Product Managers – What do they do?

One of the key roles you will have to work with in your UX projects is a Product Manager or Product Owner. We speak to Josh Harris, Senior Product Manager at LexisNexis UK to find out more about what they do..

How did you get into your current role?

Luck? I did Law at university, but realised pretty quickly that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. After I graduated I signed up with a recruitment agency and the next day they gave me a call offering a temporary admin position at a publishing company. It turned out that the job involved recruiting research participants for the Product Development department.

I’ve always been interested in technology and software, but had assumed that my lack of programming or design skills left me destined to be an industry spectator. I didn’t know Product Management was a thing!

I must have impressed in the research recruitment role, because at the end of the five temp week contract they offered me a Junior Product Management position. Three years later I’m a senior Product Manager in charge of one of our most important products.

In your own words, what does a Product Manager do?

I sometimes think being a Product Manager is like being an agent – you’re the go-between for different groups.

With the the development team, I’m a representative of the business and the customer, prioritising the team’s work to meet the organisation’s commercial objectives.

With business stakeholders, I’m a representative of the development team, explaining constraints, setting expectations, and showing off the work the team have done.

I think the key to being a great Product Manager is the ability to wear both these hats comfortably, and to remember that both aspects are equally important – you can’t get too wrapped up in either Powerpoint or your backlog.

How do you prioritise your product features?

The standard answer is that I prioritise based on what is most important to the business and the customer, but it’s never as simple as that.

For one, ‘importance’ only gives one side of the story – you have to balance that against cost. Feature A might be considered more ‘important’ than Feature B, but if Feature B can deliver 80% of the value of Feature A at only 40% of the cost, then Feature B probably represents better commercial value, and I’d prioritise it higher.

As well as considering cost, you also have to guard against bias. It’s easy to put more importance on a problem because it’s one you’ve personally experienced, or see the value in an idea you’ve come up with, but you need to be careful you’re not overweighting your own views when compared to those of others.

When I get stuck, I always try to ask myself two questions:

1. What is the goal of this product, project, or service?
2. Which of these possible features will move us closest to this goal, bearing in mind the constraints within which we have to work?

These same questions can be pretty useful in persuading others too!

What are the main challenges in your role?

This is easy: there’s always too much to do! This is true both from the perspective of my personal to-do list, but crucially it’s also true from a product or feature perspective. Almost any idea you can think of for a new feature on your favourite app or website, I guarantee someone working there has thought of it too.

The problem is almost never a lack of ideas – most companies are drowning in ideas! It’s finding time to execute on them that’s the problem.

Having so many possible things to work on means you inevitably have to disappoint people whose ideas you don’t take forward. I always try to talk people through the reasoning behind the decision, and fortunately most that I’ve worked with are pretty understanding so it doesn’t cause problems, but it’s not very fun.

What types of people do you typically have to interact with?

Most blog posts and books about Product Management focus on the relationship between the Product Manager and the developers and UX designers. Whilst that is probably the bit I find the most fun, the reality of the PM role is that you’re there to build consensus, which requires spending time with people from pretty much all corners of the organisation and not just focusing on your small Product team.

I think of this as the bit of the iceberg below the water because it’s so time consuming and it isn’t immediately obvious how much it contributes to the actual building of the product.

That said, I do enjoy speaking to other teams because it means spending time with people with different personalities and experiences than your typical Product team but that do still deeply care about and feel ownership of the product we’re offering.

For example, I have lots of interaction with the Sales teams who are often sterotyped as loud and demanding but are actually extremely focused on improving the product experience for their customers.

At the other end of the spectrum you have content creators who can be painted as quiet and bookish but in reality are incredibly passionate subject matter experts. It’s a real mix, but it’s one of the reasons I enjoy my job.

How do you incorporate users into the product process?

The majority of new developments for the product I manage come directly from user feedback. Sales teams and Customer Support are constantly sending on comments, queries, and complaints about the product which we use to refine the UI and basic functionality. I meet with those teams very regularly so that we can keep the feedback loop as short as possible.

We’re also lucky enough to have a ‘Customer Insight’ team dedicated to collecting and organising user research from different projects so that it can be made available to anyone in the company.

This means that everyone has access to a steady stream of fresh user interviews which are recorded, transcribed, and analysed for user needs, which we can then use to plan new features.

One area that we are trying to get better at is how I and my team use customer usage data. We’re still not good enough at setting metrics and targets to measure whether any of our new developments actually helped in the way we intended. Trying to improve that is one of my big projects for the year.

Where do you see the future of product development going?

On the one hand I’m optimistic. ‘Software is eating the world’, and that means the product development industry is going to keep on growing as and the demand for experienced product people will grow with it.

But as technologists, we shouldn’t think that we’re any more immune than taxi drivers or factory workers to the changes that are being made possible by the progress in the group of technologies loosely labelled ‘AI’.

It’s not hard to imagine that a computer programme could run multi-variant tests, analyse the results, and update the code directly without any human involvement. In the long run, I think this means that product development will become less about the code or design, and more about spending time with users to understand their needs and identify new product opportunities.