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The Ultimate Guide to Product Management

In this comprehensive guide to product management, you’ll learn about core skills and responsibilities of the role, product management tools employed by modern product managers, Productboard's methodology for building better products, and more.
Product Management: A Definition
Product management is a role within an organization responsible for the product across its entire lifecycle. Core responsibilities include defining a product vision, setting the product strategy, and executing on it by delivering new functionality that meets customer needs and supports business goals.

Product managers often lead cross-functional product teams composed of designers, developers, and other roles, where they must influence the direction of the team without strictly managing its members. While the daily responsibilities of the product manager are vast, the role is often most associated with championing the voice of the customer, prioritizing what the team should work on next, and aligning everyone around the product roadmap.

What does a product manager do?

What is the role of a product manager? In the simplest possible terms, product managers decide what features to build next

Products exist to solve real problems in the world. That applies to physical products, like skateboards, as well as digital ones, like Facebook. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll refer to them as user needs.

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.

Here is Marty Cagan’s take on product management from his book Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love:

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

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)

To summarize, product managers decide what to build next, and they do so by ensuring the features they build are valuable, usable, and feasible.

Product manager responsibilities

Deciding what features to build next can take so many twists and turns that it seems like product managers pretty rarely have a standard day. For this reason, product management is the perfect field for those who do not want to do the same work day in and day out. 

The typical product management responsibilities that a PM might encounter day-to-day basis fall into the following categories:

  1. Discover what users need
  2. Decide and prioritize what to build
  3. Rally the team around the product roadmap

1. Understand what users need

Before product managers decide what features to build next, they often start by considering what would be most valuable to users (and potential users) of their products. To do that they must develop a deep understanding of what users need. 

“Product management is all about bridging the world of problems (user needs) and solutions.”

The best product managers regularly engage in all of the following activities to understand what their users need:

  • Set up systems & processes to collect incoming user feedback: PMs are in charge of setting up systems to actively seek out and feedback coming in from across the organization — feature requests, improvement ideas, bug reports, usability complaints, questions, suggested hacks & workarounds, and rave reviews for existing functionality. A product management system like Productboard can help you gather and keep track of all this feedback so nothing slips through the cracks.
  • Collect insights from customer-facing colleagues: Encourage colleagues to collect feature requests and ask probing questions so they can report back on users’ underlying needs. In this way, they act like an extension of your user research team.
  • Get out of the building: Interview users in their natural environment, observe their existing solutions, watch their daily routines, and study their pain points firsthand.
  • Validate your ideas in front of users: Once you have some understanding of what users need, mock-up simple solutions – even sketches or paper prototypes could work – and ask “would this solve your need?” The goal here is to use potential solutions as a means of identifying whether you correctly understand what users really need.
  • Interview the users you’ve lost: Ask why. What solution do they prefer? What features (or lack thereof) had the biggest impact on their decision? Was something missing from your product that served as the dealbreaker?

Learn more: How to gather and leverage deep user insights (ebook)

2. Decide & prioritize what to build

Here are some tips for setting yourself up for success when it comes to the responsibility of product management prioritization:

  • Define your target user: Identify the group of users who are most important to the success of your product. This way you can inform your prioritization decisions based on what’s best for your target user.
  • Focus on specific objectives: On top of how well features meet the needs of different types of users, there are strategic reasons to build certain features as well. Decide in advance what criteria you’ll use for evaluating feature idea. What’s most strategically important to your product, and to your company, right now? 
  • Prioritize in phases: You might start by sorting your feature ideas based on what users have requested most frequently. That might help you realize how many ideas relate to helping users get up to speed in your tool more quickly and inspire an initiative to improve onboarding this quarter. That in turn will help you narrow your sights on other features that support this aim.
  • Validate your assumptions: It’s always best to take the features you’re considering working on and run them by customers first – particularly those who requested them in the first place. This will save you from wasting time and resources in the long run.
  • Become familiar with popular product prioritization frameworks: Use criteria that matters most to evaluate which features to go build. For example, RICE helps you prioritize based on projected reach, impact, effort, and confidence. The Kano model divides features into those that satisfy basic needs versus those that actively delight users. There are many to choose from!
  • Clearly communicate context and constraints to designers and developers: It’s important to ensure designers and developers understand what they’re building and why. This means that for each feature, the product manager must communicate details like strategic objectives, core user needs by segment, KPIs, and more. Traditionally, this information is presented in the form of a feature specification (or “spec”).

