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Product owner vs. product manager: what's the difference?

There’s often confusion about the differences between product owners and product managers. They can mean different things in different organizations and for distinct products and industries.

Last updated

17 Nov 2022

In practice, product managers play a more strategic role. They outline and roadmap the product management process throughout the product lifecycle with larger organizational goals in mind. 

On the other hand, product owners play a more tactical role, focusing on short-term fulfillment. They help maximize the product’s value by generating customer stories that the team can use to make more user-led decisions for product development.

The PM and PO share a common goal: improving and optimizing your product to solve customers' problems and create customer delight. The differences are found in how the two achieve that shared goal.

This article will explain the differences between product owners and product managers and how they work together to create a product customers will love.

Make product experience insights available to your product manager and owner

Hotjar gives you the tools to understand what your customers need, so you can build better products for them.

Differences between a product owner and a product manager

There’s no one way to explain the differences between a product manager and a product owner, because they vary based on organizational and product needs. 

For example, the product manager might handle end-to-end product management in some organizations, from product vision and roadmapping to backlog management, and never need to appoint a product owner. 

Note: 'product owner' is not just a title; it's more of a function. A product manager could very well be a product owner.

But, an agile product management team might appoint a product owner dedicated to listening to customers, analyzing user behavior, and creating user stories for the development team. 

There’s often overlap, but here are some essential factors that tend to differentiate POs from PMs:

1. Responsibilities in the product team

The product manager plays a more prominent organizational role in leading the product to success by supervising and overseeing the product management process in each product lifecycle stage with a cross-functional team.

Overall, the PM understands and interprets customer feedback, analyzes user behavior, prioritizes features, and takes steps to improve the product to provide a better experience for customers.

Contrary to what 'product owner' might imply, they don’t own or control the product: they own seeing the product initiatives through. POs play a tactical role in maximizing the product value by using customer feedback to create user stories for the development team. 

The PO is traditionally a part of the Scrum framework. This agile development system follows an incremental strategy to manage customer feedback and product development in a fast-paced environment. 

Essentially, the product owner is responsible for ensuring that the development team follows the roadmap and strategy created by the product manager to achieve the product goals and business KPIs.

2. Skills required

Product managers stay in direct contact with users to listen to their problems, conduct research, empathize with them, and strategize initiatives to address their concerns. 

Some essential skills for a product manager are: 

  • leadership

  • communication

  • empathy

  • research

  • decision making

  • critical thinking

  • product understanding

Product owners also need to be skilled communicators, listeners, and empaths because a large part of their role involves translating the PM’s suggestions for the UX, engineering, and development teams. 

However, they need to work on some narrower, more role-specific skills: since POs are a part of the Scrum framework, they need to be well-versed in agile methodologies and using Scrum tools like Kanban. 

POs also need to be committed to deadlines and have a sense of accountability and responsibility. Product owners bridge what the product manager strategizes and how the implementation pans out. If they don’t act swiftly, the process will fall behind and create bottlenecks. 

3. Success metrics used to track progress

The product manager has many responsibilities, from product roadmapping to prioritization and iteration. And this is apart from the cross-functional collaboration activities they oversee and supervise. 

Product managers' success metrics are primarily related to product success and overall business goals. These include:

Conversions and Net Promoter Score® (NPS)

A high conversion rate generally means your customers want what you’re offering because it’s helping them solve a problem.

Your Net Promoter Score® (NPS) indicates how likely customers are to refer your product to others. A high NPS is a direct success metric for the product manager and results from an excellent product experience and a prompt feedback response time.

Churn rate and revenue

Churn rate is the rate at which people stop being your customers. A low churn rate indicates that the PM empathizes with customers and uses their feedback to fix issues and guide product development.

Revenue reflects your conversion and churn rates and is a critical business KPI—a direct result of product success led by the PM.

The product owner plays a narrower role, so their success is measured by the number of completed stories, how successfully the product roadmap and vision are translated into product features, and the development team's achievements.

Why is it important to distinguish between a product owner and a product manager?

Some organizations can't translate their product vision into fully-functioning product features because of a lack of understanding about the roles of a product owner and a product manager. 

Technically, the PO and PM can be the same person in the Scrum framework, so it can be hard to understand whether you need to differentiate between them.

Here's how clarifying the roles can benefit you:

Understand if your business needs a product owner, manager, or both

Without truly understanding who a product manager or owner is, you can’t determine or justify your need for them in the organization. 

