For the last three years, Braze has hosted an annual event celebrating employee superlatives (à la The Dundies) that’s known as the Paper Plate Awards. Braze staff members are given a range of categories—some tongue-in-cheek, some (relatively) serious—and get to vote on which one of their peers they think deserves the award. As it happens, this year I was lucky enough to receive a Paper Plate award alongside my coworker Marion Nammack: “Dynamic Duo.”
Our particular dynamic started as a professional partnership and ultimately grew into a close friendship. We’re both on the Braze Messaging & Automation (M&A) team; Marion is the product manager and I’m the senior designer. For the last two years, we’ve focused our attention on improving not just key Braze features like Braze Canvas, but also the ways we work together as PM and designer.
When these roles are carried out by people with competing motivations, the PM–Design relationship can be tense. However, by working to understand (and respect) each other’s roles, communication styles, and expectations, we’ve been able to foster an environment of trust and psychological safety. Ultimately, failing fast and considering alternative viewpoints has led us to better outcomes as a team.
How We Got Here
Before Braze, I’d spent my career in the agency world. I wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about research, marketing, or the SaaS platform, but I could make a quick prototype and felt comfortable digging in and asking questions. When I first met Marion, she’d been with Braze for two years, but had recently transitioned into product management after working on the Customer Success team. Both of us joined the Product team around the same time and were really focused on growing into our new roles.
Like most PMs, Marion’s primary responsibility is to lay out a positive business outcome and direct the team as they take steps toward that goal. She’s the expert on our team’s strategy, how it fits into the larger product vision, and how that vision compares to the competitive landscape. My primary responsibility is to create intuitive designs and workflows that meet user needs. That’s not to say I don’t care about the product vision and business outcomes, or that Marion doesn’t care about building something intuitive, but our immediate priorities aren’t always going to seamlessly overlap. But while we’ve had our fair share of disagreements, we’ve also grown into our roles together.
Over time, our professional relationship transformed, something I’d attribute mostly to the hours spent with Braze customers. We’ve watched them click the wrong buttons, build out the wrong workflows, and utilize a vertical working space of 300 pixels because they don’t realize there’s a collapse button. During these sessions, I developed a lot of trust and respect for Marion. Her prior experience as a Customer Support Manager (CSM) allowed her to educate me on technical nuances and use cases, and made it possible for her to revive the conversation when I became confused on points during customer calls.
We both saw such value in these observation sessions that we now create highlight reels and share findings with the engineers on the M&A team to build empathy for our customers and motivation to keep iterating.
What the PM–Design Partnership Can Look Like
When it comes to the discovery process, Marion and I are together every step of the way. We have swimlanes for responsibilities, both shared and individual. I define all design activities and propose timelines, and then we discuss things together before moving forward. Sometimes there’s pushback, but I make sure to provide rationales and ultimately have autonomy over the details. To ensure that we’re working in concert, we meet three times a week for status reports and to identify blockers, questions, and concerns.
And while I’m tasked with defining goals, writing questions, and administering research events, I do it with her active participation. Marion provides business context and we partner on the problem statements. Anything experimental that I’d like to try, she’s game. And we make sure to test ideas with customers and then iterate.
A good partnership between PM and Design should challenge assumptions and help everyone gain a better understanding of customer needs. Done right, this kind of collaboration can promote an environment where you can fail and ask dumb questions and then find a way forward. It empowers you to abandon bad ideas and increase scope when new opportunities are uncovered. It’s like the Paper Plate Awards said: A strong PM–Design partnership makes for a Dynamic Duo.