When Prolific purchased a new Apple Pencil and iPad Pro for our QA device lab, I decided to take them home for some weekend sketching. Drawing on the tablet initially started as an opportunity to exercise an underutilized artistic muscle and to experiment with the latest gadgets from Apple.
As I drafted my subject, I began to recognize several parallels between my approaches to drawing and product management.
Progression from sketch to finished drawing: laying out basic shapes, filling in the details, and refining shading and proportions.
Starting with a Sketch
The sketch lies at the core of both drawing and product management. Sketches are a lightweight, low-fidelity way to study a specific concept or theme before beginning a more final piece. There might be multiple studies of a person’s face in different positions in order to understand the artistic problems involved in rendering the entire subject. Quick practice studies can explore the way the light hits one side of the face, or how tilting the head at different angles alters perspective and form.
In product management, you and your team are tasked with rapidly testing and validating product ideas with users before spending costly resources on actually building the end product. Prototypes are the product team’s quick, throwaway sketches for answering specific, isolated questions: Will this feature actually be used? Did the user understand how to get to the final screen? Is this flow effective at driving conversion?
As in drawing, you start out with dispensable drafts in order to mitigate the costs and risk involved in building the end product. By testing prototypes, you can carve out larger concepts and rapidly refine small details in later iterations.
Design is a Path-Dependent Process
Sometimes, it’s tempting to rush through the underdrawings and approach the end of the portrait only to realize the original proportions aren’t perfectly true to life. Fixing the drawing at that point is time-consuming and much more difficult, as erasing one line inevitably affects the dozen others it touches.
Building a product requires the same carefulness, especially in earlier sprint planning, since the flexibility afforded by agile methodologies is never perfectly flexible. The agile principle of “responding to change over following a plan” doesn’t always work in practice, particularly when stakeholders expect deliverables by a certain deadline. The layered nature of a drawing reminds me of path dependency in product design and development that Ryan Singer discusses in a blog post entitled “Uncertainty and Scope”:
“Design is a path-dependent process. That means the early moves constrain the later moves. […] On the very first iteration the design possibilities are wide open. The designer defines some screens and workflows and then the programmer builds those. On the next iteration, it’s not wide open anymore. The new design has to fit into the existing design, and the new code needs to fit into the existing code. […]
Our early design decisions are like bets whose outcome we will have to live with iteration after iteration. Since that’s the case, there is a strong incentive to be sure about our early bets. In other words, we want to reduce uncertainty on the first iterations.”
In drawing, just as with a product, you can’t erase your lines perfectly without investing additional time and effort to fix the previous mistakes. Each initial line is like a bet made that will constrain later strokes, so it’s important to reduce uncertainty in the earlier moves. The constraint of path dependency forces a degree of quality control at every small step of the process so that each stage is well thought-out before moving to the next.
Big Picture, Small Details
Product management is as much about the big picture as it is about the small details. Zooming in and out between those two views is something you practice frequently as a product manager.
When you draw any subject from life, you analyze what you’re putting on the page both from a distance and up close. You occasionally need to squint to blur out individual strokes so you can focus on the accuracy of the shape or the precision of the negative space. But just as readily, you must focus in on how a single mark casts a shadow on the underside of an object in space.
Product management involves the same type of fluid transition from a 10,000-foot view down to the ground. Product managers are expected to be able to articulate high-level strategy—where will the product be a few weeks to several months from now?—to why a single call-to-action button was colored a certain way. They also need to know when to deprioritize low-value-add details, so the team can focus on the most important thing to tackle at any given moment.
Jason Fried describes this same technique in his post on knowing when to put on the product “shipping goggles”:
“It’s sort of like squinting—you lose the detail, but you can still see the overall big picture shape, form, and function. Your peripheral vision shrinks, but the center is still bright. Knowing when to squint is a good thing to know.”
Sometimes, a product manager needs to squint to ignore smaller tidbits and focus on the big picture. Knowing when to switch that focus is key to product management.
Empathy to Create
As I’m drawing on the tablet, I’m reminded of how important it is to take the time outside of my normal routine to stretch the creative muscle. Exercising the brain in this way—shifting fluidly between negative and positive space, constructing lines and boundaries, viewing both the gestalt and its individual parts—feeds constantly into my own product management.
Perhaps most importantly, creating directs my focus outward, mainly toward the creators I work with every day: the engineers and designers on my team. Drawing fuels me with empathy for the creative process, helping me understand more deeply what it means to build something from the ground up.