Product management is about developing a product that people need or want. And product managers are one of the key people to make it happen.

The premise may sound straightforward. But it took centuries of development and reinvention to arrive at the simple pencil we use thoughtlessly today.

So, what is product management all about? For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to focus on digital products, which are products that do not exist in a physical form, such as videos, websites, mobile apps, and software.

What is product management?

Product management is a method to develop an idea into a product, or improve a product, based on user feedback and research, to fill a market need. The process involves multiple stakeholders including users and teams from management, marketing, design, development and testing.

A product manager needs to balance the needs of:

  • The users: to develop a product they love
  • The business: to generate revenue and profit
  • The product developers: to build a feasible and scalable product

You can see that this delicate juggling act requires a systematic and practical approach at every stage of the product management process, to produce something valuable and significant. Without it, the whole product management process will become overly complex and riddled with inefficiencies, creating a product that is confusing, or at worst, nobody wants.

What does a product manager do?

1. Understanding the user

A product manager needs to collect and understand the problems faced by users, what they want, and need from the product. This includes conducting user interviews, user surveys, user testing, building user personas, and creating the user journey maps.

2. Understanding the market

A product manager needs to study the market, the trends, and the competitors’ products to understand where the product sits and the value it brings.

3. Creating the product vision

This includes the product long-term strategy covering competitive advantage, pricing, target market, features and benefits. From there, you can create a product roadmap that charts the priority for development, the long-term timeline, and other details important to other stakeholders in development, marketing, testing and management teams.

4. Constantly gaining insight and feedback

The keyword here is constant. A product manager must have their pulse on the user and market, seeking feedback and ideas to support the development of prototypes and products. They are also collecting feedback from the development and marketing teams to further improve the product.  

5. Communicate, collaborate and coordinate

A big chunk of the daily work of a product manager is to clearly communicate, collaborate and coordinate the overall strategy with all stakeholders in the company from management to development and marketing teams. He or she will also handle roadblocks and issues in the overall product management process.

What is the product management process?

The basic approach of the product management process is to:

  1. Produce an idea based on a user problem or need.
  2. Validate the idea with users and market.
  3. Design the product.
  4. Build and test the product.
  5. Launch, get feedback, review, and support the product.

For a new product development, there may be extra steps such as:

  • Surveying the market competitors
  • Finding the market gap
  • Building the product strategy and roadmap
  • Setting the product price point

This process differs between organisations in how they streamline each step, set the workflow and structure their teams and responsibilities. But the key point in this process is you’re constantly focusing on the users and market needs, while steadily innovating the unique product/service offering. The order of the stages is usually circular, and can be iterative for certain stages, such as iteratively designing and building the product until it is ready to launch in the market.

This brings me to my next point, agile product management.

What is agile product management?

An agile methodology centres around the principle that things are not set in stone and are continually improved throughout the process. An agile environment doesn’t focus on perfection, but constantly aims towards meaningful progress with each iteration.

What this means for a product manager is that the product strategy, product roadmap, pricing, features, and value can shift monumentally or incrementally over time, adapting on user and market feedback. In agile product management, products can be designed, tested, developed, and launched faster than a traditional approach.

Agile product management is in line with this famous quote from Greek philosopher Heraclitus:

Change is the only constant in life.

What is a product management lifecycle?

A product management lifecycle covers all the phases a product goes through. Product managers will have different sets of responsibilities in each phase. The 4 phases are:

1. Introduction

This is when a product is developed and introduced to the market. Good products released at the right time that satisfies a market need will have an easier path to user adoption. Subpar products may not make it to the next stage.

2. Growth

This is when the product experiences rapid usage and adoption, and the business is focused on expanding market share. Product managers may oversee new feature releases, planning and delivering complementary products, or consolidating products.

3. Maturity

This is when the number of usage and adoption plateaus, and this could be due to several reasons such as changing consumer behaviours or increased market competition. Product managers have a tougher time increasing user adoption or satisfying user needs than during the growth stage.

4. Decline

This is when the product is reaching its end of life, with usage and adoption declining. Some of the reasons could be a seismic market event, a shrinking pool of users or the emergence of a dominant player. Product managers are responsible for either maintaining the product, transitioning the users to a new product, merging products, or discontinuing the product.

What is the difference between product management and project management?

A product will have multiple projects throughout its lifetime.

A product manager is usually responsible for one product or product feature, while a project manager may be responsible for managing one or more projects at one time.

Scope wise, a product manager drives the product strategy and roadmap. A project manager drives the timeline, resources, and deliveries for a project under the product roadmap.

What is the difference between a product manager and product owner?

Different organisations will structure their teams differently. There is no one size fits all in terms of function and responsibilities.

However, if I was to use an analogy, a product manager develops and manages the menu in a restaurant, while the product owner develops and manages the food that is served to the customer.

The product manager has a clear strategy and responsibility for the menu, price, set meals, and the customers’ palette, while the product owner has a clear direction and responsibility on the cooking process, the kitchen teams, and the quality of the food served to the customers.

Both must work closely together to achieve the common goal of bringing the best dining experience to their customers.

Product Manager vs Product Owner

Product Manager
Product Owner
Responsible for the vision and long-term strategy of the product
Responsible for or support the development of the product to bring to market.
Focuses more on the “what” and “why” of the product
Focuses more on the “how” of the product
Sets the product roadmap
Sets the product development plan including sprints based on the roadmap
More focused on users and market feedback
More focused on the technical side of the product such as feasibility, scalability, and practicality
Collaborates and coordinates with various teams including sales, marketing, research, development, testing and management.
Collaborates and coordinates closely with the development, testing teams and, to some extent, management.

Whether you are a startup or a big business, mastering product management is key to building great products that people love and would vouch for. This, in turn, will largely determine whether your business thrives or fails over the long run. 

I can’t state enough the importance of having a simple, practical and highly efficient approach to product management, especially when you are just starting to build a business, because it can quickly feel overwhelming. If you’re interested, find out more about my simple and effective system to develop a market-fit product from a basic idea.

Alvin Hermanto

Alvin Hermanto

Alvin Hermanto is a design leader who is passionate about practicality, quality, and human-centred design. As founder of award winning digital design agency, Relab, his clients include leading businesses in retail, education, real estate, and hospitality. He has personally grown Relab to be one of Australia’s leading design sprint agencies. You’ll find him speaking at design sprint, business, and educational events. His mission is simple: help others build and launch products faster without compromising quality or sacrificing user satisfaction. He also thrives on mentoring small businesses and startups, getting them to simplify processes, build better businesses and create productive teams.