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What does a product manager do?
What’s the difference between a product strategy that delights users and one that fails to meet customers’ needs? Often, it’s the product manager.
Last updated4 Oct 2021
Product managers drive user understanding, decide which tasks to prioritize, build stellar PM teams, and push for better and better product-market fit.
But how do product managers achieve these outcomes? What do they actually do? And how can they do it better?
This article is here to break it down for you.
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What product managers do
Product managers articulate and lead product strategies that achieve business objectives, are technically feasible, and meet customer needs. They identify solutions that fit the market and guide a product team to deliver them.
Martin Eriksson, product management superstar and bestselling author, defines product management as “the intersection between business, technology, and user experience,” which means product managers connect business, tech, and user goals.
Product managers occupy a unique role within the product team. They need to be practical 'doer' types willing to roll up their sleeves and make product delivery happen. But they also need to be strategic visionaries who make tough decisions, define the product vision, and inspire their team towards success.
5 key roles and responsibilities
The role of a product manager is becoming more strategic and less defined by operations. Modern PMs increasingly focus on strategy, high-level research, and decision-making. Here are five key roles and responsibilities of a modern PM:
1. Define and align product vision
Product managers define the product vision, deciding what problem to solve, for whom, and when. They research customer data, market trends, competitive analysis, and product viability and feasibility information—and use their research to create a product vision that will delight customers and offer a high ROI.
But defining the product vision is just the first step.
Product managers also need to convince stakeholders to get on board with the vision. This often involves articulating a business case—supported by user data—to get buy-in from executives.
PMs also need to drive alignment within the product team by listening to the team's feedback and ensuring all team members understand and are on board with the why behind the product vision.
2. Understand and advocate for user needs
Product managers live and breathe user needs. The best product managers are in constant dialogue with customers—they try to go deeper into understanding the user experience and unmet customer needs, which can become the basis of new features or products in the future.
When product managers understand user needs, they can better articulate and advocate for user needs within the organization.
The more user data you can show key stakeholders, the better case you make for your product vision. Product experience insights tools (like Hotjar 👋) bring you closer to your customers and give you rich quantitative and qualitative data to demonstrate user needs to your team and stakeholders. (More on that later…)
“The work of a product manager is based on understanding customer needs and defining which are the most common and most relevant.
Without a product manager, there would be zero market fit. A minimum viable product becomes a great product when you have someone who is able to listen to what the public wants and from there use the tools and talent of a product team to make it happen.”
3. Empower product teams to achieve great outcomes
Product managers are team leaders who try to bring the best out of every product team member. They grow the product team, onboard new members, get the whole team aligned with the product vision and roadmap—and ensure they have the right PX tools and resources to make it happen.
PMs anticipate, identify, and address roadblocks holding up their team on product delivery, and empower the product team with the ownership and agency to create amazing product outcomes.
4. Prioritize features and backlog
PMs face tough decisions around where to focus resources—they draw on user data to make informed choices about what the next tasks should be, whether fixing bugs, optimizing infrastructure, or developing new features. They weigh up user needs, business goals, and organizational pressure to prioritize the product backlog.
PMs also determine when to do feature delivery sprints and when the focus should be on iterating or optimizing the core product.
Pro tip: when product managers find themselves forced to choose between several seemingly high-impact tasks, a cost of delay analysis can help.
A CoD analysis measures how long each task will take against the revenue it will generate, showing how much revenue will be lost by delaying work on each initiative. This can help clarify which initiatives are truly valuable and which won’t make much of an impact.
5. Communicate product status
Product managers typically take the lead on product team meetings (or scrums if you’re agile) to understand how delivery is progressing and anticipate any blockers. Some of the less sexy parts of the job involve documentation—product managers meticulously document everything that happens, writing meeting notes, product specs, and test cases so all team members have a record.
PMs are also responsible for connecting different departments and driving a culture of cross-functional collaboration. They communicate delivery updates and changes in the roadmap to stakeholders across the organization and make a case for why more time or resources may be needed.
What product managers don’t do
Product manager responsibilities can vary from company to company which often generates confusion. While the role is flexible, certain tasks are not the responsibility of a product manager:
Product manager vs. project manager is one of the most common areas of confusion—partly because the roles sound alike. In some companies, stretched product managers are forced to take on organizational and operational project tasks that shouldn’t define their role.
Project managers take control of scheduling, planning, and assigning micro-level tasks. While product managers may control the product timeline, they should focus on tactical, strategic questions and defining priorities rather than managing calendars.
In-depth tech work
Product managers are usually tech enthusiasts who know the technology landscape inside out and stay up to date with the latest trends. But they’re not programmers, designers, or developers.
Product managers make strategic decisions about which tasks the tech team should tackle, but they don’t do developer activities like writing code or creating mock-ups.
Product managers need to articulate the product value in terms of how it will satisfy user needs. This means confusion can arise around their role in communicating the benefits of new products and features to customers themselves—but that’s a marketing function.
Product managers regularly speak with customers to unearth their underlying needs and understand their experience, but they don’t explain the product to customers, and they don’t do communications or marketing for the product.
Now you have an understanding of what a PM does and doesn't do, let's dive into why they're so critical to the success of a business and its product:
Why product managers are critical
Ensure the product vision remains customer-focused
Without a product manager, different stakeholders pull in different directions. Developers might be focused only on tech feasibility, while marketing might focus on short-term user acquisition at the expense of long-term user retention.
