Three reasons learning HCD can improve your PM skills

Kipkorir Arap Kirui
6 min readJun 19, 2023

Over the last ~8 years, I have worked in design and product management roles, making it difficult to identify with just one. In the past, I saw this as a problem because our society values specialization. However, in my experience, the skills from my various roles, including software development, project management, business development and sales, UX, management, and product management, have all been transferable to one another. Each role has taught me valuable skills to apply to future positions.

I recently read a book by David Epstein titled “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” and much more about my career made sense to me. David Epstein argues that individuals with diverse experiences and a broad range of knowledge and skills tend to excel in today’s complex and rapidly changing world. The author’s message is that specialization is only sometimes the key to success and that embracing a more generalist approach can lead to innovation, adaptability, and overall better problem-solving abilities (Thanks ChatGPT for the excellent summary.) You can watch an overview of the book by listening to this Ted talk David did about two years ago.

In this post, I will highlight three areas where my design expertise has helped me perform better as a PM. However, before I do that, let me make two necessary clarifications. First, when discussing design or HCD, I refer to the human-centered design process, a problem-solving approach you can utilize to tackle many different types of problems. It is not a superficial approach that only focuses on end-users nor considers only outputs such as UIs.

Human-Centered Design is a creative approach to problem-solving that starts with people and ends with innovative solutions that are tailored to meet their needs

Second, I am not advocating that PMs should have UX research as their primary responsibility, and this is especially true in more mature organizations with fully-fledged UXR teams. Fast Company published a great article that argued against PMs doing research and outlined the role of PMs during the research process.

With that out of the way, let us dive in.

1: Being customer-obsessed requires you to work closely & in the correct way with customers

Do you want to play a game? Next time you’re with product managers, take a drink whenever they talk about how customer-obsessed they are. However, from my experience, product managers often prioritize business needs over customers or users despite claiming to be customer-obsessed. In most organizations, PMs spend more time with business and engineering teams and the least time with customers. A primary driver for this lopsided allocation is PMs being evaluated on output speed. More and more organizations are measuring the impact instead of the output, but this can be a lagging indicator promoting prioritizing faster shipping over anything else. To be genuinely customer-obsessed, you must spend time with your customers; when doing so, do it correctly.

Understanding the lives of the people we are solving problems for is a critical step towards building impactful products and solutions. Image courtesy of Photo by Abubakar Balogun on Unsplash

PMs working with customers daily should focus on improving HCD to get better insights from customer interactions. Customers or end-users usually see product managers as figures of authority. As a PM, your customers/users perceive you as someone who can solve their problems. A PM is seen as a figure of power, which can skew customer interactions. With the right UX skills, you can get to the root causes of the issues you are tackling. It would help if you learned HCD because it provides a valuable framework for creating products and experiences that meet users’ needs. By understanding the users’ perspectives, motivations, and pain points, product managers can make informed decisions, improve user satisfaction, increase adoption rates, and ultimately drive the success of their products in the market.

PMs working with UXR and design teams have it easier as they can rely on the expertise of their colleagues to plug their HCD gaps. However, as a PM working with UXR teams, you should not use this as an excuse to never interact with customers. You need the right skills to maximize your customer interaction skills. More importantly, developing a good understanding of the design process will improve your work with UXR and design teams leading to better product outcomes.

Human-centered design helps product managers foster empathy, creativity, and innovation, leading to more user-centric and impactful solutions.

2: Create space for diverse voices and opinions

PMs interact with various stakeholders, such as technical experts, business people, and customers. These people have different backgrounds, goals, and motivations, making it necessary to create a workspace that accommodates everyone. However, developing an inclusive work environment can be challenging. In brainstorming sessions, for example, some people may struggle to contribute, while others may dominate the conversation or exceed the allotted time. Most work environments tend to favor extroverted or talkative individuals, leading to valuable opinions being left out. Although creating an inclusive environment is challenging, following human-centered design (HCD) principles can help you make incremental improvements. For instance, HCD can help overcome these challenges when organizing a brainstorming session.

  1. The facilitator communicates the goals and boundaries of the brainstorming session. For example, we could brainstorm about improving retention rates for a mobile application, and the entire session will run for 3 hours. We will use the first hour to dig deeper into the problem, 1.5 hours to ideate, and the last 30 minutes to agree on the way forward. We will run shorter cycles of individual brainstorming and sharing sessions in the broader session.
  2. Each session starts with a timed, silent brainstorm where participants jot down their thoughts. At the end of the individual session, the participants share their ideas with the rest of the team. After that, an open brainstorming session follows. Where necessary, we will have several rounds of brainstorming on the same question but make sure we stay within the allocated time.
  3. Participants are encouraged to leverage different methods of expressing their ideas. This ranges from sketching to prototyping, and ideas can come from other fields.

This approach eliminates some of the challenges faced by traditional brainstorming approaches. The HCD process is full of techniques that empower different team members to contribute to conversations irrespective of their character traits.

3. Lean more into your creative side

In the workplace, we stereotypically explain what it means to be creative. This definition usually aligns the concept of creativity with artistry and presumes you can’t be creative without being artistic. Humans are all creative in their ways, but their environments hold them back from expressing their creativity. Many PMs need to lean more into their creative side because they solely focus on execution. Execution is critical, but you can have a higher impact as a PM if you execute better ideas. HCD can help you be more creative in two ways.

The human-centered design process — image source

First, the methodology emphasizes sufficiently diagnosing problems by understanding users and getting to the root cause of the problems you are solving. In the ideation phase, you explore many ideas before choosing what to work on. These activities are not conducted over months but in short iterative cycles meaning your delivery dates are not in jeopardy. The methodology is a constant reminder and a guide to avoiding jumping into execution before adequately diagnosing the problem and exploring different ways to solve it.

Second, the approach is full of novel ways of approaching the activities you do daily. In the previous section, I highlighted how to run a design brainstorming session; this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Where should you start?

Like any attempt to up-skill, getting started is the hardest part. I was fortunate I began as a UX researcher before I got into product management. There are several ways you can get started.

  • If you work with a UXR team, allocate more time to understand how they do their work. The idea is to understand the fundamentals by observing and listening.
  • Do an online course covering the fundamentals. I love IDEO+Acument Intro to HCD course. The Interaction Foundation website is also a great place to get started.

I have curated a set of additional resources that can help you start the journey and you can access them on Google slides — Intro to HCD resources. As a parting shot, I want to remind you that pursuing knowledge is a noble initiative; the more we understand the world we live in, the more likely we are to change it for the better.

Interested in helping your team leverage the HCD process and would like some external help? Reach out to me on and I will work with you to craft an approach best suited for your team.



Kipkorir Arap Kirui

Ex-child, Reluctant adult, Experience Designer, UX Researcher, Design Facilitator, Senior Product Manager, Co-founder Made by People, Product at Microsoft