Product Manager

What is a Product Manager?

A product manager is responsible for guiding the development, strategy, and success of a product by balancing market demands, customer needs, and business goals. They conduct research, prioritize features, and collaborate with cross-functional teams to ensure smooth development and successful product launches.

The Basic Idea

Have you ever come across a new app, gadget, or tool and thought, “Wow, I didn’t even realize I needed this until now?” Often, the development of a successful new product that fills a gap in the market is thanks to a stellar product manager. On a professional team, the product manager (PM) is responsible for guiding a product’s development, strategy, and success, all while balancing the market’s demands, customer needs, and the goals of the business.

Defining The Goals

But what does a product manager actually do? To start, a good product manager will first define the product vision and strategy. They identify market opportunities, set long-term goals, and ensure that the product aligns with the company's strategic objectives. Product managers conduct extensive research to understand customer needs, market trends, and competitive landscapes. This involves gathering feedback from users, analyzing market data, and staying informed about industry developments.

Connecting the Product and Stakeholders

In addition to collecting data from customers on the product and its pain points, product managers will work closely with a variety of team members, including engineers, designers, marketers, and sales teams. Product managers prioritize features, manage the product backlog, and ensure the development process runs smoothly. They are the primary point of contact between different departments and stakeholders, communicating the product vision and ensuring alignment across the organization.

Executing Project Launch

Finally, product managers are responsible for planning and executing product launches, working with marketing and sales teams to develop go-to-market strategies. They ensure the product reaches the target audience and has the desired impact on the market. After the product is launched, product managers monitor its performance using key metrics and feedback, analyzing the data to identify areas for improvement and work on iterating the product to enhance user satisfaction and achieve business objectives.

“Your job as a product manager is not to define the ultimate product. It’s to define the smallest possible product that will meet your goals.”


– Marty Cagan, Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love

Theory, meet practice

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Key Terms

Agile Development: Agile is a methodology used in product management that emphasizes iterative development, collaboration, and flexibility. During each sprint, cross-functional teams work on specific tasks and deliverables, improving and adapting based on user feedback and changing requirements. In 2001, the Agile Manifesto was published, which was developed by a group of software developers, outlining the core values of improving software development practices:2

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Sprint: In an agile framework, product development is broken into smaller, more manageable sprints. This is a set period (usually 1-4 weeks) during which specific work must be completed and made ready for review.

Scrum: Scrum is an agile framework for managing complex projects, typically used in software development, but also applicable to other fields. It provides a structured yet flexible approach that emphasizes collaboration, accountability, and iterative progress toward a well-defined goal. The scrum master is the leader of this process; they facilitate the scrum process, ensure adherence to scrum practices, and help the team improve productivity.2

Minimum Viable Product (MVP): The simplest version of a product that can be released to validate assumptions and gather user feedback with minimal effort and resources.

Product Backlog: A prioritized list of features, enhancements, bug fixes, and technical tasks required to improve a product, managed by the product owner in Scrum.

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs): Metrics used to evaluate the success of a product or feature in achieving its objectives, such as user engagement, retention rates, or revenue.

User Experience (UX): The overall experience a user has when interacting with a product, including the ease of use, satisfaction, and value derived from the product.

A/B Testing: A method of comparing two versions of a feature or product to determine which one performs better based on specific metrics. This is essential for validating design choices and improving user experience.

Go-to-Market Strategy: A plan detailing how a product will be launched and promoted to reach its target customers effectively.

Dark Patterns: Designing interfaces that manipulate users into taking actions they might not want, such as making accidental purchases or sharing more information than intended.

Product roadmap: A document used to track the vision, direction, priorities, and progress of a product over time. It guides both the product team and stakeholders and allows them to collaborate with each other, detailing what the product aims to achieve and how it plans to get there

Complete Product Experience (CPE): The entire experience a customer has with a product, encompassing every touchpoint and interaction throughout the product lifecycle. It integrates multiple aspects of the product experience, from initial discovery and purchase to usage, support, and beyond. 

Kanban: A visual workflow management method used to optimize and manage tasks within an organization. This originated from the world of manufacturing, particularly the Toyota Production System. This type of visual representation of the workflow and progress allows team stakeholders to easily see the status of tasks and identify any bottlenecks.2

Agile Environments

To better understand what it means to be a product manager in an agile environment, let’s look at some of the core product management responsibilities, all of which require being flexible and open to customer feedback.