A small- to mid-sized business with a product in its initial stages could hire a product manager to fulfill both roles and handle everything from product roadmapping to resourcing and detailing the requirements to the development team. However, with a large business and an agile product team, the PM has more responsibilities and hats to wear, and the development team needs more direct instruction to develop features. Here, you need both the PM and PO for efficient and successful cross-functional collaboration.

Work with clearly defined roles and responsibilities

You might form the wrong expectations or assign tasks to the wrong person if you’re unaware of the different activities and responsibilities product managers and owners perform. 

For example, if you’ve just hired a product manager, but your organization follows the Scrum methodology to optimize your product for the customers, it might not be possible for the PM to maintain the product backlog and create customer stories. Here, you need a product owner to step in and support the product manager by building those stories and providing the product team with a deep understanding of the customer. 

Understanding the differences between the roles will give you the knowledge to confidently assign responsibilities and hire where needed.

Better cross-functional collaboration within the product team

Bringing your product vision to reality isn’t easy. The entire organization needs to work together to translate findings and strategies into product features. 

But the product manager can't do the job alone; they need to work with the product owner to ensure everyone follows the product roadmap and product-led activities are headed in the right direction. 

This understanding between the PO and PM will help manage internal and external cross-functional workflows by understanding who’s supposed to do what, and why. 

Achieve business and product goals

The product owner focuses more on product goals—they’re primarily concerned with bringing the product manager’s vision to life by guiding the development team on what to do next and how. 

But the product manager is responsible for the entire product management process, bringing the business closer to its goals. 

When you can draw a clear line between the two roles, you can quickly prioritize, assign and validate tasks to make the product team more efficient and reach goals faster.

Build a customer-led product

By understanding how PMs and POs differ, you can coordinate tasks and ensure all product-related developments follow the product vision. 

A synchronized duo of a product manager and owner will help coordinate the product management process internally and serve the customer by providing a delightful product experience as a result of collaboration and efficient working, which brings us to our next point. 

5 tips for creating synergy between the product manager and product owner

Product managers and product owners are two roles with one goal: to build and improve a product that helps customers solve their problems. So, it’s only natural to create synergy between the roles for more efficient workflows and faster results.

Here’s how you can do this:

1. Establish a knowledge-sharing system

The product manager creates the product vision, listens to customer feedback, translates it into features, prioritizes them, and sets user expectations. But it’s the product owner who relays this information to the development team to put it into action.

To do this, the PO needs to understand each initiative and know what the product team needs to do to reach the product manager's desired outcome and, ultimately, the customers. 

Establishing an effective knowledge-sharing framework is important to enable the PM and PO to easily share strategies, data, and information about team processes and product workflows.

This can include involving the product owner in each product-related discussion led by the product manager or taking customer interviews together, so the PO has first-hand information about user problems and expectations.

2. Create shared goals and a product vision

Although the product manager typically creates the product vision, they don't do it alone. Involving the product owner in developing the vision encourages buy-in and autonomy when validating the development team's goals in line with the product vision.

Once you have your shared vision, create shared goals like successful user stories or developing a number of new features from the product backlog. Having shared goals will help coordinate the efforts between the product management and development teams, ensuring there are no bottlenecks to delay processes, so the product can move faster through development stages.

3. Schedule recurring meetings to discuss strategy and action steps

Regularly syncing to align your efforts is an excellent way to create smooth cross-functional workflows and ensure teams are truly invested throughout the process. It also helps veryone, including the PM and PO, tie product goals to organizational goals.

Use these meetings to discuss problems, resolve conflicts, create mitigation plans, and brainstorm an action plan together for the best solutions, which will ultimately help provide a great product experience to the customers and create customer delight.

4. Clearly define influence and seniority

The product manager leads the product management process and the cross-functional team. Since they’re also accountable to business objectives and goals apart from product success, PMs have more strategic responsibility than the product owner, who leads the development team’s efforts ensuring they’re in line with the product manager’s roadmap.

The product manager is more senior than the product owner in a traditional hierarchy. For example, the PM is in direct contact with executives and stakeholders, while the PO usually isn't, making the product manager more influential on overall business objectives.

However, this shouldn’t look like a top-down relationship between the PM and PO. They should be treated as peers, so the product owner doesn’t report to a product manager, but together they report to a senior executive, like the Head of Product or the Chief Product Officer.

5. Create a rock-solid framework to share customer insights from findings

A big part of working together as the product manager and owner is using customer insights and data to lead product development. This means data should be readily available to both through a framework that allows sharing, privacy, data interpretation, analysis, and usability.

Invest in and share access to product experience insight tools like Hotjar to understand how customers navigate your product and which problems they’re facing. This can also include business intelligence tools like Tableau to answer data-related questions. 

