I’m writing this article to share some insights on a topic that’s been crucial throughout my professional journey – Roles and Responsibilities in Digital Product Development. Over the years, I’ve been part of numerous product development processes in media companies and startups, which has helped me understand the integral role of structured processes and well-defined roles and responsibilities in successful outcomes. This is part of my blog post series on best practices for effective digital product development. Here’s an overview of how different teams come together, collaborate, and play their respective roles in creating tech products that customers love.
Digital Product Development: A Symphony of Diverse Roles
To create a successful digital product, we need more than just a great idea. We need a symphony of diverse roles, all playing their part. Let’s dive into these roles and responsibilities of functions within the product, data, design, and engineering (PDE) areas.
Product Management: The Visionaries
In the product development process, Product Managers are the visionaries and strategists. Their role is broad and can be demanding. They interact with stakeholders, customers, and users to define product strategy, translate business objectives into clear product goals, and much more.
But, as in every role, there are lines Product Managers should not cross. For the Product team, there are some critical do’s and don’ts to ensure smooth collaboration with other teams. Among the do’s are facilitating joint planning, communicating effectively, and building strong relationships. The don’ts include making unilateral decisions, overstepping boundaries, and making commitments without consulting others. I discuss these in detail later in this article.
The head of Product Management often also supervises Portfolio Management and Delivery Management.
Strategic Portfolio Management: The Strategists
Product Managers or Portfolio/Program Managers should assume the responsibilities of effort vs. value trade-offs, managing product portfolios, and providing high-level reporting. This aligns with their role as strategy makers for the product.
Delivery Management: The Orchestra Conductors
The Delivery Manager role is vital in ensuring the overall success of the project. The Delivery Manager oversees the resources, timeline, and budget of the project, working closely with Product Managers, stakeholders, and executives.
Engineering: The Builders
The Engineering team brings the product vision to life. They break down product requirements and design specifications into achievable tasks, estimate timelines for task completion, architect the product, ensure its quality, performance, and security, and collaborate with the Technology Operations team for deployment.
The Engineering team also plays a crucial role in estimating engineering timelines and deliveries. It’s their technical understanding and expertise that make them the best suited for this task.
For the Engineering team, the guiding principles include active participation in product planning and decision-making, fostering open communication, and embracing shared ownership of the product. They should avoid working in silos, resisting change, and evading accountability. More on this below.
Design & User Research: The User Advocates
The Design and User Research team ensures that the product is intuitive, accessible, and visually appealing to the user. They conduct user research, develop user journeys, wireframes, and prototypes, design user interfaces, and work closely with Product Management and Engineering to ensure the product meets user expectations and business objectives.
Technology Operations: The Guardians
The Technology Operations team including DevOps and Cyber Security, ensure the product is reliably and securely available to end users. They manage infrastructure, automate deployment processes, handle operational issues, and implement and test cyber security.
The head of Technology Operations often also supervises support of customers and products.
Customer Support: The Frontline
The Customer Support team is the frontline of any product. They are the first to hear customer complaints, praises, and suggestions. Their input is invaluable in making product improvements and providing insights into customer needs and behaviors.
A product is of little value if customers don’t buy it, so it is critical to include a reference to Sales & Marketing. Sales & Marketing typically reports to the CEO and is not part of the PDE department, so I will only briefly mention it below.
Sales & Marketing: The Communicators
The role of Sales and Marketing in digital product development is often overlooked. However, they play a crucial role in product success. They ensure the product is presented to the market effectively, garnering interest from potential customers. They provide feedback from the market, informing the product strategy and direction.
Deep Dive into Roles and Responsibilities
Digital product development is a collective effort, involving various teams, roles, and responsibilities. It is a symphony of diverse roles, each playing its part in harmony to create a successful product. Collaboration, communication, and respect for each other’s expertise and roles are key to successful product development. Every role is important and contributes to the final product in its own unique way. The magic happens when we all come together, respect each other’s roles, and work towards a common goal.
In the rest of this post, I’ll delve into the product development lifecycle, providing more insights into how these roles and responsibilities intertwine and interact throughout the different stages of product development.
Digital product development requires the collaboration of diverse specialized roles and teams. To ensure smooth operations and efficiency, it is critical to establish clear processes and workflows with well-defined responsibilities. This document elaborates on the best practices for our digital product development process, involving Product Management, Engineering, Design & User Research, and Technology Operations.
Product Managers act as the visionaries and strategists behind the product. They liaise with stakeholders, customers, and customers to gather insights, define product strategy, and translate business objectives into clear product goals.
- Identifying and analyzing market trends, user needs, and competitive landscape.
- Deeply understanding the business, including business strategy revenues and profitability. Staying close to these.
- Determining and authoring the product vision and product strategy. Getting buy-in from the Executive Leadership Team (ELT). Selling it to the entire PDE team.
- Defining the product roadmap and prioritizing features based on value and feasibility.
- Documenting high-level product requirements.
- Coordinating with Design & User Research, Engineering, and Technology Operations teams to ensure the product meets user expectations and business objectives.
