Pictures for product managers

 Coffee and laptop at my neighborhood café last weekend

Coffee and laptop at my neighborhood café last weekend

I’m a big words person. But in my work as a product manager, nothing beats pictures.

Software is hard to talk about. When I joined Quip as a product manager a few years ago, I talked a lot about “affordances”—partly because I thought it sounded smart, partly because I truly didn’t know what we called the interactive bits and bobs in our app and I didn’t want to be wrong. Are they buttons? Do the buttons open modals? Is it a menu or a popover? Even if it’s one or the other of those, when I describe what I want in words, will they mean the same thing to every single colleague who reads them? It’s hard to picture an interface when all you’ve got is a hunk of letters and jargon.

Pictures help a lot. They lower the risk of misunderstanding, because people can just look and see: oh, you mean add a thing like that other thing we already have, but with different text. Plus, the process of creating a picture of the interface you have in mind can sometimes change your mind. You realize where the idea starts to fray, and can mend those edges as you go. And, finally: images are much easier to react to than words, because they communicate so much at once.

I get the best feedback on my ideas when I turn them into pictures. So I try to use pictures whenever I can. Even though cobbling something together in Sketch (usually by taking a screenshot of an existing part of the app, then layering color-matched rectangles on top of the things I want to change, then adding text boxes on top of those) feels like it’ll slow things down, I’m finding that it can be quick—just a minute or two—and save so much back and forth, or create momentum out of thin air. Pictures capture people’s attention, so they’re worth learning how to make.

Diana Berlin