Data democratization helps the product manager, product owner, and the cross-functional product team apply customer data to their roles and product decisions.

Pro tip: use the Hotjar and Slack integration to communicate customer feedback and product experience insights as soon as you receive them. 

The Slack integration lets product managers and owners discuss problems and create an action plan to address customer feedback, fix bugs, and shorten response times.

How Hotjar helps align the product manager and product owner to benefit the product team

Product experience (PX) insights help you validate your product’s UX by telling you the story behind user behavior on your website. The product manager and product owner need customer insights in different product lifecycle stages. 

A tool like Hotjar provides first-hand product experience insights and makes it easy to collect actionable customer feedback.

Let’s look at some of the ways Hotjar helps PMs and POs manage their work more effectively and accurately:

#An example of a Hotjar Session Recording
An example of a Hotjar Session Recording

1. Session Recordings: understand which features to prioritize next

Imagine your customers telling you exactly which feature they need next. No guesswork, no assumptions—just direct insight into what they see, think, and feel while browsing through your product, visibly highlighting what you need to work on next. 

Sounds too good to be true, right? 

But, session recordings help you do just that. They give you a page-by-page replay of how your customers navigate your website by showing you where they click, scroll, move their mouse, and what they do in the moments before they convert or exit. 

Recordings can help product managers identify pain points and spot bugs or problems that disrupt the user’s product experience and cause them to drop off—or even churn. This way, PMs can prioritize brilliantly and understand how to improve the product and serve users better.

Product owners can analyze session recordings to understand user pain points, convert them into user stories for the development team, and prioritize their product backlog based on what needs to be resolved first—with data-backed and customer-led insights.

#An example of a Hotjar Heatmap
An example of a Hotjar Heatmap

2. Heatmaps: improve unpopular product elements through analyzing user navigation

Heatmaps are a great tool for understanding which elements of your website are working and which features users interact with the most (or least). Heatmaps give you an aggregate representation of where your users click, scroll and move to help you identify popular and unpopular elements on your website. 

For product managers, this means clear validation of which elements need work and should be prioritized. 

Product owners can use heatmaps to analyze UX and UI design and note potential improvement areas for the development team to prioritize.

<#An example of a Hotjar On-site Survey
An example of a Hotjar On-site Survey

3. Surveys: gather user feedback on feature functionality and outcomes

Customer feedback is at the center of most product-related activities—like developing a new product feature or planning and prioritizing features for the next iterations. Instead of manually creating a survey and distributing it to your customers, what if you could capture their feedback in the moment, while they were browsing your website?

Surveys let you capture voice of the customer (VoC) feedback—that's feedback in the customers' own words—without disrupting their product experience. Surveys help you gather information about the problems customers face, the features they’d like to see next, and which product elements are not working for them. 

Since a large part of the product management process involves listening to and empathizing with the user to understand their pain points, PMs and POs can use surveys to gather raw and unfiltered customer feedback. 

You can then use the VoC feedback to guide your action plan for the desired outcome, validate your product ideas, and improve feature functionality based on the users’ current needs.

#An example of Hotjar’s Incoming Feedback widget
An example of Hotjar’s Incoming Feedback widget

4. Incoming Feedback: understand VoC feedback and identify which features are missing for customers

Rather than raising a support ticket every time your users face any issue, what if they could give you feedback then and there, while they’re on your website, so you could look into the problem right away? Hotjar's Incoming Feedback widget can help you do just that.

The Incoming Feedback widget is like a real-time suggestion box—place it on your high-traffic pages to collect user feedback for specific product elements without disrupting the product experience.

The feedback widget helps product managers throughout the product lifecycle, from gathering feedback on a recently iterated feature to getting validation for a new feature you’re developing. 

Instant feedback makes continuous discovery and prioritization much more accurate and efficient by speeding up the response cycle.

For product owners, it’s a great way to get customer feedback and insights as you test features and help prioritize initiatives for the development team.

Final thoughts

The product manager and product owner work towards a shared goal: building a product that solves customers' problems through a product experience they will love.

But there can be a big difference between how the roles are structured and how they operate. It's important to define the roles and ensure everybody understands their responsibilities. 

While they’re usually distinct, PMs and POs need to work together to produce the desired product outcome, achieve business goals, and, most of all, create customer delight by solving user issues and addressing their feedback.

Make product experience insights available to your product manager and owner

Hotjar gives you the tools to understand what your customers need, so you can build better products for them.

FAQs about product owners and product managers