The world’s most popular products, from high-tech computers to comfy sweaters, come from lengthy research, testing, and design processes. This involves product management, the strategy behind every successful product.
Product management enables entrepreneurs to uncover critical information, from whether a product resonates with customers to picking which features to include. Mastering product management can help businesses of any size to create and launch exceptional products.
What Is Product Management?
Product management is the step-by-step process of designing, developing, launching, and improving products. Product managers oversee products during each life-cycle stage, from conducting market research to designing prototypes to improving a product after launch.
Product managers take on advisory roles and leverage research and data to determine the direction and vision of a product. They then work with product developers, who build and update products or services. But the role is fluid and can include differing responsibilities.
Types of Product Management
Businesses use various types of product management depending on their goals. For example, a customer-focused product management team would specialize in understanding customer needs and pain points.
Product management also depends on the company and scope of its work. Some work primarily on brainstorming and market research, while others work on the entire life cycle of a product.
As a field, product management boils down to two types: technical and nontechnical.
Technical Product Management
Technical product management takes a product-focused approach. Technical product managers tend to have the know-how to build out a product, including understanding specific coding languages. These product managers focus more on product creation and less on go-to market strategies.
If you plan on launching a product that requires software development, technical product management would help provide steps and specific, development-related tasks to build it.
Nontechnical Product Management
Nontechnical product management takes on a more customer-centric, soft skills approach. Here, product managers focus on market research, customer relations, and marketing. They determine the foundation and selling point of a product by defining customer problems and conceptualizing ways to solve them.
This type of product management has a more generalist approach. It tackles the early stages of a product (e.g., identifying a customer pain point) all the way to launch (e.g., marketing the product). They offer critical advice and insights on customer problems, but usually leave the product building to engineers or developers.
Product Management vs. Project Management
Product management involves setting the vision, goals, and direction for the ideation, development, and execution of a product. On the other hand, project management centers on a set of tasks often related to product management.
A project manager might handle the development of a specific feature, for example, while a product manager advises on the entire timeline of a product.
Program Management vs. Product Management
Product management takes a more customer-centric approach and identifies opportunities, whereas program management involves aligning parts of an organization to achieve goals set by product managers.
Program managers take a tactical view across the organization. Although product managers collaborate with multiple teams on brainstorming and ideation, program managers help more with logistics to ensure each one meets respective deadlines. For example, a program manager might help marketing hire new people to achieve a certain goal or assist customer specialists with training.
Though different in function, product management and program management often get thrown into one bucket. Their functions can vary across industries. Though they often work with products, a program manager can oversee and help push forward any program within an organization.
Product Management Process
- Conduct Customer Research
- Position the Problem
- Brainstorm With Stakeholders
- Build Out the Idea
- Create a Product Road Map
- Prioritize Different Features
- Execute the plan
- Experiment and Optimize
Product management can take on many different forms, so the process will vary depending on the company, the type of product manager, and their scope.
However, there are a few best practices you can implement — from defining buyer personas to planning out the launch of a new product.
1) Conduct Customer Research
Helen Huang, founder of product management education platform Co.Lab, says the first step of product management is understanding your ideal customer — and the market you hope to enter, including its size, competitors, and current trends.
Start by defining an ideal buyer persona. Who are they? What do they like or dislike? How do they consume information? Write down as much as you can about them, and imagine this persona as a real person. This information will serve as the foundation for the rest of this process.
You can learn more about your customer by going to relevant forums or groups, such as those on Reddit, LinkedIn, or even Discord. These communities have a plethora of users who post questions, discussions, and even problems. You could also participate in these forums, and ask users about their experiences as it relates to your industry.
2) Position the Problem
Great ideas often stem from first characterizing a problem. Within product management, this means defining problems your customers face — which then leads to solutions.
You can find pain points by looking at your buyer persona and asking questions, such as:
- What do they care the most about?
- What questions are they asking online?
- Is there a problem a lot of them have?
- Is this a problem only they have?
- Does this problem have a viable solution?
Product managers can use the defined problem to inspire other stakeholders to get on board about creating a solution.
3) Brainstorm With Stakeholders
As a product manager, you must meet with stakeholders across your organization to brainstorm ideas — including developers, marketers, and even customers.
Make sure to interview potential customers. Ask them questions about their experiences with certain products related to your industry. Ask thoughtful follow-up questions, such as inquiring about why they feel or think the way they do.
When speaking with internal stakeholders, use the problem you defined in the previous step as the basis of the conversation. You want to demonstrate that your prospective customers have a problem, and the organization can create a viable solution through a product. Your customer interviews can also help with these conversations.
