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Product management skills: how to succeed in the industry
There’s a difference between doing product management and excelling at product management.
Good product managers reliably ship features, avert major miscommunications between product design and engineering, and generally get things done on time and within budget.
Great product managers are change agents—they go above and beyond to create products that generate customer delight, boost revenue and profitability, and are in demand on the market. The best product managers are always looking for opportunities to learn, grow, and upskill.
To move up the ranks and overcome product management challenges, you’ll need to develop a strong product management skillset. This article will tell you how.
Stand out as a product manager with actionable user insights
Hotjar is a gamechanger for product managers looking to improve user empathy, product storytelling, and prioritization skills.
Why product management requires a unique blend of skills
The same things that make product management an exciting career path also make it a challenging field. Product managers often need to move swiftly between different roles to lead cross-functional collaboration between technical engineers, marketing and sales departments, company executives, and users.
They work at a fast pace and juggle a broad range of responsibilities and demands, from writing product specs to managing product team people ops to conducting in-depth user interviews.
To succeed in the industry, product managers need to develop a varied range of skills. These include both concrete, technical competencies—what we traditionally think of as ‘hard’ skills—and communicative, emotional, and personal skills—what we traditionally think of as ‘soft’ skills.
Many product managers push back against the terms ‘hard skills’ vs ‘soft skills’, though, arguing that these represent outdated concepts that often devalue interpersonal abilities.
In a recent article, Katie Salley urges product managers to "stop calling your skills soft!"
"As PMs, we’re often most valuable because of our 'soft skills,'" she says. "Skills like data interpretation, decision making, communication, strategic thinking, being a good negotiator are all qualities that are teachable, repeatable, and valuable. Don’t think of these skills as 'soft'. Think of them as SKILLS."
The message is clear: to succeed in product management, you need to cultivate personal and interpersonal abilities as well as technical core competencies.
To be a successful PM, you should develop a mix of skill sets. Why? Because technical skills are essential for engineering and designing products. You’ll need basic business competencies, understanding of development principles, objective prioritization skills, and UX best practices.
But soft skills—problem-solving skills, critical thinking, leadership, the courage to take initiative—help PMs to lead the product team and get through the product life cycle efficiently.
The 5 most important technical skills in product management
It’s critical to develop the technical know-how to perform key product management tasks well. Excellent product managers need to hone their abilities to:
1. Conduct effective product, user, and market research
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of research in product management. The entire product development process should be data-informed to drive product-market fit and profitability and ensure that the products and features you work on are really meeting user needs.
You can use formal research techniques—like running a competitive analysis—to acquire knowledge of similar technologies on the market. But you should also keep up to date with the latest tech informally. Stay connected through tech magazines, blogs, and podcasts by product influencers. Drive a culture of cutting-edge tech knowledge across the whole product team by setting up structures for different team members to share tips and news.
Effective user research techniques include developing a solid customer interview process with clear objectives and using continuous discovery methods that keep you constantly connected with what your customers want. Many product managers also recommend creating detailed product user personas to help you understand your customers as real people with real preferences and needs.
Using product experience insights tools like Hotjar can connect you with your customers’ needs and give you key product feedback on how they experience your product.
Today’s successful product teams go beyond being data-driven and using solely quantitative data to guide their strategy. Instead, they become data-informed and use a mix of quantitative data, behavioral insights, and intuition to understand the larger context, avoid micro-optimization, and develop a product vision based on where they’re headed, not where they’ve been.
2. Build brilliant product strategies and roadmaps
Great product managers turn research insights into actions by learning how to distill and organize insights, decide what’s most important for product development, and communicate this via the strategy and roadmap.
The key to developing stellar skills in creating these documents is finding a balance. You should include stable, unchanging product aims and values that are linked to the company’s overarching goals—but leave space to adapt to new information or market changes, especially in the early stages of drafting.
Regularly reviewing your strategy and roadmap documents will help you to ensure they’re relevant and effective.
Pro tip: give a clear sense of what you will and won’t do in the product strategy and roadmap. You can’t satisfy every potential user's need, and aiming to do so will set your product team up for failure. Use the strategy and roadmap as an opportunity to narrow your focus and prioritize what’s important to satisfy your customers.
3. Setting and measuring metrics
Product managers need to be literate in a broad range of statistics. It’s crucial to measure product success against objective measurements of how the product is meeting user goals, business goals, and technical goals.
You’ll need to set high-level targets for new product or feature releases and track how statistics like user retention, active users, conversion rate, and customer satisfaction (CSAT) scores stack up with your goals and expectations. You should also set smaller goals that are clear, specific, and measurable, like having at least 75% of new users click to try a feature by a set date or increasing the number of average weekly logins by a defined percentage.
