A product manager has two main responsibilities:
- Lead product development
- Work with stakeholders across the company to ensure that the product direction is aligned with the objectives of the company
To do their jobs, product managers sit among three key functional teams:
- The consumption part. In the digital world, the consumer is the user. In the physical world, it is called “consumer”.
- The creation part. In the digital world, it is software development. In the physical world, it is the production.
- The business team, which is the group that has come together to create a service in the hope for generating profit.
While a product manager job description slightly changes from company to company, the main responsibilities remain the same. Let's look at product manager main responsibilities in more detail.
Lead Product Development
At a high level, product development is broken down into three sections:
- Problem Discovery
- Problem Discovery
- Product Building
Product managers are responsible for all the three parts of product development. And depending on their level of seniority, they focus on different parts of product development.
Junior product managers focus more on execution and product building since problem discovery and solution discovery are more strategic and need some experience. The difficulty usually goes from top to bottom: If you know the problem, you can find a solution. And if you know the solution, you can usually build it. As product managers gain more experience, they take more responsibilities by either growing horizontally (e.g. taking more product building responsibilities for additional features or parts of a product) or growing vertically (by taking responsibilities for problem and solution discovery for the same feature or parts of the product).
And the more senior product managers become, the more responsible they will be for deciding what high level themes of problems and solutions to allocate resources on. The best product leaders are great at thinking creatively about solving problems in ways that are 10 times better than existing ways.
Let’s review the three steps of the product development responsibility in more detail.
Depending on the stage of the company and product lifecycle, product managers take different approaches to discovering problems. Each company is usually solving one big problem and each product manager focuses on solving a subset of problems within that big problem. The more senior a product manager, the more general the product statement becomes. For example, Google is solving the disorganization of data by organizing the data. The Google Maps Head of product focuses on solving for easy access to finding directions and locations. And a particular product manager might be focusing on delivery of bike lane data within Google Maps.
There are different ways to discover problems:
- Interview target users: Product managers take various approaches to interview their target users.
- Past experiences: Sometimes it’s better to focus on past experiences and ask questions about previous user experiences / behaviors to discover patterns and pain points (e.g. Tell me how you went about booking your last vacation.)
- Wish lists: This works better for existing customers although it should be used carefully. Sometimes wish lists do not match with reality of what is needed.
- Observing user’s interaction: Good product managers know that most user interviews do not reveal everything because users don’t always realize they have a problem. Imagine you asked someone in year 2005 what problem they had with their phone. Most would not have told you they would like access to the internet from anywhere at anytime. But by observing how users gained access to information, one could realize “lack of constant access to the internet at your fingertips” was a pain point. This step is sometimes conducted as part of a market research study where product managers closely monitor and study a group of target users and their interactions with the product’s alternatives or the product itself.
- Measure performance of existing product / user behaviors: By leveraging usage data and analytics, a product manager can discover behavioral patterns and friction points in user behavior.
- Market developments: This is based on news. For example, if you find out that your competitor released a feature, sometimes you have no choice but to compete with them and prioritize solutions just to stay relevant to your target market.
After discovering the problems, product managers usually estimate the severity of the problems. There are different ways to determine the severity of the problems. Some of the more popular ways are: market research, user feedback, market testing (create a call to action and see how many clicks you can get from it), prototyping and user testing. In many cases, product managers are so knowledgeable about the space and know their users so well that they know the importance of a problem (at a qualitative level) without doing much research.
This is the part where product managers determine how they solve a problem. There are different ways to go about finding solutions. Sometimes, product managers work with product designers (if the team has one), sometimes they work with UX designers, sometimes product managers are responsible for finding solutions and sometimes when it is an Engineering solution, product managers must work with the engineering team. Once a product manager determines a way to solve a problem, they estimate the work involved in developing the product based on required resources (human, financial, time, etc).
