An introduction to product management

If you’re a product manager, or if you suspect you may playing the role of a product manager, the chances are, at some point, you’ll be required to explain what you do to someone far less familiar with the field…

  • Your significant other’s friend who got her first Facebook account mid-2016
  • Your cardigan-wearing luddite father who has not yet adopted an electric shaver
  • Your sprightly grandma whose AM/FM radio is her most technologically advanced possession

Or maybe it’ll be your digital-native nephew whose mastery of countless apps has gotten him no closer to understanding how they’re made.

Without further ado, here’s a description of product management fitting for all the friends, dads, grandmas, and nephews out there. We hope you and your colleagues might find it handy as well.

What is product management?

In simplest possible terms…

Product management is deciding what to build next.

Products exist to solve problems in the world. That applies to physical products, like skateboards, as well as digital ones, like Facebook. These problems don’t just float around in the ether. They’re problems that actual people have. So for simplicity’s sake, we’ll refer to them as user needs.

User needs include functional needs like I need to get to class on time or emotional needs like I need to feel respected by my friends. A product like a skateboard could solve both of these needs, but then again so could a Tesla. The optimal solution for a need may vary from person to person depending on time or context.

In reality, it’s the features of a product that address users’ needs. The wheels of a skateboard permit it to transport its owner. The beautiful yet assertive contours of a Tesla make owning one feel like a form of self-expression.

Digital products are no different. Grandma has a functional need to coordinate meetups with her grandkids so she caves in and signs up for Gmail. (5 hours of training later and she’s sent her first email, written in all caps of course.) An intuitive authoring interface helps her succeed in composing her email. An embedded address book feature keeps her from memorizing her grandson’s email address (c00ld00d1997@gmail.com). Meanwhile, her grandkids have an emotional need to be accepted by their peers and may choose to do so by cultivating online personas on social media products whose features are specifically tailored for that task.

The main thing that distinguishes physical products from software is that their features must be decided upon far in advance of being sold. Software, particularly web apps and mobile apps, are always evolving as new features and functionality are added for users to enjoy. In this case, it’s especially fair to say that the product manager’s job is to decide what features and functionality are added next.

So the next time you explain your work to your nephew you can say:

“You know how Snapchat has that feature to transform your face into a dog’s? That’s a feature that was only possible because a product manager decided it was a good idea, and put blood sweat and tears into leading a team of people (i.e. designers & engineers) to bring it to life.”

You’ll even know what to say when your clever niece who just got accepted into Berkeley chimes in:

“Well how do product managers decide if a feature is a good idea?”

When I get this follow-up, I always think back to Marty Cagan’s definition of product management in his book Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love:

“Product management is discovering a product that is valuable, usable, and feasible.”

Ok so products (and the features they contain) are a good idea to build if they’re valuable, usable, and feasible:

  • valuable in the sense that they have to solve a need someone has
  • usable because people must be able to learn how to use them without giving up, and use them on an ongoing basis without growing frustrated
  • feasible since new features can’t require too many resources (time, money, effort, physical materials) or the company behind the product will go bankrupt (or get beaten in the market by savvier competitors)

So to summarize, product managers decide what to build next, and they do so by ensuring the features they build are valuable, usable, and feasible. We’ll explore each of these in the sections to come.

We’ll also look into some of the other responsibilities product managers have that make the role so multifaceted, so easy to misconstrue, and so fun.