In earlier articles I have discussed the key roles in the product organization – product managers, project managers, interaction designers, visual designers, usability engineers, prototypers, engineers, architects, QA and product marketing – and I’ve also discussed the ratios between the roles, but many organizations also struggle with the organizational structure that contains these people.

While I have seen – and continue to see – many different permutations out there, I do think that a standard organizational structure for product organizations has emerged over the past several years, and that there are good reasons for this structure.

I will admit that I do not feel nearly as strongly about the organizational structure as I do about the roles and responsibilities. I believe that if you have the right role definitions, and reasonable and well-intentioned management, you can usually make most organizational structures work, and I have no real problem with designing an organization around the strengths of the individual leaders rather than following a template from successful product organizations.

That said, we all know that organizational structure really does impact behavior, so all things considered equal, I argue that evolving towards the structure I describe below will improve the effectiveness of your overall product organization, sometimes in very profound ways.

Please note that I am only talking here about the product organization and not the other major areas of your company including sales, customer service, finance, business development and IT (as distinct from product development).

I argue that every CEO/COO or division GM needs three clear and distinct voices on his staff: Marketing, Product Management and Design, and Product
Development. As such, the most important aspect to the organizational design is that these three be top level, and one should not be buried within another.

So, reporting to the CEO/COO of a small or medium sized company, or each business unit GM of a large company:

– Marketing contains functions including corporate marketing, marketing communications, field marketing, and product marketing.

– Product Management and Design contains product management, user experience design (interaction design/information architecture, visual design,
prototyping, user research/usability engineering), and if applicable, subject matter experts.

– Product Development contains architecture, engineering, QA, release management, site operations (for SaaS companies), and project management
(PMO).

Notes:

– Notice that IT (the technical team that supports employees) is intentionally distinct from the product development organization. This is the topic of a future article, but for now let me say that the demands on these two groups are inherently different, and that it’s important to treat each appropriately. In terms of titles, normally the CIO runs the IT organization, and the CTO/VP Product Development/VP Engineering runs the product development organization.

– In some companies, the PMO is a top-level report and this is fine. But most often it’s part of the product development organization because the
vast majority of the resources the project managers deal with are part of that organization, and this allows the head of product development to be fully empowered and accountable for product execution and delivery. In any case, it’s important that the projects managers report into the PMO.

– It is a problem if User Experience Design is buried either in marketing or product development. It is critical that the user experience team,
especially the interaction designers, be very closely tied to the product managers. Keeping product managers as close as possible to the UED team is the reason for the trend towards combining product management and design into one organization (although each should have its own leader – the
director of product management is responsible for product strategy, and the director of user experience is responsible for the site/software overall information architecture and style.

– Marketing typically also has some number of graphic designers that support marketing programs and advertising. This need might be served out of the visual design team in the user experience org, but I prefer if they are a part of the marketing organization. A strong user experience requires
constant attention not just to the interaction design, but also to the visual design of the application, and this group should be managed by someone who understands what it means to support a product team. If there is a single Creative Director who understands both visual design for product, and visual design for marketing, the company is in great shape because one visual design group can serve both needs, and the overall expression of the brand will be very consistent. But if the head of the visual design team is under marketing, and isn’t understanding the needs of the product, you will need to correct this situation as soon as possible.

– User research is sometimes separate from usability engineering, which is fine. But do not confuse user research and usability research. User research is background data on the demographics of the customers, or analytics of the customer’s behavior or buying patterns. It is not unusual to find user research as part of the marketing organization, which works so long as the product managers and interaction designers have ready access and a good working relationship with the user researchers. Usability research, by contrast, is specific research on personas, prototypes, or users’ ability to easily navigate the product. These researchers’ work feeds directly back to the interaction designers, visual designers, and product manager, and it is critical that they be an integral part of the user experience design team, so that their efforts can be collaborative and their research windows scheduled and closely managed to get feedback quickly during product discovery.

– Sometimes product marketing is part of the product management organization. This is not a big problem, and there are some advantages to that, but I prefer when it’s part of marketing as this helps to reinforce role definition and make sure there’s no confusion between product management and product marketing. To be clear though, even if product management and product marketing are part of the same organization, the roles should not be combined.

– Startups are a bit of a special case in that they are typically small enough that the organizational structure is minor compared to the personalities and individual skill sets involved. But remember that if things do go well, you’ll grow fast, and you’ll want to put an effective organization in place sooner rather than later.

If your organization is not structured in this fashion, then if things are working great I would not suggest changing a thing. But if your team is struggling, and if it feels more painful than it should to get good products out the door, then consider evolving your organization more towards the model described here and see if that doesn’t improve the situation.

Special thanks to both Chuck Geiger and Kyrie Robinson for their contributions to this article.

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