Knowing how to manage quantitative data also helps you communicate with a range of organizational stakeholders in other departments and get buy-in on your product plans.
You’ll also need to develop skills in understanding the numbers most important to business and executive teams. Product managers with a robust knowledge of profitability, revenue modeling, and other financials—including pricing—can stand out by translating their product goals into the language of organizational stakeholders.
4. Managing the technical aspects of product development
Product managers need to cultivate a deep understanding of the mechanics of product development to lead the process from design to development of prototypes right through to launch.
Technical expertise is also needed to produce key documents like product specs, technical specs, and product requirement documents (PRDs) that guide the process.
Product managers without a technical background—and there are plenty!—can upskill by taking online courses with Bubble.io, CS50, or Codecademy to better understand the world of code, product engineering, and design. To guide the technical aspects of execution, many product managers also advise familiarizing yourself with the principles of agile design and development sprints.
Erika Gemzer recommends Jake Knapp’s book Sprint as a guide. To plan an effective sprint, she recommends “collaborating with the engineering manager and team to define work practices that are a win-win for users (i.e. how quickly do they want new features showing up) and the engineering team, since there are tradeoffs to all of the development cycles.”
5. Manage the backlog
For effective product backlog management, you’ll need competence in decision-making practices to help you prioritize. Learning how to prioritize product features or bug fixes in the right order is a critical skill.
Use research and your product vision and strategy to inform backlog decisions. It’s also useful to get familiar with decision-making tools and frameworks like:
The value/effort matrix, which helps you visualize which tickets will produce the most impact with the least effort.
The RICE scoring method, which involves grading tasks according to reach, impact, confidence, and effort.
The MoSCoW method, where you divide features into must-have, should-have, could-have, and won’t-have categories.
A cost-of-delay analysis, which compares tasks based on how much revenue they’ll generate and how much time they’ll take to complete.
PMs can manage the product backlog better by incorporating the cost, value, strategic significance, and opportunity cost of every task and story.
While it's impossible to instantly know all of these things, a great PM will be able to understand all four of these attributes for every ticket and story. From there, they can tally up the values and prioritize accordingly.
5 key non-technical skills to develop
Product managers with stellar interpersonal and emotional abilities stand out. They’re better able to build user-centric products, connect stakeholders with different interests, and motivate the product team. Here are the top five non-technical PM skills to work on:
1. Deep user empathy
Great product managers make sure the product team isn’t just a feature factory—they create a product culture based on deeply understanding and meeting users' needs.
You can cultivate empathy by staying connected to your users at every stage of the product lifecycle. Don’t just map out user behavior—understand it. That means going beyond quantitative research to hear your users' thoughts and feelings through regular customer interviews, surveys, and feedback systems.
Keep reading to learn how product experience insights tools like Hotjar can help you understand your users’ experience by letting you see what users see—and ask them about it.
2. Product storytelling
Compelling product narratives convince users to use your product, convince organizational stakeholders to back your product, and convince engineers to put their all into building your product.
Learning the skill of product storytelling involves weaving user experience insights and market data into emotionally persuasive narratives that motivate your product team and justify your product decisions to the rest of the organization.
The best product storytellers keep user needs at the center of the narrative. Centering your product story on your users will ensure it resonates at emotional, business, and technical levels.
Pro tip: adapt your product story to your audience—which means understanding the particular needs of the audience you’re addressing and framing your narrative to explain how your product will meet those needs. Speak their language: show executive stakeholders how the product will achieve business KPIs, but use a vocabulary centered on tech and user goals with the engineering team.
3. Stellar communication
With a mix of different personality types and perspectives on the product team, product managers need to be excellent communicators and mediators to resolve conflicts and keep everyone aligned. Rather than taking a top-down approach, create a culture of two-way communication and encourage team members to open conversations at the early stages of a potential disagreement.
It’s also important to develop strong communication skills in contexts outside the product team. Product managers need to lead cross-functional communication between engineers, marketers, executives, sales departments, and more.
To improve your cross-functional communication skills, tailor your message to the person you’re speaking to. Hold back on giving every stakeholder every piece of product information: you may overwhelm them with an influx of data they don’t understand or may not need.
Instead, cherry-pick the most relevant information for your audience and frame it in terms that make sense to them. Keep the information flow between the product team and other departments open, aligning stakeholders around how your product contributes to a shared organizational vision.
While technical and product knowledge is important, what matters most is how effectively you communicate these ideas. Product managers typically work with engineers, designers, and marketers who all speak their own language. PMs need to know how to go about communicating these ideas so that all of these people quickly understand the full picture.
