One of the things I like most about product management is that it gives me the opportunity to touch virtually every part of the business. I’m as likely to be looped into a sales call as I am to be reviewing a database diagram with a software architect. However, that breadth of experience can make it difficult to understand what is required in the Product Manager (PM) role. In my opinion, it breaks down to five key duties:
I’ll describe these in detail below. If you can develop clear competencies in these areas, you will find success in any product role whether you are at a small consumer startup, a massive public enterprise software company, or anything in between.
Research is one of the most fundamental duties of a product manager and is a key skill set to develop. Depending on the type of company, the stage of the product, and the PM’s skills, research can include deep dives into an industry, it can include pouring over usage data or running A/B tests, it can include trialing a number of existing products or solutions, the list goes on. Perhaps the most important form of research for a PM, however, is user research as it is hard to address the needs of users without understanding them first. While some companies will have a dedicated role for UX research, I believe it is still incumbent upon the PM to flex their user research muscles. What exactly are you looking for when conducting user research? The goal is to develop an understanding of your users that is so deep, in some ways you know them better than they know themselves. Specifically, you are looking to identify the critical needs or pain points that are unmet in their lives. This might seem easy, but it is more difficult than one might think because, oftentimes, the needs or pain points have become so ingrained that your users might not even recognize them as issues until they see a better solution. A useful trick that I have found is to look for the Rube Goldberg device like workarounds that they may have developed to complete a task…these might include something like downloading a CSV, uploading into a spreadsheet, doing some minor changes, downloading as a new CSV, and re-uploading somewhere else. If someone is willing to go through a process like that repeatedly, the outcome must be important, and your product’s ability to simplify the process substantially will meet a real need for the user. The cartoon below is meant to be funny but “solutions” like this abound and present low-hanging fruit for the Product Manager that has done her research.
No matter how different the product, the industry, or the approach, one thing remains true for any Product Manager, there are always more things you could build than you have resources for. That means a PM cannot be truly effective without getting good at prioritization. While there are all sorts of frameworks for making prioritization decisions, an important first step is to develop a strategy that can help to define actionable objectives. Create a strategy first and you will find that many of the things that may seem like a priority do not actually fit any of your strategic objectives. You can now focus your prioritization efforts on a smaller subset of candidates. For more on product strategy, I highly suggest reading Vince Law’s excellent post WTF is Strategy?
Chances are, however, that even after eliminating the feature candidates that do not fit within your strategic objectives, you will still have more options than bandwidth and, even if not, how do you decide what to tackle first? That’s where frameworks come in. There are a multiplicity of options out there, but I’ll focus on two that I find particularly useful.
The first is essentially to look for “door number three”. What I mean by this is, when looking at a set of options, ask yourself if there is something else you could do that makes all the other options irrelevant. I like to call these “force multipliers” because of the outsized impact you get from the effort you put in. You won’t always find a “door number three”, but the benefit if you do is vast enough that it’s always worth trying. For those curious to learn more, Tim Ferriss writes about a similar concept in his post, Finding the One Decision That Removes 100 Decisions.
The second framework that I like to use is looking at the effort to value ratio. Essentially, you evaluate the positive benefits the feature would provide and divide it by the level of effort it would take to implement. Finally, you prioritize the features with the highest ratios. Generally, I am a big fan of this framework but I like to add a third dimension: urgency. Some features may add value whenever they are released, whereas others may be tied to a specific date or time of year such as the start of the school year in EdTech. Typically I will use urgency as a modifier for value before calculating the effort to value ratio so that I can still use a two dimensional graph (see below).
Once you have an idea of the problem you are looking to solve and an inkling of what the solution might look like, you need to design it. Oftentimes, this starts with laying down a rough idea of the requirements in writing and then sketching out digital wireframes or paper prototypes. These are low fidelity representations that nonetheless provide a strongly representative idea of the feature or product. It is easy to fall in love with a feature idea and the more polished the design, the harder it is to give or receive feedback on it. Low-fi designs like wireframes help prevent users from thinking the product is too set to criticize and gives you the opportunity to collect feedback on both the UI (user interface: the shapes, colors, text, etc.) and the UX (user experience: the actions/flows the user takes to accomplish key tasks). The goal is to learn as much as possible while utilizing as little effort on upfront design as you can. You can create wireframes with almost any tool, whether it be pen and paper, Microsoft Paint, Google Slides, or even Adobe Photoshop, but Balsamiq has made it really easy with pre-built elements and an easy to use UI. Whatever tool you use, make sure not to skip this critical opportunity to get early feedback. It can be tempting to jump ahead in the name of speed but you are likely to either slow yourself down in the long run or to have a lesser product because of a key insight you missed early in the design process.