First, setting a clear strategy is crucial. Product managers are responsible for defining the product vision and long-term direction. This requires working closely with customers to understand their pain points, researching the market, and setting strategic product goals and initiatives that align with overall business objectives. Agile methodologies focus on delivering value to customers quickly. This means product managers must stay close to customers to understand exactly what they want. One tenet of agile is gathering feedback early and often to ensure the product delivers the expected benefits to users.

One of the next steps is to create the product roadmap. An agile roadmap sets a plan for achieving the product strategy, usually defining monthly or quarterly goals. Product managers build this roadmap around the overall vision of the product and goals to deliver meaningful value to customers. During this process, agile product management involves continuously prioritizing features for implementation—maintaining the product backlog, defining user stories, and deciding what to build and when. Product managers work closely with engineers to estimate features, define requirements, and collaborate on a release plan based on the team’s capacity.

Delivering new customer experiences and improving the existing experience process is important, and product managers may need to make adjustments to this process quarterly, monthly, weekly, or even daily. Regardless of the frequency, product managers are responsible for delivering a Complete Product Experience (CPE) to customers. This involves working closely with engineering, IT, marketing, sales, and support to ensure organizational readiness.

Finally, we must come back to one of the key tenets of behavioral science: defining and measuring product success. In an agile environment, success is measured by how customers interact with products and services and the impact on customer acquisition, growth, and retention. This can include customer engagement (such as time in product and returning users), conversion rates, customer churn, and the frequency of feature updates.1

History

The term ‘product manager’ may seem like a new title, but the concept dates back to the 1930s when Neil H. McElroy, a manager at Procter & Gamble (P&G), wrote a famous memo advocating for "brand men" (clearly, the workplace has progressed at least a little since then). These individuals were responsible for managing specific brands, focusing on consumer needs, advertising strategies, and sales performance: what we recognize today as product management.4

In the 1950s and 1960s, consumer markets were expanding rapidly, and companies like P&G and General Electric began to see the value of having dedicated individuals to manage product lines. This period also saw the rise of marketing management as an academic discipline, further solidifying the importance of understanding and managing products from a consumer perspective.

The late 20th century was characterized by the technology boom. Particularly in Silicon Valley, the rise of software companies and the fast-paced nature of tech development required a more fluid and iterative approach to managing products. Hewlett-Packard (HP) was one of the early adopters of this model, focusing on integrating product management with engineering teams. As software development methodologies evolved, product management became more dynamic, with companies like Microsoft and Apple, and later Google and Amazon, starting to refine the role, emphasizing the importance of user feedback, rapid iteration, and cross-functional collaboration.

The turn of the century expanded access to product management software. This shifted the focus toward digital products, with an emphasis on user experience (UX) design, data-driven decision-making, and continuous deployment. Agile and lean methodologies became standard practices in product development.

By the 2010s, the role of the product manager evolved with the growth of mobile technology, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing. Modern product managers are expected to possess a diverse skill set, including technical knowledge, business acumen, and strong leadership abilities. The importance of customer-centricity, data analytics, and collaboration has become more pronounced, with PMs often acting as the bridge between technology and business. There are now a number of product management software platforms like Jira, Trello, and Asana, which have made it easier to track progress, manage backlogs, and communicate across teams, particularly on large-scale projects.4

The Human Element

Most products are made for people. And if not, they’re usually sold to people. That means that user research revolves around understanding human behavior. Product managers will often use behavioral science techniques like observational studies, interviews, and surveys to help uncover user needs, motivations, and pain points.

It’s important for PMs to understand psychological principles when designing interfaces to be intuitive and user-friendly. They can use A/B testing to systematically test and refine product features based on user responses and design products for how people are actually using them (because we know that people aren’t always predictable and products aren’t always used for what they were designed for!). These insights can also help product managers create products that integrate into users’ daily routines, using insights from habit formation research to increase retention.

We can see a number of other psychological principles at play in the life cycle of many of the products we engage with and the marketing we’re exposed to. For example, we’re now very familiar with the concept of user reviews and influencers. Showcasing testimonials, reviews, or the number of users who have purchased a product may act as social proof (or even the bandwagon effect) and can increase trust in the product. Knowing that people are often overwhelmed by too many choices, companies can work to simplify the available options, structuring the choice architecture in a way that simplifies decision-making for users. Some apps may offer instant gratification through points, badges, or other incentives immediately after completing an action in the app (for example, after purchasing something), which can also increase engagement and retention.