The product manager keeps all of these different priorities in mind but prioritizes what’s best for users. They make sure customer delight is the North Star guiding all product decisions.
Product managers bring the organization closer to its customers by listening to users and advocating for them in major product decisions.
Connect different stakeholders
Product managers act as intermediaries between several different organizational stakeholders with their unique role at the intersection of business, user, and tech objectives.
PMs can translate and articulate different objectives, needs, and visions so they’re mutually intelligible. This creates a strong culture of cross-functional alignment and helps ensure product development and tech teams don’t end up in organizational silos.
“As a PM, my main function was communicating cross-functionally between business and engineering teams, making sure that expectations were clear and that we had a consistent way of measuring progress via KPIs.
Without a product manager, there would be a large communication gap and quite possibly engineers would be in a very separate world from upper management as there would be no one to translate between them.”
Help achieve business objectives
PMs tie product metrics to business goals and measure success across a range of targets like profitability and revenue metrics, and retention rate and lifetime value. This combined expertise helps them find solutions that target both user needs and business objectives, maximizing revenue and minimizing costs.
Product managers are plugged into market trends, which means they play a valuable role in determining which tools, features, and optimizations will generate a strong ROI.
Maintain product integrity over time
As the user base and market grow, many product teams experience pressure to overload the product with tons of new features. Novel features can help products reach new market segments or cater to edge cases—but without careful planning, the clarity and integrity of the original product vision can get lost.
Product managers distinguish between shiny distractions and genuine opportunities. They focus on what the market really needs and keep user experience streamlined and clear.
What makes an amazing Product Manager?
Excelling as a product manager requires a unique mix of hard and soft skills. Here are the qualities aspiring PMs should focus on developing:
The best PMs cultivate a deep understanding of the organization’s strategy and absorb information from many different fronts—users, developers, and business colleagues, among others.
They don’t make decisions on a whim. Instead, they carefully delve into the data, look at the big picture, and lead strategically.
Excellent product managers avoid getting so pulled into operations that they can’t zoom out and get tactical.
There’s no shortcut here: there’s no substitute for listening to your users and caring deeply about their experience.
Stellar product managers always aim to go one step deeper. They don’t stop at analyzing their users’ behavior but dig to unearth their real underlying needs. (Keep reading to learn how Hotjar helps PMs develop user empathy.)
Willingness to fail
Successful PMs create a culture where all team members are willing to challenge their assumptions.
Rather than getting fixated on certain products, tasks, or roadmaps, the best product managers use key user research techniques to constantly engage with customers and test their assumptions. Strong PMs aren’t afraid to change course when necessary, even if it means rolling back on work done or realizing their vision wasn’t spot on.
A product manager is only as good as their product team. Top product managers empower the product team to take ownership of the product roadmap—they involve the team in key product decisions, listen to their concerns and insights, and make them feel valued.
The best PMs are tireless advocates for their product team within the organization. They remove blockers and make sure they have the resources to perform at their best.
Pro tip: take a data-driven approach to improve your product team’s experience.
Empathy isn’t only for your customers—and neither is discovery. Spend time understanding how your product team works best and what individual employees’ strengths and stresses are.
Don’t depend only on structured team meetings. Get proactive and send your team quick check-in surveys at key points in the product cycle or at weekly intervals. Ask them brief, ad-hoc questions about their workload, relationship with colleagues, and concerns.
Incredible communication skills
It should be clear by now that communication is key to product management. PMs are constantly telling the product story to a range of different stakeholders and feeding business information back to the product team.
Product management stars convey information to different audiences concisely, precisely, and effectively. They adapt the medium to the message and know which issues require a full team meeting and which can be explained in an email or video.
Crucially, excellent product managers understand what’s important to the different stakeholders they communicate with. They tailor their message to the core objectives of their audience, and they back up their communications with user and business data.
By now it's clear that PMs are balancing and managing a lot of responsibilities. Here are three ways Hotjar can help them excel in their roles, and create products users love:
3 ways Hotjar helps product managers excel in their roles
1. Continuous user discovery
Hotjar helps product managers understand the people their product serves:
2. Defining product priorities
Hotjar’s tools provide quantitative and qualitative product experience insights that product managers can use to ensure they’re making the right decisions about what to prioritize:
Hotjar Surveys and Incoming Feedback help you validate hypotheses about user needs and give you confidence in your priorities.
Hotjar Heatmaps and Recordings offer a visual representation of where users are spending time so you can quickly identify high-priority features. They can also indicate where customers are getting stuck in the user journey, alerting you to bugs, broken links, or other friction points that need to be addressed ASAP.
3. Justify product strategy
Product managers need to show how their product vision will contribute to the organization’s business, user, and tech objectives:
Hotjar Surveys and Incoming Feedback tools let you collect rich VoC data so you can craft a compelling case for prioritization. Armed with Hotjar’s user statistics and real customer quotes, you'll have an advantage in getting buy-in from execs.
Recordings give you key insights into the user’s journey. By quantifying their pain points, you can make a strong case for what needs to be changed.
The impact of product managers
It takes effort—and the right tools—to excel as a product manager. PMs walk a delicate tightrope between user, business, and tech priorities, and it can be tough to stay balanced.
Hotjar’s product experience insights tools help product managers stay connected to their users, confidently make the right product decisions, and craft compelling stories to get company buy-in.
All the effort is worth it when product managers see their product vision realized—and customers delighted.