Managing Opinions and Egos on Product Teams

· 4 min read
Managing Opinions and Egos on Product Teams

Being a UX designer is one of the most challenging jobs ever. You spend years honing your craft, building your design sense, and working on countless projects. Then, someone with zero design experience criticizes your carefully crafted screens. This happens more to designers than engineers or managers. Everyone thinks they’re a UX expert because we use apps daily.

Let me give an example. You’re a lead UX designer who created a prototype for an upcoming feature. An engineer who will build it — we’ll call him John — starts questioning your every decision. “This button shouldn’t be here. Nobody uses that transition. Use a dropdown instead of a toggle.” Designers know this frustration well. It leads to conflict, draining energy, and professionalism.

Designers each have ways to stay calm, listen to critiques, and carry on. But as a CTO, I wonder when this happens: Should I intervene? Is our culture problematic? Or is this normal? It’s a complex issue, for sure.

The Value of Engaged Team Members

It’s great when team members have their opinions on how things should be done. When an engineer voices his opinion about the interface, it shows he cares deeply about the product we’re building — as much as I do and as much as the designer does. Telling engineers to build what they’re told can feel counterproductive. We need engineers’ feedback, too. Only they know if something is hard or even possible to do. Learning this by listening to feedback on mockups is much better than during development.

On the other hand, these suggestions are often very opinionated. A UX designer spends countless hours researching and trying multiple variations for every screen and control. Then, an engineer comes along, who glances at a prototype for five minutes and thinks he knows better. That’s how it feels to a designer, at least — I know from my own experience working as a UX designer.

The Engineer vs. Designer Perspective

Interestingly, engineers often think that if they’re implementing the interfaces and building apps, they know a lot about user experience. Have you ever seen an interface built entirely by an engineer? Chances are it’s barely usable. A huge gap exists between the perspective of an engineer and a user’s perspective. I could write a whole book about it — they live in different worlds.

Let me give you a perfect example to illustrate this. Picture yourself driving down a highway when you notice a text-filled billboard. You barely notice the text as you quickly pass by because the font is too small. That billboard was designed by an engineer who decided to cram all the information onto the billboard. Well, that’s not how highway billboards work. You need to design them knowing that people only have seconds to comprehend them. It takes a lot of experience to create an effective, aesthetically pleasing billboard.

Unwanted Opinions Are Commonplace in Cross-Functional Teams

Situations where people give unsolicited advice to coworkers occur frequently at work. I think this kind of “cross-functional collaboration,” as it’s called in corporate lingo, often creates overlooked conflicts. It’s not just engineers and designers — this dynamic can happen with any combination of roles.

Since they work closely together, frontend and backend developers constantly tell each other how to do their jobs better. Designers tell product managers how to do their work too. Everyone and their dog seem to think they know better how project managers should organize the team’s work. I could go on and on with examples here.

The Tradeoffs of Soliciting Opinions

Another thing that makes me smile is when you ask John from the fictional story above, who is making suggestions, if he wants to take on the designer’s job and create the perfect mockup himself. John would likely refuse the offer. It’s easy to comment on the button placement, but it’s a different challenge to consider all the context and solve every problem on a given screen.

People make suggestions to each other frequently, especially about a company’s internal processes or workflows. No process is flawless. If a team has 100 people, 90 likely have opinions about how things should be done and what needs changing. Of the other 10 people, 5 probably just joined and are still figuring it out, while the remaining 5 don’t care much.

So, is it good for team members to voice opinions on how things should be done? I believe it is. It shows they are not just clocking in at work, doing as they’re told without concern for the outcome. In fact, they care as deeply as you do. Taking away their power to share ideas and suggestions will zap motivation and turn creative minds into uninspired “implementers” who rely on others to make decisions and give orders. This is not what you want from an engineering team or any team.

Allowing people to have a voice and opinion comes with tradeoffs. Listening to everyone’s thoughts when reviewing a prototype or presenting a feature is time- and energy-consuming. Another tradeoff is that for people to want to share ideas, you must listen and implement some of them occasionally. After all, why would I share my thoughts if you never hear or use them?

Balancing Opinions with Decision Makers

Every suggestion, opinion, and advice needs to be considered carefully. Having a designated decision-maker in a given area is vital for this approach to work well. Otherwise, you risk decision paralysis. On our UX team, the lead designer makes the final call about the look and feel of the interfaces we build. We trust our lead designer’s judgment no matter how much engineers, product managers, or sometimes even stakeholders disagree. Of course, this is a lot of responsibility. Mistakes happen. But the same is true for everyone.

This principle applies across departments, too. I could argue endlessly with our frontend lead about writing unit tests or using TypeScript. But it’s his decision since he owns that area and its outcomes. Someone may debate our project manager on having daily standups or who should be the release manager. In the end, it’s her call to make. This authority is just as crucial as considering diverse opinions. The balance comes from allowing people to voice views while letting subject matter experts stick to their judgment. Ignoring input shouldn’t cause resentment, either. Achieving the balance here is a true art.

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