Learn more: The essential guide to prioritization (ebook)

3. Rally everyone around the product roadmap

How do you lead your organization using influence, not authority?

One key to successfully winning buy-in from colleagues is to seek their input early and often. Share your plans and help them understand the criteria you used to make complex prioritization decisions and difficult tradeoffs. What are your biggest goals for the quarter? What initiatives will you be working on to address them? What phases will different groups of features be released in? When will they be available to users? How will this impact user behavior?

Depending on the type of product you work on, even prospects and customers will be interested in seeing the roadmap – particularly for complex B2B products with extended sales cycles, where end users are more likely to be highly involved with the intricacies of your product. Offering transparency into the decision-making behind your roadmap is a great way to excite users about the future of your product while collecting early feedback on features yet to be developed.

Learn more: The building blocks of excellent product roadmaps (ebook)

Product management skills

Let’s break down product management hard skills and soft skills needed to excel in the role. 

Hard skills

  • Learning to interview your customers: The best product managers learn to go beyond the surface of a customer’s request and get to the bottom of what they really need.
  • Experimenting with prototypes: You will need to be comfortable designing and experimenting with prototypes to figure out the best way of aligning specific features with customer behavior. 
  • Defining your product objectives: What is your product going to achieve for your customers and your company? Defining these objectives requires collaborating with company leadership and department heads to agree on what the company’s goals and priorities are for the next quarter or year. Your objectives for the product should align with and support these goals.

Soft skills

  • “Influencing without authority”: As a product manager, you’ll need to get buy-in and support from people outside your own team, like sales, customer success, marketing, and even executives. Honing your communication and storytelling skills will serve you well in your product management career.
  • Storytelling: Honing your communication and storytelling skills will serve you well in your product management career. Product thought leader and author Petra Wille shares useful storytelling techniques in a recent blog post.
  • Cultivating your curiosity: Skillful product managers understand that uncovering user needs is a multi-step process, question their own assumptions, and strive to learn as much as possible from their customers and colleagues.

 

Product management tools & tech stack

It can help to shape your product management tools and tech stack around the double diamond framework.

Product management tools for understanding the problem space

Tools for capturing qualitative user feedback

  • Zoom and Chorus.ai for conducting interviews
  • Slack, Google Docs, or Notion for making notes of key points and action items
  • Zendesk and Intercom for meeting customers where they are
  • Saleforce for better understanding the needs and pain points of prospects
  • Productboard’s product management system as a central repository for collecting customer feedback, organizing it, and mapping it onto the opportunity space.

Tools for capturing quantitative feedback

  • FullStory records how people flow through your product
  • Amplitude and Mixpanel help you dive deep into product analytics. With Productboard’s integrations to these tools, you can incorproate customer and product data seamlessly into your product management process
  • SurveyMonkey allows you to measure your NPS score, get a sense of product/market fit, and understand how happy/unhappy people are with your product. 

Tools for validating the problem

  • Miro enables virtual whiteboarding to communicate your ideas visually.
  • Loom lets you record a screen capture along with audio, making it easy to walk people through your thinking

Product management tools for exploring the solution space

Tools for ideating solutions

  •  Figma lets you create interactive prototypes

Tools for prioritizing your work

  • Productboard helps you decide which projects and features to move forward with, what sort of timeline to address them in, and how to keep stakeholders in the loop.

Learn more: The modern product manager’s tech stack (blog)

The Product Excellence methodology for better product management

Product Excellence is Productboard’s methodology for better product management. It emphasizes getting the right products to market faster through deep user insight, a clear product strategy, and an inspiring roadmap.

Through conversations with thousands of product managers, we’ve discovered that teams who consistently build products that people use and love share three areas of mastery:

  • Deep user insights (vision): The entire product team has a deep understanding of what users really need.
  • Clear product strategy (strategy): The entire organization is aligned around key strategic objectives.
  • Inspiring roadmap (execution): Everyone understands and rallies around where the product is headed and why.

The five stages of Product Excellence codify the Product Excellence methodology. You can use it to assess where your organization falls today and identify strengths and areas for improvement.

Learn more: Product Excellence: How to build products like today’s top product teams (ebook)

Resources to learn more about product management

 If you could only read one book on product management:

If you could read five more books:

If you could only read five articles on product management:

 

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