I was re-reading the excellent Cracking the PM Interview recently and came across a great topic to discuss for this week’s post. Product managers manage products of all shapes and sizes, and it can be daunting for aspiring PMs just to figure out what sort of products might fit their strengths, interests, or even work-life balance preferences. I’ll be summarizing the 6 most common types of products that PMs manage and bring in some examples from my own projects.
1. Shipped Software
Shipped software are products delivered to stores, whether that’s physical (think CDs of programs at Best Buy) or digital (Apple App Store). The exploding popularity of smartphones in the past decade or so has led to mobile apps becoming the one of the most common types of shipped software.
Shipped software is difficult to change once delivered – the team can’t make any instantaneous modifications to the product and has to release patches or updates to fix any issues. Because of this, it’s absolutely essential to get the product right the first time! When my team worked on our mobile app, we lent test phones to other people in the company to try out the app, document any usability issues and bugs, and ensure that the end product worked and worked well.
Ideal PM: Good project management and communication skills are a must, since there’s typically a longer timeline that involves spec-writing, user researching, and lots of testing. Managing shipped software is also great for PMs who prefer a good work/life balance that doesn’t involve working odd hours to put out fires.
2. Online Software
Online software is different from shipped software because the team can make instant changes and updates easily. Because of this, it’s more common to launch a product, observe any issues, fix these issues, launch again, and repeat the cycle. A/B testing is extremely important for online software since it quantifies the best features and allows the team to constantly improve the end product.
Most of the products I’ve helped manage have been online software. From basic site functionality to cool new features, our website is constantly tested, tracked, and changed in the quest to provide the best user experience possible.
Ideal PM: Since testing is a huge component of good online software, data analysis skills are extremely important. The PM should be very comfortable designing experiments and accurately interpreting data. The PM must work well under all kinds of pressure (test environments down, prioritizing defects, etc.), not just pressure to meet a deadline.
3. Consumer Products
Consumer products could fall under either shipped or online software (or even a physical product), where normal people use the end product. Typically the target customer and use cases are already understood, and the biggest problems come from having too many feature and design ideas.
PMs are similar to editors in this role, guiding the team to a solid final product and prioritizing features based on data and business need. At my company I’ve only worked on consumer products since we’re a B2C company. Our goal as PMs is to partner with many different groups and be able to champion the customer experience above all else.
Ideal PM: PMs that are able to make strong cases for their viewpoints through data and logical reasoning will excel at managing consumer products. In an environment where possible features easily outnumber the amount of time and money and where multiple groups have different opinions on what makes a good final product, it’s essential to be able to back up statements and proposals with facts and numbers.
4. B2B Products
B2B products are created to be used by other companies. Some examples include productivity software (think Salesforce), online ads, or virtual testing environments. For B2B products, engineers may rely more on product managers who have industry-specific understanding of the target customer.
PMs managing B2B products need to understand the cause-and-effect of product decisions and company revenue. They need to see the bigger picture and make sure decisions follow a long-term strategy that’s good for both the company and the customers (other companies) using the product. Since my company is B2C, I’ve had the least experience working with B2B products, but it’s definitely not ruled out as a future possibility!
Ideal PM: Customer research and market analysis are two important responsibilities for PMs managing B2B products. Since engineers may rely more on PMs of B2B products, PMs who prefer to have more control may be more satisfied in this line of work.
5. Early Stage Products
These types of products are common among smaller startups where the team is often aiming to get a minimum viable product (MVP) out the door. Because of the very limited time frame and funding, PMs must focus on just the bare essentials for the product. The product does not need to be perfect – its value is in answering questions and validating the usefulness of that product.
Speed is of the utmost importance here. The PM is fine with launching a product that isn’t polished, because launching the product and getting answers will allow the team to focus on what needs to be improved. And with a smaller and leaner team, the PM is confident that they can quickly iterate once the idea is proven to be a good one. While my experience at my company’s innovation lab can’t truly compare to an early-stage startup’s, I was able to learn about the importance of moving fast and releasing a working prototype.
Ideal PM: PMs that are comfortable with uncertainty and working in a fast-paced environment will excel in this role. These PMs are not afraid to figure out hacks or workarounds, or cut out entire swaths of features, in order to quickly get the MVP to the customer and improve the product from there.
6. Mature Products
Mature products are the opposite of early stage products. These are products that have been in production and used by customers over a longer period of time. It’s easier for PMs to understand areas of improvement from past versions of the product, and they have more time and resources to tackle big ideas.
The goal for PMs managing mature products is to constantly improve existing features and add new features that will enhance the customer experience. However it’s a common trap to focus on just the small improvements over more risky big changes, so PMs in this space must learn to balance the two. Since my company is an established player in our industry, I’ve had a lot of experience managing mature products. I always keep in mind how we can stay relevant to our customers as preferences and age groups change over time.
Ideal PM: PMs that want to manage products used by a large user base (even millions) and have a big impact with any features delivered would enjoy working in this space. These PMs are also open to learning from the same people who have worked on successful versions of the product in the past, and are always on the lookout to pursuing big ideas with more resources and funding.
I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that many of these products overlap and that PMs should have all of the skillsets mentioned. However it’s important that you’re passionate about your product, so understanding the differences, however small, among products could be very helpful in your decision to work for a particular company or in a particular industry.
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