tech

Product, UX, Content: Some Thoughts on Titles (and Venn Diagrams)


When I talk to folks interested in tech careers, as I did last month, I’m reminded how utterly baffling tech job titles can be. For example, I’ll mention to folks that I’m looking for a role in Product or User Experience, but that I’d also be happy doing Content Strategy. Non-tech folks then have to ask what the hell any of those things are.

Actually, it’s confusing even if you’re already in tech, given the Venn diagrams that are floating around.

Exhibit A: All The Venn Diagrams

In the beginning, I saw Hilary Marsh’s Venn diagram in her content governance presentation, and it was good. I’ve used it on and off for the last couple of years.

Hilary Marsh's content strategy diagram
Hilary Marsh’s content strategy diagram

At some point, I became aware that UX has exactly the same Venn diagram, and indeed, may have had it for a long time, as indicated by the illustration on this 2013 blog post.


Then, in the last year, I’ve been seeing the same damn thing for product management:

Oh, and BY THE WAY I’m pretty sure these are all springing from the Ur-diagram based on design thinking, given IDEO’s flavor of it.

Not-Engineering?

So perhaps design is the place to start. Product, content, and UX roles seem most united by what they’re not, which is “hard” programming or business roles — with some caveats. It’s okay, apparently, to go from front-end programming to UX, and vice-versa.  Full-stack technical roles, on the other hand, are “hard” enough that they’re often considered more naturally suited to business/product roles (because math, I guess?), and anecdotally, product people often come from engineering. But wait! It’s not that simple. I worked with my first (and I bet not my last) content engineer in a recent job, and I just met a User Experience Engineer who originally came from design, and in some product forums I’m in, it’s abundantly clear that engineering isn’t accepted as a default starting point for product.

So…Product is Business??

Product, to my eyes, has become the most business-flavored version of this job; a lot of places now want their product people to have an MBA (at least if any leadership is implied in the title).  But if you’ll notice, content and user experience people clearly have business goals in their Venn diagrams already. So if they choose to develop the business side of their skill set, they’re not actually starting from zero, and probably don’t need to get a whole new degree. I think this is important, because sometimes people (this person for example) want to draw really sharp lines between areas areas that appear to occupy the same darned zones in our current Venn diagrams. And to be fair, that person went from UX to product, so they should know. But the thing is, when you draw lines that are too sharp, you’re implying more division (IMO) than really exists; whereas, since we’re already Venning this shit out, I’d prefer to go with what Ellen Chisa says (using really good Venn diagrams btw):  inevitably, a given individual will fall into one circle more than the others, but can start to grow towards other areas. She’s specifically talking about product, but I’d argue that you could apply the same logic to any of the roles that fall into the “middle zone”.

Other things I hear: Product people are people who like solving the problems related to code more than code itself (definitely me). Product people should be able to “negotiate” with programmers (I don’t like this unless we’re agreed it’s “win-win”, which I don’t think is what’s intended — see this thread for why). I’ve even heard, on occasion, that product people are the owners of the user experience on a team, which is confusing, given that UX people are generally doing this already.

I’ve also noticed that user and content folks talk a lot about how hard it is to get business-side people to listen to them. On my more cynical days, it seems like “product” just kind of took a lot of what content and UX people were doing and slapped a “business” label on it, to make it more influential — which, incidentally, suggests to me that maybe we need to think a little more about the lines we draw. And as Christina Wodtke notes, in her stellar post, generally the product manager is putting their ass on the line; but then again, the post’s title implies that user experience design and product design are fairly interchangeable.  So of course a lot depends on the second word of your title.

What If I Just Like Workflow? Or Leadership?

And it just keeps going. Content strategy is the thing I’ve most frequently heard associated with workflow — and process is, like, my favorite thing ever! But I’ve noticed it falls to product managers, and possibly even user experience people, particularly when it comes to user research. Because workflow, like “tech”, isn’t really its own thing; it’s the abstract manifestation of all the big hairy content and goal problems. And leadership, in my eyes, is part and parcel of what solves this problem — so while words like “manager” certainly imply leadership, they’re no guarantee. Especially since tech tends to promote based on someone being good at their job, rather than being good at leadership. I find it particularly interesting, then, that content strategy has specifically invested in governance as a concept, but often operates through influence and not authority, hence its emphasis on getting executive buy-in.

Letting Go of the Ego

Okay. We all feel more comfortable when we can use labels, right? And this comes very much from the ego any given person has invested in their own discipline. It’s very comfortable to draw lines that make you feel safe about your own job. But if we’re hiring for potential — which we should be doing — we’re going to have to admit that yes, that person currently in their X role can probably do your Y thing, if they want — and we should totally let them learn to do it if that’s what they want. It’s not a matter of changing fields entirely, right? It’s just shifting the weight of the Venn diagram, as Ellen Chisa noted.

And the reality is always going to be messy. I’ve read user experience posts saying that content is a sub-field of user research, and I’ve heard content strategists say that no way, content is NOT user experience. I’ve heard psychology-based user researchers diss both design thinkers and product managers because they don’t have rigorous enough research or stats standards. I’ve heard designers sigh at math-based design, and all sorts of people assume developers as heartless philistines, which is not true in most cases.

Here’s the good news: being a dyed-in-the-wool translator (and equal opportunity misanthrope) I find this entire title situation highly entertaining. And look, I’ll admit I’ve totally been that snooty developer bored with design exercises. And, in another instance, I’ve been the sole developer who seems to care about user experience. I’ve stopped myself from rolling my eyes at both designers and developers who have no sense of business goals, and at MBAs who are inexcusably incurious as to how their business goals actually get on the web. On the flip side, I’ve worked with wonderful developers who want nothing but a good, evidence-based user story or business goal before they start attacking a problem, and business folks who have nothing but respect for the awesome skill sets of the other folks on the team.

In Conclusion

I kind of think we should maybe cut back on the Venn diagrams a little. Me, I’m leaning a lot more towards the idea of a T-shaped skill set. That way, when we think about moving from one role to another, it’s more like moving the needle, and less like shifting the heavy weight of Venn circles. It’s about growing areas we’re already in, rather than excluding things that we think others can’t do.

But that’s just, like, an opinion, man.