What comes first, the product or design?

I had a friendly butting of heads chat with a product manager recently about how design works with product. The conversation went something like this:

Design: “How do we work together?”

Product: “Product decides the requirements and then design designs them”

Design: “And how do we know that the product is needed in the first place?”

Product: “The business has a mission, say ‘Save the world’ and comes up with options ‘Dig a cave’ and ‘build a raft’ which are assessed and they take one product forward that needs to be designed”

Design: “Those options – the cave and raft – need to be arrived through a creative design process and based in solid understanding of user needs.”

Once the product is defined the relationship is fairly straight forward. The design team work as part of a product team lead by a product manager. This conversation made me realise there’s a very straight forward for Product Design – something that’s always felt like it’s very woollily defined – it’s design that is done as part of a product team. (The ‘product’ in product design refers to the team not the product itself.)

In the murky space before the product is properly defined the answer is a bit less clear. Design has a claim to primacy (user needs) and so does product (delivering the business strategy). So both first, or neither, whatever. The solution is design and product to collaborate as equals both bringing their unique strengths and perspectives to work which opportunities will deliver best for customers and the business.