We all know that feeling. It doesn’t matter if you’re a developer, designer or even a product person – you aren’t really clear about who does what within the product scope at your company. You have a question or a great idea about the product, and you have no clue who you should address. Don’t worry, you’re not weird. You just entered the product world. Welcome.
I hope to clarify this world a little bit for you in this post. I’m a Product Manager at Soluto, and not long ago I was at eBay for almost three years. Even though both roles are in the product scope, they’re very different. This highlights how different companies treat product roles in various ways.
To fully understand the nuanced and varied product roles that exist these days, I had to take a step back and look at the product ecosystem as a whole.
Let’s first look at the ecosystem and the roles from a bird’s eye view, then dive into each one.
Because each company is unique in size, workflow, and focus, I’ve decided it’s most accurate to explain product work not as roles but as hats. In one company, one product person may wear multiple hats, while at another company, he/she only wears one hat.
So what are product hats? Each hat represents a different set of responsibilities, tasks and end goals.
Here’s a map that gives you an idea of where product roles are located on these two axes:
The X axis represents the Market on one side and the Business on the other. On the Market side you can find customers, competitors, regulation, pricing and features. All of these market forces influence one another and are constantly in flux.
The Business side houses the company’s core values along with the inevitable business constraints. The values are what the company wants to pass on to the customer. This may be its core message, a state of mind, or even the look and feel of the product. For example, some companies want to pass on a feeling of social responsibility and the highest quality products, while other companies want to pass on a sense of trendiness and fashion.
The Y axis represents the spectrum between Technology and User Experience (UX). These two outlooks aren’t obvious opposites but can contradict one another at times. The Technology side is the place where decisions are made about stability, scale, development language and the product’s capabilities. UX refers to the look and feel that’s infused into the product that the user will experience. They say there is only one chance for a first impression, so this is the company’s shot at making a great first impression. The user should understand the product from the get-go; that means realizing the value, feeling the messages, and simply wanting to use it.
Now that we’ve covered the product ecosystem as a whole, let’s look individually at the various product hats out there:
Product Owner – “We should write this part in a different development language in order to reach our SLA”
The Product Owner hat sits atop someone who is very technical in terms of details yet tactical in their decision-making. This person quickly understands the pros and cons of a certain technology and understands how to leverage it in order to bring more value to the product itself. Simultaneously they’re constantly prioritizing different tasks in the product’s backlog and working closely with R&D, the System Architect and the QA on a daily basis. Despite being more technical, they have a clear understanding of the business’s core values in order to incorporate them into the implementation and daily development of the technologies. Quite the multitasker indeed!
Product Delivery – “The next roll-out will be in two weeks and we still have issues with that feature. Let’s fix it or we’ll disable it”
The Product Delivery hat is worn by someone whose main responsibility is to deliver the product on a silver platter to customers. This means the product is in its top state, works well, is stable and fulfills all of its promises to the customers. This person is very technical while being results driven and highly organized. At the end of the day it’s on their watch that the product passes all tests and that the continuous delivery is smooth with minor hiccups.
Product Designer – “The flow of this feature isn’t aligned with the overall flow of the app. Let’s redesign it”
The Product Designer hat is full of creative duties, all the while he/she must instill the business’s core values into the product. This person is in charge of the look and feel of the product, including color, font, copy, and animation – along with all user flows within the product. They are responsible for how the product will feel to users and that the product is in its best state for the average user. They typically work closely with UX and UI designers, copywriters, and frontend developers.
Each of the hats we discussed lean towards one side: either Technology, Business or UX, but the two following hats are out there in the wild, wild Market:
Product Growth – “We’re seeing a lot of potential users in the market looking for a solution to that problem. Let’s create exactly that to increase the adoption of the product”
The Product Growth hat is the one that checks the pulse of the product in the real world, moment by moment. They know how the market moves and what potential customers are looking for. They’re responsible for increasing the product’s growth (the adoption rate within potential segments of customers) while introducing these customers or potential customers to specific features or targeted marketing campaigns.
Customer Success – “Our customers are dying to have this new feature. Let’s develop it ASAP so we don’t lose them.”
The Customer Success hat is responsible for speaking directly with customers to ensure that they grow with the product as desired. It’s their job to understand if (and how) customers gain value from the product while maturing with the product in the way they see fit. Then this person needs to take all this information and feedback from customers and translate it to requirements for the R&D and marketing teams according to the business’s values.
The Product Manager is in the exact center of the product map, straddling all four axes: involved on the UX side, and also on the Market side. He/she needs to be able to move and adapt to each side of the axes easily in terms of knowledge, understanding and action:
Product Manager – “We need to increase the value for our customers in the short term, and in order to do so let’s think about some overall improvements, in the backend and the frontend. Let’s aim to release it in the next milestone.”
The Product Manager hat is responsible for steering things forward and verifying that the product roadmap is clear and that everyone’s on the same page. They balance Business and Market by taking the vision and value from the Business side and combining it with the real-world market requirements (as communicated by Product Growth and Customer Success). These market requirements are taken into account and incorporated into the needs and constraints of the Product Owner. Prioritization and integration are key responsibilities of the Product Manager hat and need to be done in accordance with the main product strategy. The final stage is setting success metrics and KPIs to measure and test – over and over.
As I mentioned before, each company is unique in how they structure their roles (or hats). At Soluto, we work in small teams and typically each employee wears two or three different hats. For example, I’m the Product Manger but I also wear the Product Owner hat when I work with the developers on the team; our tech leads wear the Product Owner hat as well. I also sometimes wear the Product Growth hat as I deal with analytics and measurement of specific fields. The designer and I may find ourselves working on A/B testing, UX and even some copy, so sometimes we share the Product Designer hat. The content writer may help define how we should analyze the performance of content items, thus in this case, he/she will wear the Customer Success and Product Designer hats. Because of the many hats we wear, each employee has to be flexible and nimble while taking ownership for a lot of moving parts in an ever-changing environment.
Here’s what a typical team looks like at Soluto:
I hope this post clears things up a bit. There are many product hats, and each one, whether a developer, designer or a Product, can wear them as part of their role. It is the understanding of who is doing what is what’s important.
Product is an exciting and developing field, and what I love most about it is the creativity and the flexibility. Each company has the ability to build new and creative work methodologies and reinvent product roles according to its needs. Product hats definitely need adaptable people to wear them because things aren’t done by the book. Still at times technical, Product isn’t a science, it’s truly an art.