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November 22, 2022

 mins to read

All You Need to Know to Understand Product Owner Role

There are two types of people who get paid for owning products: Instagram influencers and product owners (POs). Today, we’ll talk about the latter.

Eleken designers get to work with different product teams, joining them as one more team member. It means getting to work with project managers, product owners, founders… Different organization systems bring different roles. So, let’s take a look at product owners from a designer’s point of view.

product owner vs instagram influencer
Image credit: Photo by Laura Chouette and Bonneval Sebastien on Unsplash

The history of the product owner's profession is easy to track. It didn’t exist before the Agile system was born, in 2001. The system was so revolutionary that it required a new role on the team to help manage the processes.

“Owning” a product, process, or project means taking the responsibility and following the work process (yes, I realize that so far there’s very little difference with an Instagram influencer). And once I’ve mentioned responsibilities… There are a few.

The main goal of the product owner

The major goal of the product owner is to deliver the best product by managing the work of the development team in the most efficient way. And… that’s all there’s to it. Seriously, nothing more to add. That’s why, let’s proceed to responsibilities. 

Key responsibilities of product owner

Managing the backlog

In simple words, a product backlog is a to-do list of the development team. These are the bricks out of which the product is constructed.

Product owner has to break the pieces of work into right-size parts and assign them to the development team. Their job is to turn those often big and abstract ideas of product managers into concrete, doable and measurable tasks.

Defining user stories

User story is a product feature as seen by the user. One of the responsibilities of the product owner is to bring user vision to the product team. They have to explain to the development team what features they have to implement based on studying the customers' needs.

Prioritizing

In Agile, the synonym of flexibility, defining the most important tasks and putting them first is the key to success. This is what differentiates backlog from a to-do list: developers can do all the tasks, but if they are not prioritized, the product will not get to its best.

Connecting the team and the stakeholders

Product owner is the person who is being asked all the questions that people don’t know whom to address. As we’ll see below, syncing between different parts of the team and making sure that the developers don’t exist in their comfortable vacuum is a basic responsibility of a product owner.

Four levels of product owner’s tasks

Of course, this list is not exhaustive. Often product owner has to take on a variety of tasks on a few levels:

  1. Strategic. Defining where the product is going, what it offers to customers, and so on. It is joint work with product manager, CTO, analyst, and others. The product owner’s job is to bring all the ideas to a single vision. Strategic level implies collaboration with different teams: sales, marketing, engineering, and so on.
  2. Working on the solution. When the goals are defined, the product owner has to decide which features the product will have. Together with designers, tech leads, and analysts, they make the vision take real shape. Product owner has to set limits and organize the work so that the output will be a set of tasks for the backlog.
  3. Operational. These tasks are for the stage of realization. The product owner has to plan development iteration, solve the questions that arise during the process, follow the performance of the tasks, check the results, and get the team through all the iterations to the release. This includes the need to adapt the processes of interaction and development.
  4. Communicational. This includes both internal and external communication. The product owner writes release and update notes and stays in touch with customers to ensure that product is responsive to their needs.

A typical day of a product owner

  • Starts with c̶o̶f̶f̶e̶e̶ daily meeting: checking statuses and plans. For team members, it’s just a regular organizational task. For product owners, it is the basis of their work. They take notes, ask questions, and define the day agenda based on the information from the daily meeting.
  • Work with the designer: checking the progress, giving feedback, setting task priorities, and explaining the details when needed.
  • Setting tasks, tracking, and updating the backlog.
  • Syncing with sales, product team, and director.
  • Preparing materials such as release or update notes, checking the documentation
  • Tasks vary depending on the product development stage. At the beginning of a cycle, there are meetings with the tech lead, lead analyst, and designer to discuss features for the next release. If the release is coming to the finish line, the product owner is setting the stage for this final episode: approve the final product, and transfer it to testing. At the same time, the preparation for the next release starts.
  • Client analysis, interviews. Knowing the customers well is one of the key responsibilities of a product owner. This can be different for B2B and customer products.
  • In the end, a large chunk of the day is likely to be filled with short calls/chatting with team members, answering questions about current tasks, checking the progress, and sharing memes (crossed). All of this is accompanied by big amounts of coffee and tea.

What makes a great product owner

We asked a few product owners to complete the phrase “Great product owner does…” and here is what they said.

  • … Knows how to balance orientation on business goals customer tasks, and limitations. 
  • … Formulates and assigns tasks correctly.
  • … Has great communication skills. If you’ve seen the typical day above… You get how much time a product owner spends communicating with other people.
  • … Knows how to manage people while not being a lead officially. That’s a tricky statement. In a horizontal scrum organization, there is no boss, but someone has to be that connecting chain between the team members.
  • … Lets team member do their work and resists the desire to “do it better yourself”.
  • … Possesses structural thinking that is essential to see the process as a whole and know the place of each team member in it.
  • … Has interest in everything new, eager to learn, and trust the opinion of professionals in the sphere where they are not very knowledgeable

Product owner vs product manager vs scrum master

product manager vs scrum master vs product owner meme

Sometimes roles in product teams can be puzzling. One can say that it is a sign of a young industry that is yet to establish clear standards, but there is nothing negative about that. I believe that such a difference in role definition is one of the characteristics of a flexible work environment.

Although many IT teams apply the principles of Agile in their work, most of them don’t follow all the canons relentlessly. They adapt them, taking the parts of scrum, kanban, design sprints, you-name-it methodology, combining, and doing what fits their situation best.

You can think of it as a signal that the system is not universal. On the other hand, the widespread usage of Agile, even modified, is indeed a sign of its docility. Both big and small teams can adapt it to their needs, even if they don’t have the capacity for a product owner and scrum master at the same time.

That is how different roles can merge in one person. Most of our clients work in small or medium-size teams, and often there is just a product manager responsible for most of these tasks.

Let me explain briefly the difference between these three roles, but remember, it’s not carved in stone — Agile has to be responsive to circumstances.

Product manager (PM)

In big teams, the product manager would be responsible for the whole product, while product owners would work with one or more teams inside the product. So, there would few product owners for one product manager.

Naturally, the role is more strategic, and related to all facets of the product. PM has to work along with marketing, sales, CEO, customer success, and, of course, developers and designers.

Product manager’s job is to follow the whole product lifecycle from idea creation to the release and after release, aligning the needs of customers with business goals and overall company strategy.

Product owner vs product manager

While product manager has a more strategic and global vision, product owner is more concrete in their working focus: they take the vision and split it into feasible actions and tasks, creating user stories and backlog.

If you read all the text above, you already know enough about the product owner role. If you are interested in the differences and dynamics between product owner and project manager, you might find interesting our article “Product Owner vs Product Manager vs Project Manager: Who Do You Need to Build a SaaS Product?

Scrum master

If PO or PM are the roles that every team has, scrum master is only for those companies that are serious in their intention to follow all the rules of Agile. Unlike product owners and product managers, scrum masters don’t make decisions about the product itself. Their main job is to help team members to follow the system and facilitate meetings, sprints, and other elements of Scrum.

Final thoughts

Product owner is one of the most peculiar positions. Job title appeared as a fruit of a work organization theory. As our lead designer, Maksym said, “We always work with product owners, even if they don’t call themselves so”. This means that there is always a person who owns a product, even if they don’t even know what the product owner is. In a one-man band, the founder would be the product owner (though of course, they would not need to read a detailed article like this one).

It was a quick introduction to the world of a product owner. If you want to learn more, read our article about product owner challenges.

Masha Panchenko

Author

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