- Leading go-to-market strategies and coordinating with marketing, sales, and customer support teams.
- Be aligned with each of the General Managers and de facto general managers.
Here is a detailed list of responsibilities of product managers.
Not The Responsibilities of Product Management
Product management should be involved in and guide (but not micromanage nor do themselves) the following activities which are led and performed by peer departments of Product. Product managers (or anyone for that matter) are welcome to make suggestions and recommendations, but the decision rights are with the directly responsible functional discipline.
- Product Management should not directly assign tasks to engineers, provide technical solutions, dictate the choice of technology stack, nor make promises about specific delivery dates without consulting Engineering.
- They should not design user interfaces nor conduct user research, which are the responsibilities of the Design & User Research team.
- They should not manage servers, databases, or handle operational issues, which fall under the purview of Technology Operations. The final decision making for Cyber security is also with Technology Operations.
Guidelines for the Head of Product and the Product team
- – Make unilateral decisions: This includes product decisions, estimates, and timelines. Every decision that involves engineering effort should be made collaboratively.
- – Overstep boundaries: As a Product team, it’s crucial to avoid behaving as if you are in charge of the Engineering team. Always respect the authority and expertise of your Engineering colleagues.
- – Commit without consultation: Avoid making commitments on behalf of the Engineering team without their input or buy-in. Overpromising can lead to overwork and missed deadlines.
- Facilitate joint planning: Encourage planning and estimation sessions with the Engineering team. Involve them in making decisions related to timelines, roadmaps, and resource allocation.
- Communicate effectively: Nurture open and transparent communication with the Engineering team. Regularly share updates about market trends, user feedback, and business objectives.
- Build strong relationships: Cultivate a strong rapport with the Engineering team. Understanding and respecting each other’s roles will lead to a more collaborative and efficient working environment.
The Engineering team translates the product vision into a reality via means such as writing code and integrating vendor solutions. They take the high-level product requirements and design specifications and build the actual product.
- Analyzing product requirements, providing technical feasibility assessment, and breaking down features into detailed user stories and tasks.
- Estimating timelines for task completion and delivery based on their technical understanding and expertise.
- Architecting the product, choosing the technology stack, and defining coding standards.
- Developing the product according to the design specifications provided by the Design and User Research team.
- Conducting rigorous testing to ensure quality, performance, and security.
- Deploying the product in collaboration with Technology Operations.
Estimating Engineering Timelines and Deliveries
Since a major part of the product development work is done by engineers, it is important to clarify the following.
- The responsibility of estimating engineering timelines for task completion and deliveries lies within the Engineering team. Their technical understanding and expertise make them the best suited for this task. While Product Management provides high-level timelines and milestones, Engineering is responsible for breaking down those into specific tasks and providing detailed estimates.
- In the article titled Project Estimation with T-Shirt Sizing & Evidence Based Scheduling Models for Scrum Teams, I delve deeper into estimates.
Guidelines for the Head of Engineering and the Engineering team
- – Work in silos: Avoid working in isolation from the Product team. Working collaboratively leads to more innovative solutions and less backtracking.
- – Resist change: Be open to changes proposed by the Product team. Understand that market dynamics and user needs might necessitate pivots or updates.
- – Escape accountability: Avoid a hands-off approach to product planning and timelines. Take responsibility for commitments and deliverables.
- Participate actively: Engage in product planning and decision-making processes. This includes making estimations and timelines collaboratively with the Product team.
- Foster open communication: Create an environment where engineers feel comfortable raising concerns, asking questions, and providing feedback to the Product team.
- Embrace shared ownership: Start seeing the product as a joint responsibility. Work together with the Product team to understand the product vision and how it translates to engineering tasks.
Design & User Research
The Design and User Research team focuses on the user experience and interface of the product. They ensure the product is intuitive, accessible, and visually appealing to the user.
- Conducting user research and creating user personas to guide design decisions.
- Developing user journeys, wireframes, and prototypes based on the product requirements.
- Designing user interfaces according to usability and aesthetic principles.
- Collaborating with Product Management to align the design with product requirements and business objectives.
- Presenting design specifications to Engineering to ensure design fidelity in the final product.
Technology Operations (DevOps & CyberSecurity)
The Technology Operations team ensures the product is reliably and securely available to end users. They manage the infrastructure, automate deployment processes, and handle operational issues.
- Setting up and managing servers, databases, and cloud infrastructure.
- Automating deployment, scaling, and monitoring processes.
- Implementing security best practices and ensuring compliance.
- Collaborating with Engineering for successful product deployment.
- Troubleshooting and resolving operational issues to ensure optimal product performance.
- Cyber security
While the Product Manager for a particular area is responsible for overall product delivery that encompasses the work of engineering, data, design, and technology operations, each of their areas make their own estimates and delivery commitments to the Product Manager. The Product Manager does not micromanage nor dictate the engineering, data, design, or devops work. The Product Manager does bring together the work of each of these disciplines for an integrated delivery of the product.