There are, however, some product development and marketing strategies that may be less ethical but are relevant in the world of product management nonetheless. Understanding these strategies and the responsibility involved when employing such nudges is imperative since we should only ever be pushing people in a direction or towards actions they consent to. An example of one strategy is the decoy effect, where a company may choose to create different versions of the same product or present a premium plan alongside a less attractive mid-tier plan, which can make the premium plan appear more valuable. They also may use the strategy of anchoring, using initial pieces of information (anchors) to influence subsequent judgments, by displaying a higher-priced item first or even attempting to subconsciously expose the customer to higher prices or quantities.

Controversies

The more data we collect, the more potential there is for data privacy concerns. The world of product management is no different, and protecting users’ data is a key concern. Product managers must balance the need for data to improve products while also protecting user privacy; misuse or over-collection of data can lead to breaches of trust and legal issues, putting both the customer and company at risk. Responsible data collection requires a level of transparency from companies and consent from users. Users should fully understand how their data will be used and consent obtained without deceptive practices. 

While product managers work with the various engineering and marketing teams to develop final products, there’s a fine line they must walk: how do you create a product that is both engaging and fun to use, while not being explicitly designed to keep people addicted? Creating features that exploit psychological triggers to keep users engaged is unethical and can lead to negative impacts on mental

Case Study

In May 2024, the European Commission launched an investigation to determine whether Meta (the parent company to Facebook and Instagram) has breached the European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA), as similar investigations have shown that the algorithms may “stimulate behavioral addictions in children.”4 Product managers, in this scenario, should’ve been expected to acknowledge the harm their product was (and still is) causing to a key stakeholder—in this case, a very vulnerable consumer group. It is their responsibility to introduce safeguards, change the app’s features, or even remove the app from the market until it can be deemed safe. 

Meta has already faced litigation in the United States for issues related to data collection from minors, purportedly designing algorithms to “encourage compulsive use” in kids. In fact, an investigation by the Wall Street Journal found that Meta has known just how addictive and harmful Instagram content can be: it showed that 32% of teen girls “said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” and in 2019 Meta’s own files noted that “we make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”4

If apps like Instagram can be so harmful to users’ well-being, why do users keep coming back? Because the product has been designed to keep them hooked. Responsible product management is about not just ‘cracking the code’ to keep people engaged but also considering the well-being of people, profits, and the planet. Product managers and anyone affiliated with user design hold significant power. Without conscious consideration, dark patterns can emerge, which manipulate users by designing interfaces to trick them into doing something they may not want or realize they’re doing. Such dilemmas require product managers to carefully consider the broader implications of their decisions and strive to balance business goals with ethical responsibility.

Related TDL Content

Using the power of behavioral science to elevate User Experience (UX) design

UX experience is vital for creating successful products and services. Central to successful UX experience is behavioral science. In this article, Matthaios Mantzios explores how the findings and insights of Daniel Kahneman and Don Norman can be integrated into the design process to enhance user awareness and elevate user experience. 

Behavioral Product Roadmap Example

A product roadmap describes the steps that a business plans to take to meet business objectives. Items in a product roadmap are linked back to each of the strategies it attempts to address, thus answering the questions of why and how.

References

  1. Product Plan. (n.d.). The Ultimate Guide to Agile Product Management. Product Plan Blog. https://www.productplan.com/learn/agile-product-management/ 
  2. Davies, Bree. (n.d.). Product Management Overview Atlassian. https://www.atlassian.com/agile/product-management
  3. Eriksson, Martin. (2015, October). The history and evolution of product management. Mind the Product. https://www.mindtheproduct.com/history-evolution-product-management/ 
  4. Gavin, William. (2024, May). Meta's Facebook and Instagram may cause addiction in kids, European regulators say. Quartz. https://qz.com/meta-platforms-facebook-instagram-social-media-privacy-1851481066#:~:text=The%20European%20Commission%20on%20Thursday,%2Dhole%20effects.%E2%80%9D%20The%20regulatory

About the Author

Annika Steele

Annika Steele

Annika is currently pursuing her Masters at the London School of Economics in an interdisciplinary program combining behavioral science, behavioral economics, social psychology, and sustainability. Professionally, she’s applied her passion for data-driven insights in project management, consulting, and data analysis in big tech, Fortune 500 companies, and nonprofits. She excels in any role that allows her to engage directly with people and explore big ideas. With undergraduate degrees in Economics and Psychology, Annika has investigated the intersection of psychology and social systems through research on comprehensive sex education and is currently leading research on perfectionism in female ultramarathoners. Annika believes continuous research and understanding human behavior is the most powerful way to shape the world and is passionate about animal welfare and reproductive health.

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