After testing your wireframes with users and iterating on them, it’s time to bring in the design professionals. Many product managers, myself included, fancy ourselves to have some design skill and can be tempted to handle the design work on our own. This only seems like a good idea until you work with a UI/UX designer and realize that there is a world of difference–they’re the true professionals. If you do not have a designer on staff, there are many great contractors or services out there you can work with. It won’t be cheap but it will be worth it. The best design won’t bail you out if you haven’t correctly identified the user needs/solutions, but if you have done your job well on that front it can make all the difference in delivering a world class product for your users.
One last point on design, it can be tempting to view the steps I am laying out as a conveyor belt with hard boundaries between them but this should not be the case. Rather than throwing your requirements and wireframes over the fence to design and waiting for the output, this should be a continual conversation where designers are looped in early and there is constant partnership and iteration. Designers may start on a more definitive portion of the product while you continue to iterate on wireframes for the remaining question marks. Additionally, user testing doesn’t end with wireframes, you want to be constantly collecting feedback on the high fidelity designs and even on the product itself as it is developed. Close partnership with all the people you work with as well as constant iteration are the keys to creating great products.
While Product Managers do not typically do any of the coding for their products, partnering with the engineers that do is a critical component of the job. As with designers, you want to keep the engineers looped in throughout the process of product design and development as they can provide information about approach and feasibility that can drastically affect the timing and delivery of the final product. While the individual engineers typically report to the engineering manager, the product manager plays an important leadership role on the team. You define what gets worked on in what order and need to keep the team motivated. I have found that engineers, like most people, work best when they have a clear understanding of why they are doing the work they are doing and how it ties into the company’s greater purpose. It is the PM’s job to make sure the team is always operating with a clear purpose.
Oftentimes, issues arise that limit the teams’s ability to complete the work exactly as defined. At this point, it is the PM’s job to figure out whether to reduce the scope of the project, to let the target release date slip, or to call in a favor and push on the team to put in extra hours to finish the job. I recommend using that third option, pushing the team, sparingly and only in cases where you have gained the respect of your team over a long period of time and the need is truly business critical. Whatever approach to problems you take, as the PM, you are ultimately responsible for the final product. To make sure it is on time and of high quality, you need to keep close contact with the engineers and regularly review work before it is released. A great way to ensure quality and timeliness is to release smaller chunks of work more frequently. This allows you to get constant feedback, to iterate, and to make sure nothing goes too far off the rails before you can bring it back on track.
If you’ve done everything right up to the point of release, then you have a world class product that meets a real need for your users. You might be ready to pat yourself on the back for a job well done, but even the best product in the world means very little if no one knows that it exists, why it exists, how to sell it, or how to use it. It is a Product Manager’s job to make sure that anyone and everyone who needs to be, within the company and in the market, is fully aware of those points. If you are lucky, you’ll have a great product marketing manager to help you, but even so, it is important to partner closely to make sure that the product is represented properly, the features are shared, the benefits are understood, etc. As with most things in life, it helps to start with why. You need to have clear messaging about why you built this particular product or feature and then make sure that your marketing team, your sales team, your support team, and of course your customers fully grok it. You’ll want to use multiple channels to communicate this both internally and externally as most people need to hear the same thing three different times in three different ways to internalize it. As much as people might push back, repetition is your friend and an important tool in the product tool belt.
Here are some examples of how I evangelize internally to raise awareness of the product and the work of the team. In addition to publishing a biweekly sprint report and sending email announcements with a full list of available collateral for major releases, I hold a monthly review session where I give an overview of the work we’ve released in the past month and what we plan to do in the month ahead. This session is open to anyone at the company, and I also publish the deck and session recording so anyone can check it out even if they miss the meeting. It is a lot of work, but the consistency and transparency helps to build trust and free flowing communication with the rest of the organization which is critical to the success of our products.
You’ll also want to make sure that your users understand how to use the product or feature. Ideally, your design has made things clear and intuitive such that users do not need additional hand holding. That said, it never hurts to be over-prepared. Things like in product walk-throughs, help center articles, and video how-tos can be critical in making sure your users get value from your product. As you might have guessed, sufficiently evangelizing your product needs to be at the forefront and requires you to be thinking about and prepping for your launch well before release. You’ll also want to make sure to include some sort of usage tracking as part of your tool so you can measure the success of your efforts and dial up or down your marketing push as needed. Amplitude, Google Analytics, Mixpanel, and a host of other tools do a great job making this easy to do.
Regardless of the product or industry, if you are doing product management, on any given day you’ll be carrying out one or more of the following key duties:
Chances are some will come easily, while others you’ll have to work at. That’s okay! Constant learning and improvement is part of the job.