The more I discuss the role of product management with people the more I run into confusion about titles. The title “Product Manager” can mean very different things to different people, depending on the industry they’re from or even the particular company they work at. To me this is a sign of how new the high-tech product development field still is.

I don’t expect standardized titles and roles any time soon, but what we can do is to break the function down to key responsibilities that everyone can understand, and then discuss which functions are included when we refer to “Product Manager.” I’ve tried this out a few times now and have found this useful, so I’ll present it here:

Opportunity Identification and Assessment

This refers to coming up with new product ideas, and then assessing them. Typically the new ideas can come from anywhere – discussions with customers, usability testing, your own product team, your sales or marketing staff, industry analysts – virtually anywhere. But then someone needs to take a hard look at the idea and decide if it is something worth pursuing. I consider this “opportunity assessment” role as something that the product manager should at least participate in if not be responsible for. Many companies write up this opportunity assessment into an MRD (Market Requirements Document) but I like to think of these as Opportunity Assessments which I consider as broader than just the market requirements.

Product Specification

Now that you’ve decided that there is a good opportunity and your company is well-suited to pursue it, then someone needs to figure out what the solution actually is – the product – the necessary features and functionality, the user experience, the release criteria and the required timeframe. I view this as the heart of the product manager’s job. Some companies call this spec a Product Requirements Document (PRD), and others call it a Product Spec or Functional Spec. The key is that it describes the functionality and behavior of the product to be built, and not how it will be implemented.

Product Design

A good product spec should fully describe the user experience, which means that the product designer (also know as interaction designer, UI designer, information architect, or human factors engineer) needs to be a partner in defining the product and creating the spec. Most product teams have professional product designers, but sometimes the product manager is the only one available to come up with the interaction design.

Project Management

Once the product has been defined, the product development team will begin building the product. The project scheduling and tracking function is the core of project management. There are several different models regarding who does this project scheduling and tracking. Sometimes it is managed by dedicated project managers, and sometimes by the engineering manager (since most of the resources are usually from his or her team), and in some cases the product manager is asked to project manage. In my experience, any of these can work – it depends more on the culture of the company and the size of the project. Larger projects definitely benefit from a dedicated (and skilled) project manager.

Product Marketing

Once the product is ready, you will need to tell the world about that product. This outbound messaging is a key marketing function. Often companies ask the same person to do the product management (product definition) and the product marketing. This can be hard since the skills required are so very different, but in many companies this is nevertheless the case.

In my view, the defining responsibility for product managers is in specifying the product. If that is included, I consider the position true product management. Any of the other roles – opportunity assessment, product design, project management, or product marketing – may also be included, but the heart of the product management position is in defining the product that addresses the opportunity.

Side Note: At Microsoft, the people that come up with the specs and drive the project schedule are called “Program Managers,” which is an unfortunate title given that the term is used in the industry already to describe project management which spans multiple projects. But they couldn’t really use the term “product manager” either because they already use that to represent the product marketing function. While I wish they used different titles (for both), in general I think they do a very good job on the critical product management role of defining products.

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