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What is product management? A definitive guide
Product management is a varied, dynamic field that significantly impacts organizations and their stakeholders. Product managers combine user-focus, business savvy, and tech expertise to create strong product outcomes.
But the flexible, wide-ranging scope that makes product management exciting can also create confusion. Where do product management roles end and other roles begin? And what’s the actual day-to-day work of product management?
This article answers key questions on what product management is—and how product management teams can excel.
What product management is
Product management is the process of strategically directing every stage of the product lifecycle—from research and development to testing and positioning—to build technically feasible products that fulfill both user needs and business objectives.
A famous quote from PM guru Martin Eriksson says product management is what happens “at the intersection between business, technology, and user experience.”
In short: product managers analyze business, tech, and user goals, then define product solutions and guide a product team to deliver them.
Product management is a cross-functional role: effective product management involves cross-functional communication with organizational stakeholders, including C-level executives and marketing and sales departments.
“On some days—especially when you're deep in the refinement phases of a project—you might spend the vast majority of your time with product design and engineering, working through fine-grained UX issues and bugs. On other days, where you're doing a lot of discovery and research for an upcoming product that's still in planning phases, you might be spending a lot of time with sales, talking to customers, and doing heads-down analysis to see where the opportunities are. If you're launching a product, product marketing, and sales enablement might be your best friends that week.”
What product managers focus on
Since the emergence in the 1930s of the 'brand man'—someone responsible for a product from start to finish—product management roles have continued to evolve.
And the roles differ across companies: smaller companies may have a single product manager who does a bit of everything, while in larger companies, there are often multiple PMs, some senior and strategic, and some specialized in tech, marketing, or operational ownership.
As a result, what product managers focus on varies.
Key focus points in product management usually include:
Staying in touch with user needs
Typically, product managers guide a big burst of the research at the start of the product lifecycle to segment the market and understand the needs of potential users.
But user engagement doesn’t stop there. The best product managers stay in constant contact with users. They advocate for user needs within the organization and adapt product priorities based on continuous discovery of their user base.
Defining product vision and roadmap
Based on user research, business objectives, and technical viability, product managers define the product vision.
They create a roadmap that sets out the main objectives for the product, estimates key milestones in development, and defines Key Performance Indicators.
The product roadmap is a crucial touchpoint between product teams and business teams. Successful product roadmaps frame the product vision in terms of core business outcomes.
Pro tip: product managers need to be invested in their roadmap, but they also need to know when to let go.
Be careful of getting too attached to the roadmap, as this can block you from pivots that keep your product fresh, relevant, and valuable.
Set reminders to check in on the product roadmap at key points—especially when sprints end and you run user testing, or get an influx of user feedback—and don’t be afraid to make changes that will better meet user needs.
Aligning and empowering the product team
Different product team roles can mean different people pulling in different directions. A key part of product management is aligning the product team around shared goals.
A typical product team structure might include:
Director of product management
Chief product officer
Growth product manager
Product managers need to get the whole team behind their product vision. PMs ensure all team members understand both business and user goals, so they know why they’re building the product.
PMs also delegate tasks to other product team members, ensure the team has the right resources to do their job, and solve blockers in the product workflow.
Create a shared product understanding with stakeholders
Product managers are a conduit for information flow between tech and business stakeholders.
Product management is all about cross-functional communication. PMs need to convince executives to buy in to what’s being built and why, connect with marketing and sales departments to plan product positioning, and transmit key organizational goals to engineers.
“The most important role you'll play in Product Management is that of facilitator (and often mediator) between stakeholders. That involves being proactive in getting to know stakeholders and their priorities, understanding multiple points of view, and being available for everyone. Being approachable, empathetic, and honest will take you a long way.”
7 basic product management processes
There’s no one way to do product management. That’s why this section talks about 'product management processes'—in the plural, not singular.
Typical processes for product managers usually involve:
1. Finding the problem you want to solve
The first step is figuring out which user pain points your product could address.
Ideas can come from user feedback, issues with current tools you offer, gaps in the wider market, or business needs and goals.
Many PMs also discover critical problems by listening to different stakeholders, like business departments and other product teams. Product managers don’t have to discover problems—and generate solutions—alone:
“As soon as you recognize that product managers are the connective tissue between the people you work with and between business and customer goals, the more powerful and prioritized every action you take will be. It’s about aligning people around problems and solutions, not coming up with them all on your own.”
2. Questioning the problem
At the next stage, product managers start thinking about business goals. They run user interviews and competitive analysis to understand how solving the problem identified in the first step could help their product meet user goals—like creating customer delight—and organizational goals—like profitability.
Product managers aim to answer questions like:
How big is the opportunity for this problem?
Will people pay for solutions to this problem?
Do solutions already exist? Do they work?
3. Testing possible solutions
Once product managers have identified the right problem to address, they work with their team to generate ideas for product solutions.