Ask internal stakeholders and teams for their ideas without judgment. After all, bad ideas can lead to great ones. Jot them down and use them later to conceptualize the product.
4) Build Out the Idea
After aggregating ideas from stakeholders, narrow your focus to one solid path the organization can pursue. You could combine aspects of different concepts, or take a strong idea from one source.
Next, go through product specifications and understand what needs to go into the proposed product. Create a document that answers the following questions:
- What will the product look like? How does it address the defined problem?
- What should the product ideally contain?
- How will the organization measure the product’s success?
Since product managers either take on the development of a product themselves or act as advisers, the level of detail in the document will vary. For example, if you take on a more technical role, the product specs in the document should contain detailed information — such as guidelines on the technical direction of a product.
Alternatively, you might offer general guidance for developers or engineers on what a product should contain. Collaborate with other departments to better understand what you can realistically build.
5) Create a Product Road Map
A product road map details step-by-step milestones during the development and launch process. A road map includes dates, goals, and metrics to keep the project on track.
Your product road map should contain the following:
- Specific dates and times on when to reach a milestone
- Tasks and how each one contributes to the product’s success
- Those responsible for achieving certain milestones
- Metrics to measure success
6) Prioritize Different Features
After you build out high level goals in the road map, it’s time for feature prioritization, where you determine how much time to dedicate to developing different features.
When prioritizing features, consider how each one contributes to your product’s finished version, to what extent they solve your persona’s problem, and how many resources the feature needs to be developed. A feature that mildly improves user experience but takes several months to finish could be cut in favor of a higher-impact function.
7) Execute the Plan
With a road map built out and features prioritized, the product manager can start delivering directives. They could pass on milestones to certain teams, such as software engineers, and take on more advisory roles. Alternatively, more technical product managers could take on hands-on roles and assist developers in creating the product.
Delivery often takes on two models: agile and waterfall. An agile process involves releasing versions of a product in iterations and incorporating customer feedback during every release. Alternatively, a waterfall method takes on a more tightly managed approach with products not getting released until they reach final approval.
8) Experiment and Optimize
The product management process continues after release. Product managers will monitor the success of a product and determine where to make improvements. During the early stages of launch, for example, a product manager might use A/B testing to improve marketing or the product.
Continue to collect feedback from customers, and ask them whether they have problems or concerns using the product. Continue collaborating with internal stakeholders and keep them posted on feedback and improvement ideas.
Product Manager Frameworks
- CIRCLES Method
- 5Ws and H
- RICE Scoring Model
- 4P's of Marketing
- 5C's of Pricing
- Porter's Five Forces
Product managers use different frameworks to streamline the process. A few common ones include:
The CIRCLES Method stands for:
- Comprehend the situation
- Identify the customer
- Report the customer’s needs
- Cut via prioritization
- List solutions
- Evaluate trade-offs
- Summarize your recommendations
This framework provides a step-by-step guide for conducting customer research, defining a problem, and brainstorming solutions.
5Ws and H
This framework helps product managers gather information using six questions:
Though simple, this method implores product managers to ask follow-up questions and dig deeper into a problem and solution.
The acronym stands for:
- Acquisition: How is our audience discovering our product?
- Activation: How is our audience engaging with our product?
- Retention: Is our audience continuing to use our product?
- Referral: Does our audience refer others to our product?
- Revenue: How much is our audience willing to pay for our product?
This framework provides product managers with critical user-based metrics, and is particularly helpful for gathering feedback post product launch.
Google developed the HEART framework as a way to measure user experience (UX) of software. It includes:
- Task success
Product managers determine which metrics fall into each category. For example, you might measure happiness based on user satisfaction via ratings.
Other popular frameworks include:
- RICE Scoring Model: Enables product manages to prioritize certain features and ideas over others
- 4P’s of Marketing: Brings together key elements — product, price, place, and promotion — to consider when marketing a product
- 5C’s of Pricing: The five parts — cost, customers, channels, competition, and compatibility — to consider when figuring out an optimal product price
- Porter’s Five Forces: Uses five critical parts to evaluate an industry’s strengths, weaknesses, and competitiveness
Product Management Careers
As the field of product management grows, so does the demand for workers. Product managers can come from a diverse range of educational and professional backgrounds, including those without college degrees or coding skills.
There are product management opportunities across all industries, from consumer electronics to cosmetics. And product managers make significantly more than the national average — ~$128k compared to ~$56k — so the career has substantial financial potential.
Though it takes time, you can learn how to become a product manager by working on side projects, tightening your resume, and connecting with others.
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