A recent series of blog posts on KBP.media described different product ownership models. It occurred to me that I made a big assumption throughout the entire series – that everyone reading it was familiar with the roles that I mentioned. I also realized that I left out a role quite prevalent in digital product development – user experience designer.
In order to correct that oversight here is an exploration of product people, those folks involved with product development and IT work that concentrate on determining the right things to deliver. The four roles in particular I include in the category of product people are product manager, business analyst, user experience designer, and product owner. Let’s take a look at each of these roles.
There are many different descriptions of what a product manager is. I think Melissa Perri’s description from her Product Institute online course sums it up best.
A product manager effectively solves problems for users while achieving business goals.
Product Managers sit in the intersection of business, technology, and user experience, which in some ways makes this role an amalgamation of the other roles I describe here. Martin Erickson described this idea graphically as follows:
Product managers are often described as the “CEO of the Product” but that description is misleading. While Product Managers often have the responsibility for making a product a success, they very rarely have the authority over all the folks involved in order to make that happen. They have to lead through influence, but they often make key decisions when it comes to the product.
The International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA) in the Guide to the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK) defines business analysis as :
Business analysis is the practice of enabling change in an enterprise by defining needs and recommending solutions that deliver value to stakeholders. Business analysis enables an enterprise to articulate needs and the rationale for change, and to design and describe solutions that can deliver value…
A Business Analyst is anyone who performs business analysis and more precisely:
Business analysts are responsible for discovering, synthesizing, and analyzing information from a variety of sources within an enterprise, including tools, processes, documentation, and stakeholders. The business analyst is responsible for eliciting the actual needs of stakeholders—which frequently involves investigating and clarifying their expressed desires—in order to determine underlying issues and causes. Business analysts play a role in aligning the designed and delivered solutions with the needs of stakeholders.
Business analysts tend to focus on needs of businesses and stakeholders. They primarily elicit, analyze and document requirements to find answers to known problems and deal with complicated systems.
Business analysts are usually found in organizations that develop products for internal use, IT organizations, or process improvement organizations.
User Experience Designers
There is no one specific definition of User Experience Designer, so it’s helpful to understand what User Experience Design is.
According to Emil Lamprecht in his post The Difference Between UX and UI Design-A Layman’s Guide:
User experience design is:
- the process of development and improvement of quality interaction between a user and all facets of a company.
- responsible for being hands on with the process of research, testing, development, content, and prototyping to test for quality results.
- in theory a non-digital (cognitive science) practice, but used and defined predominantly by digital industries.
User experience designers focus on the relationship between a user and a company, in all its forms.
With the rise of digital product development, user experience designers became more prevalent, often performing the same function on a product development team that business analysts perform in an IT organization.
The product owner role is an invention of the Scrum Framework and the (as close to definitive) definition of what a Product Owner is comes from the Scrum Guide (I quote the entire description here so that I don’t get accused of taking bits out of context):
The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product and the work of the Development Team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and individuals.
The Product Owner is the sole person responsible for managing the Product Backlog. Product Backlog management includes:
- Clearly expressing Product Backlog items;
- Ordering the items in the Product Backlog to best achieve goals and missions;
- Optimizing the value of the work the Development Team performs;
- Ensuring that the Product Backlog is visible, transparent, and clear to all, and shows what the Scrum Team will work on next; and,
- Ensuring the Development Team understands items in the Product Backlog to the level needed.
The Product Owner may do the above work, or have the Development Team do it. However, the Product Owner remains accountable.
The Product Owner is one person, not a committee. The Product Owner may represent the desires of a committee in the Product Backlog, but those wanting to change a Product Backlog item’s priority must address the Product Owner.
For the Product Owner to succeed, the entire organization must respect his or her decisions. The Product Owner’s decisions are visible in the content and ordering of the Product Backlog. No one is allowed to tell the Development Team to work from a different set of requirements, and the Development Team isn’t allowed to act on what anyone else says.
Product owners exist to serve the needs of the development team through making decisions and providing clear direction on the right things to build. What often gets left unsaid about product owners is how they go about making those decisions or how much they look externally.
Comparing The Roles
Each role was created to accomplish a specific purpose.
Each role evolved independently with people only recently trying to figure out how they fit together.
There are some commonalities between some of the roles, but those roles also have differences. For example, both product managers and product owners make decisions about a product. However, a product manager generally focuses on how a product solves problems for users, whereas a product owner focuses on the team delivering the solution and provides clarification about the product to keep that team going.
Business analysts and user experience designers pull information together in order to make decisions, but generally don’t make the decisions themselves. They approach that activity with a different perspective. Business analysts are concerned primarily with the business needs of the organization in which they work, whereas user experience designers concentrate on the user’s interaction with the business.
Business analysts and product owners seek to answer known questions. They seek to understand the problem in order to describe the solution. Product managers and user experience designers often try to figure out whether there is a problem to solve, and if so, what it is.
Business analysts tend to work in projects. Product managers tend to work in products. Put a good business analyst in a product setting and allow them to make decisions, they would be indistinguishable from a product manager.
Each of these roles uses different techniques. Many of those techniques are actually the same thing, only with different names. Techniques that one role uses can be very useful to a different role in given situations.
Be the best product person you can be.
Chances are you tend to specialize in one of these roles and see things from that role’s perspective. While there’s nothing particularly wrong with that, it may be better to think of yourself as a product person.
Become familiar with the techniques available to these roles, and know when each is appropriate.
Also realize that some situations call for a different role than what you typically fill. If you think back to Martin Erickson’s venn diagram, sometimes you’re in the intersection of those three circles, sometimes you may need to spend more time in one circle in particular.
Different roles make more sense in different situations. These roles are not mutually exclusive but are quite complementary with context determining which roles may be prevalent in a given situation.
I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. Did I forget a type of product person? What are your experiences working as a different type of product person? Does the concept of the product person resonate with you? Leave your thoughts in the comments.