The Program Manager And How Getting UX Into Software Design Any Way We Can Is Good

There was a certain mailing that I was on, and they were reacting to a post by Joel Spolsky naming the program manager as the owner of User Experience in some software teams.

I’ve actually held a position called Program Manager in the Microsoft model, and it was great: I got to work with great developers, and I gained a lot of knowledge about the technology I was working in. Personally, I would love to do that job again.

Back to the UX folks and their comments about the article.

Their opinion was slightly irritable (them being a bunch of cantankerous UX people like me, and I can be even more cantankerous at times). The way I look at it, Joel handed us a gift horse in the mouth. Here’s a well respected member of the software community saying emphatically that user experience matters.

He established:

  • The most important function of a program manager is to design the user interface. Sure, we should know a bit about programming, but our job is to show through out experience and knowledge what an effective user interface is, and to help developers implement it.
  • He established the value of functional requirements in some form as a deliverable that’s important to the process. That is more than, as he so rightly pointed out, 37signals has done over the years. 37signals is some kind of darling of the web community, and while they do some good stuff when if comes user testing, functional requirements is something they say not to do.
  • He set the ratio of program managers to developers at about one program manager to four developers, exactly or close to what I preach. That, my folks, is job security. When I worked as   a product manager, that was a well oiled team. We produced a lot of good code, and I felt I could handle enough of the workload without working too many more hours.
  • He also set that discourse and communication is important to great user interfaces. This includes conflict, iterations, data, testing and all the other fun methods that we do to get where we need to go. He basically established that there was value to that last mile.

Frankly, that was one of the better posts I’ve read for a while on any blog.

Great, you say. He didn’t say kind enough words about us UX folks, saying that anyone out of college could do it. Well, not completely true, but we do have to listen to him.


  • He’s very well respected in the software development community.
  • He has a company that’s very profitable based around a subscription model product that might not be the best looking product in the world, but developers love using it because of it’s ease of use and simplicity (try saying that about Bugzilla).
  • He has a blog that gets a lot of traffic.

That said, there’s points in his blog post that could generate some disagreement; it’s up to user experience professionals to build bridges of understanding because, frankly, we’ve done a piss-poor job of explaining who we are, and what our value is.

On to the disagreements.

He did say that someone right out of college could do the job; I disagree with that.

Being an advocate for the user and the business takes training and/or experience, and isn’t something you can just learn from the programmers you are working with — they know less about user experience than you might — in the same way that a web or print designer needs seasoning even when right out of school.

They can’t learn typography to an adequate level unless they use it, motion design doesn’t just come to you, and more importantly, some of this field is something you can’t teach. You just have to have the skills and mindset for not only understanding the user but also understanding the business. That takes experience in design, domain knowledge, an understanding of what you don’t know, and where to go find it. They have to learn to fail, and learn from their failings so they can succeed.

To get to where I’m at, I’ve been working the web for almost 15 years (something that few can say), and I draw from all my unique experiences to develop user interfaces for my clients. That experience includes a background in writing, design, business and software development. As we all know, sometimes the greatest failings of people without the knowledge they need think they know more than they do; only as we get older do we realize how much we don’t know.

Great software architects architects are made, not born.

Joel, because of the peers he worked with Microsoft, learned wisdom far beyond what most program managers and user experience professionals would ever hope to, and he has used to it to advance software development. But this does color his view of the world, and it’s up to us to talk about where we have come from, so we can advance from all fronts, not just by being lucky enough to work at a company that at least was trying a process.

As the user experience field grows, it’s great to have other respected voices establish benchmarks that there is a need for user experience. Now we just have to work with them for everyone’s benefit.

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