Product Management, UX, and Development: What Ratio is Right for Your Company?

October 7, 2013

One of the biggest questions facing our portfolio companies, and indeed all growing tech companies, is how to allocate their precious few venture capital dollars. There are many functions they could be allocating headcount to, and even functions within functions.

While a discussion of all of the available options is a huge undertaking, I’d thought I’d narrow it down for this blog to allocating resources within the product function:

  • Product Management
  • UX and User Testing
  • Engineers

What’s the proper ratio between these three groups?

Product Management vs. UX vs. Development: Finding the Right Ratio

Fortunately, many people across the interwebs have already asked and answered this question, so coming to a consensus was simply a matter of aggregating a few different Q&A sites.

While the average for tech companies with all three functions (some don’t have UX) seems to be 1:1:4 (PM:UX:Dev), the range of responses is staggering. Some respondents said there’s one interaction designer and two PMs to every 50 developers at their company. Some said the ratio is closer to 1:1:1.

Which end of the range is right for you?

Just because 1:1:4 is the middle of the road doesn’t mean it’s the right ratio for every organization. Depending on your product, business model, and culture, your company might be best suited for one end of this spectrum — or even outside of it.

Low End (fewer PM and UX compared to developers)

Companies best suited for the low end of the range (low PM and UX relative to developers) are probably ones that have some of the following characteristics:

  • A more complicated back end. If your product interacts extensively with other machines or has heavy computing requirements, you probably employ a number of engineers that have nothing to do with the user interface.
  • Scale of features. Generally, a company with a few simple features that are used intensively by millions of people will require more engineering resources to ensure availability relative to PM and UX.
  • API-centricity. We’re only just starting to see the emergence of the B2D (business to developer) model, as companies like Stripe and Twilio have almost entirely forgone the User Interface. But even companies with a small group of devs focusing on the API will find themselves needing fewer UX designers to go around. While I recognize the need for a PM on an API, it also seems to me like their job would be much more straight-forward, meaning fewer PMs too.

High End (closer to an equal ratio)

On the other end of the spectrum are companies with a nearly equal number of PMs, UX designers, and engineers. A couple of reasons this end of the spectrum might be desirable:

  • A cultural focus on UX. User experience is important to every company, but not every company considers it their primary competitive advantage. If you consider your UX to be your core differentiator, put your money where your mouth is with a higher ratio.
  • Simple back end. Just as some companies take care of the back end of things and offer an API as their product, some companies are really just a nice looking façade for an API (or multiple APIs). Some examples of this might be aggregator websites like Indeed or Kayak. If most of your developers focus on front-end or web design, you probably have a higher need for UX.

B2B vs. B2C

You’ll notice that I haven’t yet mentioned your company’s intended customers (B2B versus B2C) as a factor pointing towards a higher or lower ratio. This is subject to some debate. On one hand, the old stereotype is still somewhat based in fact — B2B products tend to put less emphasis on usability, and more on packing the product full of features to appeal to non-user buyers.

But on the other hand, if B2B products generally have more features, that should mean that there are more features for a PM to prioritize and more interactions for UX to design.

Consider Google’s search product. From a features and design perspective, it doesn’t get much simpler. Most of the work goes on behind the scenes, with a tremendously complicated ranking algorithm and indexing function. I’d be shocked if this product didn’t have one of the lowest ratios in the business.

So How Do You Know if Your Ratio Is Off?

Some tech companies’ product teams run like a well-oiled machine at all times.

Most do not.

To diagnose whether an imbalance in your ratio is a source of friction, consider whether either of these scenarios sound familiar:

Scenario 1: Your UX and PM teams keep adding to an already huge backlog. What you do you do pretty well, but you have huge holes in your functionality that are preventing your product from competing against established competitors.

Scenario 2: Your engineers are making core decisions about your product functionality and interaction. For the end user, the product may feel cluttered and intimidating. You can compete on functionality, but often lose prospects in the trial phase or have problems with customer churn.

Either way, it’s probably a good idea to re-balance your ratio. If Scenario 1 sounds like your company, you’re probably relatively deficient in engineers. If Scenario 2 is more accurate, you may need to add to your UX and/or PM staffs.

What does your current ratio look like? Do you think it needs adjustment or is it right on the money?

Behavioral Data Analyst

Nick is a Behavioral Data Analyst at <a href="">Betterment</a>. Previously he analyzed OpenView portfolio companies and their target markets to help them focus on opportunities for profitable growth.