4. Motivational leadership
It’s natural for different team members with different priorities to get so focused on their day-to-day goals that they stop seeing the big picture. But a team that’s disconnected from the overarching product vision will end up pulling in different directions.
That’s where product managers need to cultivate their ability to step in as leaders. Strong leadership keeps the product team working together towards clear, shared objectives.
Link team goals with the overall product and organizational vision and keep your team connected with user needs. Instead of creating tons of different goals, define your North Star objectives and use these to align your team.
Part of leadership also involves empowering your team to own their work, set their own goals, and resolve issues themselves when appropriate. Learning when to offer clear guidance and when to step back is key.
I find that once a PM can quickly discover and concisely describe the outcomes that customers are looking for, it really drives their team too. Developers want to know why they are building something or what problems they are trying to solve. Driving for outcomes gives more autonomy to their teams as well in terms of building the solution.
5. Sharp decision-making
The best product managers make informed decisions based on extensive data. But they don’t get stuck in the research loop. They use research to take action. That means product managers should get used to being decisive—you’ll have to accept that you can’t please every single user and get comfortable marking some features and tasks as out of scope.
Excellent decision-making skills aren’t developed in a vacuum. Seek feedback from all stakeholders before and after making a decision, and build time to try, review, and adapt your priorities.
Using product management skills to navigate challenges
By developing a robust technical and non-technical skillset, you’ll be able to differentiate yourself as a top product manager and overcome common challenges in the role.These include:
Product managers have to meet deadlines, manage scarce resources, navigate technical debt, and ensure their product stays relevant. Decision-making and prioritization skills are critical to meeting these challenges. You’ll also need to ensure you have robust technical capabilities to design a product strategy and roadmap that can be used as a North Star when things get tough.
Common obstacles that arise on the product team include conflict between team members, a lack of alignment, and loss of motivation. You’ll need to exercise leadership and communication skills to smooth over conflicts and keep your team on the same page. Use your product storytelling abilities to get your team excited about the same goals and involve them in decisions as much as possible.
Juggling competing priorities, seemingly endless requests from different stakeholders, and clashes with executives are all part of day-to-day product management.
This is where your product storytelling, communication, organizational awareness, and research skills will shine. Show stakeholders clear data to back up what you’re saying and use your research to evangelize your product—craft user-centered product narratives to keep different departments engaged with your customers’ needs.
The skills you develop as a product manager can also be applied to your career challenges. Typical PM career issues include finding the right position and not progressing towards the roles you want.
Think of your career as a product to be managed and exercise your research and planning skills to find a perfect company fit for your skill set, passions, and ambitions.
Think deeply about what kind of PM role you’re best suited for—at a startup, you’ll likely do a bit of everything, while at larger orgs, you may be able to focus on one particular aspect of the product development process. Just as you change course if the product-market fit is off, you should change course in your career when there’s a mismatch between your role and your abilities or ambitions.
Use your storytelling and communication skills to be your own evangelist.
Whether you’re just starting as a PM or looking to move up in the field, make a case for yourself on your CV and LinkedIn profile by grounding your narrative in data on your concrete achievements and abilities.
How Hotjar supports product management skills
Hotjar’s product experience insights software is a gamechanger for developing key product management skills. Hotjar helps product managers to:
Develop user empathy
Use Hotjar Heatmaps and Session Recordings to understand the user experience from the users' perspective. Feedback tools like Surveys and Incoming Feedback widgets help you connect with your users’ needs through their own descriptions of what they’re thinking and feeling as they use your product.
Craft compelling product stories
Hotjar’s tools let you quickly and easily add quantitative user data to your presentations and product narratives, making it easier to get buy-in. Crucially, Hotjar also unearths qualitative VoC data that helps you build an emotional case by connecting your product with the users behind the screen.
Hotjar makes data-driven decisions easy, meaning you can stop determining priorities based on gut instinct or what the loudest voice in the room thinks you should do. Having clear statistics and VoC data to back up decisions means product managers can feel confident in their prioritization skills.
Motivate the product team
Hotjar’s tools are easy to set up, so the whole product team can directly and immediately see the impact of your product. This keeps engineers and developers—who often have little contact with the end-user—connected with customers. Product team members who understand how their actions affect users stay motivated throughout the product development process.
Keep learning and improving as you go
The best product managers have a growth mindset: they constantly seek ways to upskill and learn new things. By focusing on developing and upgrading the most important technical and non-technical skills, PMs can forge successful careers and make a real difference in the industry.
Stand out as a product manager with actionable user insights
Hotjar is a gamechanger for product managers looking to improve user empathy, product storytelling, and prioritization skills.