Before deciding which solution to focus on, they’ll do more user research, gather feedback, and maybe present wireframes or models to test different ideas' possible value and feasibility.
4. Defining a solution
When a viable solution has been identified, it’s time to define a clear product vision. Product managers should also create a clear roadmap and start setting KPIs to measure progress.
5. Get cross-functional buy-in
A crucial part of product management is convincing stakeholders from different departments to support—and allocate resources—to your product ideas.
Product managers usually present their vision and roadmap to executives and other decision-makers for buy-in before going ahead with the product plan.
6. Build a Minimum Viable Product
The next step is creating a minimum viable product (MVP). This involves creating a simple version of the product with basic features and releasing it onto the market to test its functionality.
Based on responses from the product’s initial users, PMs can adapt the solution and tweak the product positioning.
7. Guide execution
Finally, the product manager leads the development and engineering teams through executing the product vision.
Most product teams use agile methodology, which means this won’t be a single fixed process, but rather a series of different product sprints and iterations with testing in between. Once a final product has been delivered, the product management role shifts to positioning the product in the market, gathering user feedback, and prioritizing tasks in the product backlog to ensure bugs are fixed and new features are added.
5 skills to thrive in product management
With so many complex roles and responsibilities, PMs experience many product management challenges.
To meet those challenges and excel as a product manager, you should develop five key skills:
1. Deep research
To excel as a product manager, you need to evaluate and assimilate large amounts of information.
Start by developing a stable knowledge base: stay up to date with tech trends, get to grips with the market, and learn about your typical user models.
Then, go deeper. Get curious about your users and product space and dedicate time and resources to understanding why users behave the way they do. (Not to brag, but… Hotjar can help with this! Keep reading to learn how.)
2. Knowing where to prioritize
Product managers need to make difficult decisions. With limited time and resources, and requests pouring in from different stakeholders, it’s impossible to get everything in the product backlog done.
You need to weigh up the options and decide what’s most important for your team to focus on. Make data-driven decisions to streamline your backlog management and stay connected to core user and business metrics.
“Every product manager should have the courage to make decisions. By applying a try-and-fail approach, you will develop determination and won’t be afraid of making decisions. Those could be the decisions that bring your product to the next level or increase the revenue.”
Pro tip: even when you’ve weeded out low-priority tasks, as a product manager, you’ll be pulled between several different types of work in a single day.
Constantly switching back and forth can disrupt focus and waste time.
Schedule similar tasks—like research activities or report writing—together in blocks or chunks to avoid context-switching and maximize your cognitive resources.
3. Empathy for users
User needs are everything to product managers.
Ensure you’re in constant conversation with your customers—but the quality of the conversation is more important than quantity. Endless user interviews won’t make much of a difference if you don’t care deeply about your users.
Cultivate a deep interest in what your users are thinking and feeling. Start by looking at user experience, then go beneath the surface to discover their underlying frustrations, wants, and needs.
An essential function of product management is crafting compelling, relevant stories about your users and products.
Weave your key user insights into a persuasive narrative. Then, use it to convince stakeholders and get your team invested in the product roadmap.
Pro tip: maintain a balance between individual user stories and the big picture.
It’s easy to get caught up in a single compelling user experience story and forget to zoom out and look at trends. It’s just as easy to focus on overview metrics and miss the emotional pull of user stories that can show you where the real value is.
Hotjar’s mix of quantitative PX tools—which give you a birds-eye view—and qualitative PX tools—which go deeper into individual users’ thoughts and feelings—can help you stay balanced.
5. Inspirational leadership
Inspire and motivate your team by helping them understand how the products they’re working on contribute to organizational goals. Involve your team in key product decisions and spend time understanding how your product team works best.
The best product managers trust their team. They empower every team member to take ownership of their tasks—and ensure they have all the resources and support they need.
5 ways Hotjar helps product management teams
Hotjar offers rich, continuous product experience insights that are gold dust ✨ for product management teams.
Hotjar can help you:
1. Get an overview of the user experience
2. Use VoC data to determine underlying user needs
3. Feel confident prioritizing your backlog
Heatmaps, Session Recordings, and Incoming Feedback tools help you identify where things are going wrong with your product. Aside from helping you fix immediate issues, these tools show you what’s most important to users, giving you confidence in your bigger product decisions.
4. Create compelling stories for buy-in from executives
Hotjar Heatmaps and Session Recordings give you powerful quantitative data you can use to show executives the scale and scope of user problems. VoC data will help in convincing them to get behind your product vision on an emotional level.
5. Engage in continuous discovery
Hotjar’s tools give you a steady stream of user data broken up into small, regular chunks. Without needing to do time-consuming user interviews, you can stay constantly connected to your users.
Finally: exceptional product management is an art form.
The best product managers are never done learning: they constantly strive to create better products through better user understanding. By developing key research, leadership, and storytelling skills—and using tools like Hotjar for user insights—you’ll be well on your way to product management success.