Product teams are often born from an organization’s need to solve a problem through technology. These teams require specialized skillsets and follow established processes to get work done. However, there are several schools of thought on the best way to structure the roles on a product team.
It may depend on your industry or the goals of your business. Product teams come in all different shapes and sizes, but there are a few key roles that should likely be on your roster. Drawing on our 13+ years building and fine-tuning product teams for some of the world’s top companies, we’ll share our perspective on:
• The core product team roles
• Additional roles to consider
• Adjusting the roles to your needs
What is a product team?
Before diving in, let’s get a clear definition. A product team is a collaborative, cross-disciplined group of individuals that work to achieve the common goal of creating a great digital experience. In other words, they come together to create software (or apps) with a high level of polish.
Our product perspective
It may be helpful to note our business and context. We are a design & technology comprised of cross-disciplined product teams that help other companies pilot new services, re-design existing experiences, or strengthening their team’s product culture.
In our agency experience, we’ve found that small teams made up of diverse product specialists are more effective than departments or siloed groups. Keeping product teams small keeps lines of communication clear and prevents you from ever having ‘too many cooks in the kitchen.’
The core roles on a product team
There are several roles that are essential to any product team. Some companies regrettably rely on their development team alone to design, test, and manage their digital experience. Besides burning out the dev team, these teams lack the necessary specialization to successfully do product work.
By breaking out the needs of your product, you can see what unique skillsets you need to achieve the best possible outcome. However, at minimum, each of these specialties should be represented: product managers, designers, developers, and test engineers.
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.
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 work 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.
Test engineers (also referred to 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!
What other roles should be considered
Beyond the “core” product team roles, there are additional specialties that may be critical for your team’s operation. These roles aren’t any less valuable, some groups simply may not require or have budget for more dedicated specialists.
In an agency model, this is often the person responsible for leading their internal product team, identifying agencies to work alongside, and communicating with stakeholders to ensure alignment. It is not included in our “core” product team example because this person may be a decision maker and informant
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).
Content Strategists / UX Writers
Content strategists work closely with the design team to create strategic copy that helps navigate the users through the experience. Activities guided by this role can include (but aren’t limited to) defining a product voice and copy guidelines for future contributors, auditing existing content for any UX pain points related to copy, assist with content for the onboarding experience, and more.
Adjusting the team structure to remain agile
Technology is changing all the time. That’s why it’s important that you keep your product teams— and the roles within them — flexible.
For a long time our product teams also included a dedicated ‘product 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 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 absolutely 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 product owner or founder wanting to build up a product team, there’s a journey ahead. Check out our podcast 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 think you may benefit from outside support, we can help. Our coaches are helping teams at global service organizations to level up their product culture. Get in touch to learn more.