Having trouble with ‘owning’ your product?

I mentor product managers all over the world from one-off questions to long term mentorship engagements. I’ve decided to share some highlights from our discussions (removing any identifying information) as I’m sure others are facing similar problems.

The Question

Hi Katherine! I have been PM at a small eCommerce company for about one year. The problem that I’m reaching out about is my CEO and other leadership seems to see the PM position only as someone who project manages tasks for the engineering team. We are beginning a redesign of our site. My challenge is that the CEO is going directly to the UX lead about the redesign and asking her to start gathering requirements. I thought this was my responsibility! Should I get involved and assert my role as product owner? Or should I focus on prioritizing the features that the UX lead comes up with?

My Response

First let me say that I’ve been in your situation before and honestly, it’s a situation that continues to crop up even at companies with established PM groups. Depending on the project, new leadership, external pressures, cultural changes — I find that it’s somewhat typical that the PM role can get pushed around and sometimes cut out almost entirely and reduced to a software development project manager, as you describe. So, don’t feel like this is a unique situation or that you are alone in your struggle!

Now, let me try to be helpful. On something like a website redesign, I’m not surprised that the CEO and UX feel that they have a mandate to own it. It’s broad and covers everything! So the CEO might feel lots of ownership and responsibility for the design. In something like eCommerce, this is tricky since often the company is the website and vice versa. I understand that this may make you feel overlooked but I encourage you to respect that and work toward embracing joint ownership with the CEO and UX lead. This is one of those times when ego shouldn’t get in the way of a good product. Everyone can contribute and in doing so, the end result will be better than having one person act as the all-knowing owner of the product.

Now where does that leave you? You are PM and are responsible for the success of your product. How do you carve out ownership while respecting the roles and expertise of these other players? You definitely shouldn’t feel like you need to wait for the engineering specs and project manage them. That would miss the unique value add that you, as the PM, are qualified to contribute.

How do you carve out ownership while respecting the roles and expertise of these other players?

I suggest that you find a way to participate that neither the UX or CEO are going to do. Work with your UX as partner — this person is likely more interested in the visual layout of the redesign and possibly some branding elements. Work with your CEO as the ultimate visionary and a trusted expert. You then, carve out additional space where you can supplement that vision with data and user insights. Here are a few specific things I’d suggest doing:

Be the voice of the market and the voice of the customer

1. Establish the goals of the redesign. Is the motivation for redesign because the site is outdated? Is it rebranding related? Is it to increase sales? Is it to differentiate from a competitor? This is important because you, as the PM, will be the one focused on what to optimize for. Each motivation has different success metrics. Being clear about the goals upfront will position you to continually evaluate proposals and features.

2. Focus on gathering data. The UX is often focused on aesthetics and experience; CEO will be focused on her gut and her industry knowledge. Both will need data to guide these decisions. Can you gather user engagement data like click rates, conversion rates, time on page, etc.? Plan and implement lots of A/B tests to incrementally roll out portions of the redesign. If your organization doesn’t have a strong focus on A/B tests — this is absolutely vital. In doing this, you will serve as the voice of the customer base and supplement, support or challenge, the strong voices of the 2 individuals who would otherwise control these decisions.

3. Do competitive research. You can gather comparable design elements from your adjacent competitors. This is a matter of being willing to do the hard work to spend lots of time investigating how others are solving the problems your organization is aiming to solve. You will gain a great deal from this because you will be building up your expertise in eCommerce while also gathering specific examples to contribute to the redesign vision. Combine this research with the goals of the redesign — in doing this, you can contribute to the direction of the UX design and call out where something doesn’t ring true to you as a representative of the market voice and customer voice.

4. Go with the UX to do user testing. Once you and the designer have some mockups, go out into the world and get feedback from your perspective users. You can just bring a tablet to a coffee shop. You will come up with a list of questions or tasks to ask people to do on the site. As the PM, you should lead this. Ask things like, how would you go about looking for a gift on our site? Or how would you try to find pants to go with your favorite top on our site? or how would you find the best deal on hard drives on this site? Etc. Watch each person’s reactions and ask them to narrate what they are thinking. The designer should be present to watch these interactions; the two of you then debrief after each user test. In doing this, you are positioning yourself as the impartial voice of the customer, a valuable resource for UX to consult.

These are some examples of ways that you can join the process after the CEO and UX have already kicked off their vision. You will be the data-focused, customer-focused person to help refine that vision and ensure that it’s going to be successful when launched. To be honest, it’s an unfortunate possibility that UX-driven redesigns won’t resonate with customers. It is absolutely critical to verify the design in the above ways.

Prioritize the most valuable features while considering technical complexity

On the software implementation side, this is also a place where you can focus and carve out some unique value add as PM. Talk to your lead engineers as soon as possible about their experience with redesigns. They will have some important feedback on how to design to reuse elements across pages, what sorts of things will be easy and difficult in reworking the underlying data for the site, etc.

The risk is that the ideal UX decision is well-designed but is not really worth the time to execute. So, you will be the person focused on these questions:

a. How demonstrably valuable will the redesign be? (Answer this by doing #1–4 above)

b. Which features are the highest level of effort to code/implement? Are these aligned with the highest value features from (a)?

c. What process will we follow to prioritize work based on value impact and engineering effort to execute?

Your unique position will allow you to own this bargaining process between engineering and design.

In short

Carve out some data driven, customer-focused, and execution detail type work. Make it clear to the CEO and UX lead and your manager that you will be doing this legwork. Then, bring your research to the table so they can see the data and the value that you are adding. In the long run, hopefully this will enable them to see that you are more than a engineering task master!

The trick about owning your product is really to acknowledge that you don’t singularly own it. You are the conductor for what gets done and you ultimately collaborate with lots of experts to create and evaluate product ideas. Let’s all be honest! The PM doesn’t always have all of the skills, vision, or corporate context to be the CEO of the product but that doesn’t mean that you are relegated to prioritizing a backlog. Rather, it means that you should focus on surrounding yourself with trusted experts, understanding and validating your leadership’s vision, and working with engineers to bring their technical expertise to make the biggest impact on your product’s key metrics. That is really what we mean when we say we own our product.