The two steps of problem discovery and solution discovery happen on an ongoing basis but depending on the size of the company (the smaller the company, the more frequent this is revisited and adjusted according to new information), product managers use steps 1 and 2 to develop a product roadmap and backlog for their product. The product backlog is a set of features and capabilities that the product managers will be developing in the future. The backlog management and roadmap development usually requires some work and collaboration with the team.
Junior product managers need to ensure their roadmap and backlogs are approved by more senior product leaders in the product development team and meet their longer term product strategy. In many cases, the development of product and its priorities have many dependencies and require buy-in from other teams. For example, if you are updating a mobile banking app to solve a new problem [e.g. enable mobile check deposit (solution) to solve for user’s lack of desire to visit a branch (problem)], you need to ensure various stakeholders (banking team, legal, compliance, securities, etc) are aligned and their opinions are taken into consideration. In smaller companies, product managers work with the CEO and key stakeholders to ensure that they are comfortable with the approach.
One might ask: How do you know if your proposed solution is any good? There are different ways to go about it. Sometimes, it is market research, sometimes, it is user testing, sometimes it is prototyping and observing how users interact with it.
It is also important to measure the effectiveness of the solution to ensure that the solution to the problem does not create bigger problems. Big consumer technology companies such as Facebook pay a lot of attention to various metrics for making sure that their new products and features help the company continue moving towards its goals. For example, if the problem for Facebook Like is user’s lack of ability to see it, making the Facebook Like icon much bigger might not be a good solution because it might negatively impact engagement in other parts of the Facebook product.
Build the product:
Once product managers know how they want to solve a problem and have decided to prioritize it, they work with the stakeholders to develop detailed requirements for the product / feature they want to build. If it is a simple consumer app, the product manager might only need to engage with a UX designer and engineering team to build the product. The outcome of most of those works is usually a set of written information that helps product managers and the rest of the building team (e.g. engineering and UX designers) have clarity on what is being built. Here are the three most common documents that are written before a product is built:
- Product Requirements: It describes the objective of the product, why it’s being built, how it’s being built, timelines, etc.
- Technical Specifications: This document is usually written by the senior member of the engineering team that represents the engineering team in the product building process.
- User Stories: The stories are generally written by the product manager and engineering team as a way to break down delivery of the product into very small deliverables that can be tested and verified to be completed. An example of a story is “As a Facebook user, I should see “your login credentials are incorrect” if I enter email address and password that do not match with a user’s login credentials.”
Once the engineering and development teams have developed the user stories, there is usually some testing and QA process to ensure that the development was done according to the standards described in the Product Requirements, Technical Specs, and User Stories. The person responsible for QA and testing usually varies depending on the size of the team and the team culture. Sometimes, the product manager is responsible for testing. In larger teams, there is a dedicated QA team who is responsible for making sure that a product is working well.
It is also important to know that no matter how much research and planning is done, there will be things that come up that might require product managers to adjust their plans accordingly. Examples are:
- Engineering team realizes a previously agreed upon path for building a feature is hard and asks to consider a different solution.
- The team comes across edge cases that have not been thought of (e.g. for enabling mobile deposit of physical checks, they might realize many users do not have clean phone camera lenses and take blurry pictures).
- They need clarity on the scope of the project.
The best product managers are able to work closely with the teams and adjust their plans if needed according to new information that is provided.
Working with company stakeholders
As the person responsible for the product, it is important for the product manager to ensure that various company stakeholders are aligned with the product directions and understand the perspectives of the product team on various topics. As a result, a part of a product manager’s time is usually spent on communication and working with non-functional teams across the company.
In the end, a product manager’s job changes every day and is different depending on the company priorities, new information coming from teams and market, and the company resources.
If you are interested in becoming a product manager, here is an article on How to become a product manager
. If you are interested in preparing for product manager job interviews, read How to prepare for a product manager job interview
. I have also gathered a list of product manager interview questions
to help you prepare for job interviews.
I hope you enjoyed reading this article. If you have any feedback or questions regarding the article or the product manager job description, email