care if features were done by different teams, they expect a coherent experience. Design leaders need to make sure there is alignment within the team by creating a common ground (for example by defining design principles and what good design is) and encouraging internal collaboration (for example with design critiques).
These efforts can channel back and support the work product-trios too. Design leaders need to make sure it’s not a “design team vs product trio”, but rather the trio’s work is supported by what comes out of the design team.
So getting back to where I started, why don’t more organizations adopt the product trio setup for product teams?
Much of it starts from leadership and the need for a culture change. But people in the organization might be simply not ready for the change.
For designers, this boils down to three reasons:
- Not enough designers in the team, not every product trio (and product team) has a dedicated designer to work with, as there are too few of them. If trios are to be successful there needs to be “full cars” of roles, designers cannot be a shared resource.
- Designers don’t have enough seniority, and lack experience to work with product managers and engineering leaders as equals. These designers focus more on executing what they are being told. Sometimes they are even managed by product managers, which makes it even harder to fill in their roles.
- Lack of strategic direction, which usually comes from design leaders lacking the experience of working in a product trio and having a weak idea of what design can achieve.
Changing this is not easy, as design leaders both need a good strategic vision and the ability to develop partnerships with other leaders to make it happen. A few tactics that work here:
- Start small and gradually expand: Begin by implementing the trio structure in a pilot project or a specific product area, allowing for experimentation and learning.
- Foster cross-functional collaboration: Encourage open communication and collaboration among product management, engineering, and design, breaking down silos and promoting knowledge sharing, establishing common rituals.
- Define clear roles and responsibilities: Establishing clear boundaries and expectations for each role within the trio helps avoid confusion and promotes accountability.
🥤 To recap
- Product trios are highly effective and energizing ways of working, leading to better products and higher job satisfaction.
- Their key to successful product trios is an equal contribution, decision-making, and ownership of outcomes.
- Trios focus on product discovery and work closely together, utilizing approaches defined by themselves and rituals for efficient collaboration.
- Design leaders face challenges in supporting individual designers and providing central direction for a coherent user experience.
- Adoption of the product trio setup needs cultural change, designer seniority, strategic vision, and cross-functional collaboration.
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🍪 Things to snack on
While working in product trios is in many ways better for everyone involved, it’s not for everyone. Marty Cagan writes about the required skill set each role needs for this in Product Core Competencies. Designers specifically should focus on the usability risk (which in this context means learnability, ease-of-use, and value perception) together with the overall experience of the product.
Teresa Torres writes often about product trios, also in her book Continuous Discovery Habits (which is a great resource on its own):
- The Product Trio describes the basics of cross-functional teams, and how product trios work in practice.
- Collaborative Decision-Making in a Product Trio highlights how sharing a common focus helps the trio - the designer, the engineer, and the pm - to combine their unique perspective while they work together on projects. The article also describes a brief process for this, starting with an experience map, doing interviews together, and developing a shared understanding.
- Why Product Trios Should Interview Customers Together discusses why and how product trios should do their own research, rather than relying on outside teams. This allows them to get answers that are relevant for the product team right when they need it while being immersed in the research process and engaged with users helps the team to internalize the insights more efficiently.
The Product Trio: A 101 is a good overview by Jezz Santos of the responsibilities of the three roles, the trio approach for discovery, and how this approach differs from the more traditional views on product development.
Product trios also change how product leadership is done, making it a more collaborative process, as Matthew Godfrey writes in Product Trios: A collaborative, decision-making leadership group. The article also has some nice practical tips, like how the roles’ focus changes over the development process.