Product management is a process within a company that involves product development, planning, research, forecasting, pricing, and more, all of which leads to a product launch and product marketing. Once a product is brought to market, Product Managers will often also continue to refine the product after its launch.
In the digital sphere, Product Managers are typically involved with products that can be distributed virtually – a website, piece of software, or mobile app, for example.
In many cases – especially in the growing field of product-as-service, or digital tools and products that serve as the platform for a company’s services – “product” can mean much more than a simple app or piece of software; it can also include UX design as it relates to the service itself, and even the design of the invisible systems or infrastructure it takes to deliver that service.
Product design at its simplest is also the most familiar. It occurs at the scale of a single product, like a discrete app or website with a specific goal in mind – in other words, one touchpoint, or a single point of interaction between you and your user. The success and failure of a product can usually be measured pretty easily at this scale, whether by your product’s technical ability to complete a task or by more quantitative metrics like conversion rates. Whatever the case, analytics will let you know if your product is working or not.
Consider Netflix as an example. The company’s singular goal is to let users watch video content, but the digital products Netflix has developed to achieve this goal are numerous. There’s the website, which allows users to watch movies in a browser window. There are separate apps for Android and iOS. There are versions of Netflix tailored for gaming consoles and Blu-Ray players, or baked into smart TVs. Each of these represents a separate product or touchpoint – a different way for a user to access the service – and each one had to be developed with different functionality and features in mind.
Of course, we generally think of Netflix as a service, not a product. Although Netflix relies on a dozen different, discrete products, all of them work together to provide a seamless experience. Here, at the level of service design, larger considerations come into play. You can almost think of service design as a meta-product that comprises the entire journey users make. At this scale, the Product Manager’s focus is on how the product they’re building contributes to the full experience that all users share. For this reason, service design considerations are much more complex than at the level of an individual product, and include not just functionality but also how your product affects and is affected by the real world, before, during and after use.
For Product Managers thinking at the service scale, a clearly defined vision is the key to success. Consider how Netflix feels the same no matter what device you use to interface with it; how the system sends customized content recommendations; how it lets you pause a video on one device and continue watching it on another; how it walks users through the signup process; how users connect with customer support live chat, and how support workers access different parts of the system to resolve customer issues. Each of these functions represents a unique problem, but together, they create a streamlined experience.
Depending on the type and complexity of the service a company is providing, these features don’t come easy. In fact, to create this kind of holistic product experience requires thinking not just about individual products or even the user journey, but about the company’s entire operations, including its social impact, position, and transformational impact. It’s hard to imagine that Netflix tackled such world-changing plans without a clear structure in place to govern its decision-making – and in fact, its expansion was carefully rolled out across three phases, each phase learning from the one before. And while few Product Managers are ever tasked with such an ambitious product rollout, the very same design thinking principles that guided Netflix’s multi-year international expansion are at play during the creation of even the simplest app.
Why Is Product Management Important?
In technology organizations and beyond, product management is an increasingly important process and role as it works across departments and functions to define the strategy, roadmap, and features of entire product lines.
As with anything that involves a lot of moving parts, product development only works with a system of oversight to ensure all those parts are working together properly. There are just too many people involved in product development—from Graphic Designers to Writers to Data Architects to Developers—to let them all work independently and without guidance, focused only on their own work, and still expect the pieces to fit together.
In that sense, a Product Manager is like a Head Chef in a large kitchen. They’re responsible for planning the menu, making sure the kitchen is operational, making sure the ingredients are at hand, and making sure the line is fully staffed and trained. They may not do much cooking themselves, but their oversight of all the elements it takes to keep things moving smoothly can spell the difference between an efficient, profitable restaurant and utter chaos.
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