Product teams are born from an organization’s need to solve a problem or a make a process more efficient through technology. As an integral component of a digital transformation strategy, these team(s) work together to accomplish goals that require specific skillsets and processes. That being said, there are several schools of thought on the best way to structure the roles on a product team depending on your industry and the goals of your business.
Drawing on our 10+ years building and fine-tuning product teams for some of the world’s top companies, we’ll share our thoughts around the following points:
- The appropriate product team roles for your new or existing digital product
- The reasons we’ve found this structure to be the most effective
- How you can adjust your product team roles to fit your needs
Product teams basics
Our organization is a digital product agency comprised of cross-disciplined product teams. These teams work to give our clients the confidence they need to take risks, build tech, and solve problems fast.
We believe small teams made up of designers, developers, product managers, and test engineers are more effective than departments or siloed groups of people. Keeping these teams small prevents us from having ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ that might break down communication.
The different roles on a product team
Though other job descriptions may vary from our own, there are a few roles that are essential to any product team. Many companies rely on their development team alone to design, test, and manage a product build, causing a high turnover rate and low job satisfaction. By breaking out the needs of your product and acknowledging the unique skillsets that those needs require, you can help ensure the best possible outcome.
Product designers are in charge of the creative process of building custom web and mobile applications. They speak into initial ideas and leverage UX knowledge to create beautiful digital products. Their design solutions take into account the needs of the users, strategic business goals, and technical feasibility. Their role may include building out design systems, creating prototypes, assisting with user research, and building out the information architecture of the product.
Developers work with the team to bring ideas to life with code. Their primary function is to plan, test, and develop an application that meets the client’s business needs. They must write code quickly to allow for early iteration while still maintaining a high level of quality. Developers are integral in evaluating technical feasibility and helping find solutions to new challenges as they arise.
Technical Planners create a data model that reflects the problem space and identifies the distinct types of data in the system. They also…
- Consult with client teams to understand what’s guiding decisions or holding the product back and develop a picture of the future
- Outline potential hurdles and considerations for viable paths forward
- Map out integrations, libraries, frameworks, and other elements of the product
- Pivot the plan as variables change and more becomes known during the product development lifecycle
Product Managers are often viewed as the ‘leaders’ of a product team. They help teams find the most effective ways to get work done, plan and manage sprints, track velocity, run retros, determine prioritization, and look for ways to remove obstacles so the team can deliver results faster. Essentially, they keep everyone on track.
At many companies, the product manager might wear even more hats, such as market research, forecasting, budgeting, and working with the marketing team on branding. As you scale, it may be necessary to appoint a VP of product or Chief Product Officer that all Product Managers report to. In some cases, the PdM will answer to the business unit manager of a given product line.
Check out this article from Product School around how the Product Management role can shift depending on the company stage and product goals.
Test Engineers (also known as quality assurance specialists) work to ensure the technology delivered aligns with the expectations of the client and the end users' usability needs at the highest level of quality. The test engineer works with to distill analytics and business processes into a plan that allows high-caliber features to be delivered regularly, with minimal defects. Through their diligent work, you end up with great product that’s ready for the world!
Though we don’t have these roles on our product teams, we often work alongside clients that will have team members focused on specific aspects of the business or product. These might include:
Product Owner: This is often the person responsible for leading their internal product team, identifying agencies to work alongside, and communicating with stakeholders to ensure alignment.
Business Analyst: These team members focus on understanding the business processes and business rules necessary to satisfy customer needs within complex organizations (ie: IT organizations, process improvement organizations, organizations that develop products for internal use, etc).
You can learn more about these roles and how they coalesce in this blog post from KBP Media.
Some agencies structure their product teams a little differently to accommodate their clients and pricing structure. For example, those using the waterfall approach with time and materials pricing will build the team to fit the project. It’s less about minimum defaults and more about what the client wants and their timeframe.
For those working on these teams, that means switching from project to project as needed. While this is great for flexibility, it does require change orders for any additional allocations and can make work less predictable for team members. Our billing structure allows for established product teams to know roughly how long they’ll be on a project, thereby cutting down on switching costs.
Some product teams have a lot less structure. One of our developers who previously worked at a larger company described his team as a group of developers working under one manager. This manager reported to a product manager, though sometimes developers worked directly under a PM depending on their structure hierarchy.
There were no test engineers on their team — their quality assurance was their users. It wasn’t common for developers to communicate with users directly, and developers were silo-ed with no designers to guide the project. Since teams were made up of only managers and developers, there was an added responsibility put on developers for testing and design. Another hindrance was a lack of communication with clients and opportunities to share opinions around product builds.
Adjusting the team structure to remain agile
Technology is changing all the time. That’s why it’s so important that you keep your product teams— and the roles within them — flexible.
For a long time our product teams also included a ‘strategist’ role. This person was responsible for guiding the team toward a shared product vision, running strategy sessions & user tests to help make the product better, essentially acting as a third party co-founder for the product idea.
However, we came to realize that there was too much responsibility overlap between the product manager and the strategist on the team. We decided to pivot and build out a new line of services that would encompass the value a strategist provided. As we learn more about the needs of our clients, we continue to refine the messaging and vernacular surrounding this niche.
In that same vein, you should consider whether the product teams you’ve set up are currently meeting the needs of your product. While test engineers aren’t always necessary in the planning phase, you definitely want them on the team once the heavy coding starts. If your focus has shifted to marketing rather than development, consider whether an in-house product marketing expert would be a good addition.
Identifying role requirements and creating job descriptions
When companies have the mindset of ‘filling the boat with as many people as possible and rowing as quickly as possible,” they will likely breed a toxic culture. Without taking a step back to determine if you have the right role requirements, you may find yourself on a sinking ship.
We always recommend having someone with technical or product experience speak into the recruiting process and identify which roles you need on your team. If you can’t answer the question ‘what does the role require?’ due to a lack of technical knowledge, you have a problem.
When it comes to creating job descriptions, our motto is ‘to be clear is to be kind’. Make it clear to them how they can know when they’re exceeding or meeting expectations.
Let’s get started!
If you’re a PdM, product owner, or founder wanting to build a product team, you’ve got quite the journey ahead of you. Check out this podcast episode where Crema co-founders George and Dan discuss the best practices of growing your own product team, including finding the right talent, perfecting your hiring process, and retaining talent.
If you’ve decided to hire an outside agency to take on your digital product build or work alongside your already-existing product team, let’s talk.