Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Why product management is overlooked as a digital discipline

By Duncan Barrett, Head of Product Development at 5App

Reviewing the My Digital Hero column, I’ve noted a range of marketing disciplines represented, but rarely product management. Why is that?

I started in marketing before moving into interactive media product management at the BBC. It led to a career building mobile marketing platforms, consumer apps and technologies to help organisations develop their people.

Why product management? It’s given me the opportunity to improve people’s lives, even if in just a small way. At 5App we’re building tools not just to make it easier for people to operate in the digital workplace, but to help them achieve balance in their lives and feel more human.

Good product managers are motivated by the desire to improve things.

So why are we overlooked as a digital discipline?

Are we hidden behind the belief that good products market themselves? Nobody wants to be associated with a bad product, but if it’s successful, do we forget who built it?

Is building the ‘right product’ taken for granted while we prioritise attracting the ‘right customer’?

Or does product management just get eclipsed by more glamorous marketing and transformation roles?

It’s a shame because at the heart of every business is the product. Those leading digital transformation of products and services are seen as company makers, but they need product managers to turn that strategy into reality.

Digital product managers stay close to latest tech, trends and customers. They’re constantly challenging themselves to understand the needs of the people who will actually use their product, and to design for that.

It’s a key influencing role – they have to bring the business with them. And it’s a team sport – inspiring multi-disciplinary groups to collaborate.

Perhaps it’s time we raised up the discipline. We can learn from the world of marketing – particularly how to get recognition and put product management on the map.

In return, marketing could learn from product leaders. Here’s three transferable things that we do well:

1. Understanding the problem

Often people articulate problems in the form of solutions – “I need it to do that”, “It would be better if it did this”. This signals a problem, but product managers need to dig deeper to understand what is actually going on. What’s the person trying to achieve, what’s stopping them, what could make it easier? Finding patterns or themes reveals problems that lots of people need solving. Product managers synthesise that insight: making it easy to articulate to designers and development teams as well as those that need to understand and communicate its value.

Finding the signal in the noise is the hardest but most important thing to put into practice. But getting to the bottom of customer needs can only improve your outcomes.

2. Experimenting and failing fast

Your first attempt at a solution isn’t likely to be the right one. Product managers are adept at finding that out fast, and with the least amount of effort.

There’s often conflict here – how can I learn if it’s right if I’m testing a half-baked solution? Boiling down to the simplest components helps – “do people understand the language I am using?”, “what’s the single most important action I need someone to take?” “can they find it on the screen?”

There are great tools now that help you test everything with remote users, from a few words to a fully functioning website. Or grab a friend that best represents your intended beneficiary and get their feedback.

Answering core questions early in the process, saves wasted time and resources in building the end product.

3. Following the data

Working out how to use the data you have is essential for guiding decisions and highlighting opportunities.

Product managers clearly define what they’re trying to achieve before thinking about the data they need. The data might suggest a product problem. But if people aren’t behaving as expected, more qualitative data might explain why.

Keeping close to the data informs whether to continue or change tack. If evidence doesn’t support your hypothesis, ask new questions and reframe thinking about the data needed.

Ultimately the context within which the product exists and the people who are using it are always evolving. Which is precisely why product management so important.

Product management doesn’t begrudge digital marketing’s limelight. But perhaps it’s time we paid more attention to those working to create the product in the first place.

After all if the product isn’t good, no amount of marketing can save it.