Strategic Portfolio Management Responsibilities Are Part of Code Product Management
To ensure optimal organizational functionality and facilitate a more efficient product development process, I recommend a strategic shift in roles. Drawing from successful practices observed in leading companies like Google, Amazon, and Spotify, I believe that Product Managers should assume the responsibilities of effort vs. value trade-offs, managing product portfolios, and providing high-level reporting. This aligns with the role definition of Product Managers as strategy setters, decision-makers, and the voice of the market inside the company.
By doing so, Product Managers will be more closely aligned with the overall vision and strategy of the organization, and they will be better positioned to influence the prioritization of the product roadmap based on strategic objectives and market dynamics. (Source: Pichler, Roman. “The Product Manager vs. the Product Owner.” Roman Pichler, 2020) They would also oversee the portfolio of products, ensuring alignment with overarching company goals and effectively allocating resources based on product performance and strategic importance.
The proposed strategic shift ensures that the Product Managers are not transformed into Project Managers. Instead, their role will be enhanced to incorporate more strategic responsibilities, providing an overarching view of product direction and progress. It also allows them to drive the decision-making process based on a deep understanding of the product portfolio and its alignment with business goals.
To maintain focus on product development and strategic initiatives, Project Management responsibilities will be overseen by Delivery Managers. They will ensure the smooth running of projects, dealing with day-to-day project details, managing timelines, resources, and stakeholder communication. This separation of responsibilities ensures that both roles can focus on their areas of expertise and contribute to the project’s success.
The Delivery Manager role holds a significant place in the evolved product development process. This position, formed by merging the responsibilities of Project Managers and Scrum Masters focuses on ensuring the overall success of the project.
- Overseeing the resources, timeline, and budget of the project.
- Working closely with Product Managers, stakeholders, and executives to deliver successful projects.
- Being actively involved in product development and project planning phases.
- Facilitating risk management and ensuring alignment of the project with client goals and objectives.
- Providing proper support during product deliveries.
Delivery Managers should help hold the team accountable for the following.
- Adherence to Established Procedures: Teams must follow procedures, but there should be flexibility for beneficial deviations and innovation.
- Achievement of Goals: Goals should be SMART and align with the broader product vision and user needs. Teams should be involved in setting these goals.
- Timely Delivery: Deadlines are important but should aim to not compromise the quality or the needs of the product and users.
- Quality of Output: Beyond functionality, usability, and stability, user satisfaction should be a primary measure of quality.
- Effective Collaboration: Encourage cooperation within teams and between departments, including stakeholders outside of the immediate development teams like sales, marketing, and customer service.
- Continuous Improvement: Teams should have dedicated time to learn, innovate, and improve processes. We should foster a culture that encourages experimenting.
- Problem Resolution: Create a no-blame culture, focusing on problem-solving rather than avoiding mistakes.
- Innovation and Creativity: Promote a culture of creativity and risk-taking, which can lead to innovative solutions.
- Customer Empathy: Teams should deeply understand and empathize with the customer. This understanding should guide all decisions, from design to customer service.
The change from Scrum Master being a person’s job to a part-time role reflects our belief that Agile methodologies are most effective when they’re a shared responsibility. Rather than having a full-time Scrum Master, each team will have a member who assumes the Scrum Master role along with their main job. This change allows us to more flexibly allocate resources based on the project’s needs, fostering a more Agile culture.
The reason behind this change is to ensure an enhanced focus on the overall success of the project. While the Scrum Master role is primarily focused on the development team’s success and following the Scrum framework, the Delivery Manager has a broader focus, ensuring the success of the project from start to finish. This role will also involve risk management, handling resources, timeline, and budget, and working closely with stakeholders.
The merger of the Program Manager team with the Scrum Masters into a combined Delivery Manager team is a strategic move to leverage the strengths of both roles. The new Delivery Managers will be involved from the start to the end of a project, providing a seamless flow and improved communication.
For more information on the differences between the Delivery Manager and Scrum Master roles, refer to this article and to read a job description of the delivery manager, read this article published by the Silicon Valley Product Group.
In this context, we expect to achieve greater efficiency in product development, improved alignment between product strategies and company goals, and a clear division of responsibilities that empowers each team to do what they do best.
A discussion of roles and responsibilities is incomplete without understanding work in the context of tasks, production, and results, for that, I suggest reading one of my most popular blog posts to date, titled Activities, Outputs, and Outcomes — A framework for your job.
Sources for this article include:
- Cagan, Marty. “Behind Every Great Product.” Silicon Valley Product Group, 2008
- Cagan, Marty. “INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love.” Wiley, 2017.
- Mauborgne, Renée, and W. Chan Kim. “Blue Ocean Strategy, Expanded Edition: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant.” Harvard Business Review Press, 2015.)
- Rigby, Darrell K., Sarah Elk, and Steve Berez. “Doing Agile Right: Transformation Without Chaos.” Harvard Business Review Press, 2020.
- McGrath, Michael E. “Product Strategy for High Technology Companies.” McGraw Hill, 2001.