What Is a Product Team?

Product Team
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Developing a digital product can be hard. It requires time and knowledge from a range of people, with different skillsets. To meet these demands it’s often necessary to pull a group of skilled professionals together into what’s known as a ‘Product Team’. 

So, what is a product team?

A product team is a small, agile, cross-functional team of professionals with different expertise, who come together to collaborate on the shared goal of developing a digital product. For most startups, a single product team will look after the entire product.

Product teams are responsible for strategy implementation, roadmap development, and feature definition. They choose what gets built, implement new features, promote what’s new, and measure performance. All critical functions in any tech-focused business.

Everyone from tech giants like Facebook, Amazon, and Google – through to the scrappy startup yet to make their first dollar, use product teams.

Behind every great product is a great product team, but who’s in that team?

Who is in the product team? What roles should they have?

The most common roles to include in the team are the Product Owner, Product Designer, and Software Developers. But teams can also include individuals from sales, support, operations, and marketing. In many organisations, product teams are overseen by a Product Manager.

Let’s break down the most common roles in the team:

Product Owner

The Product Owner is a proxy for the client, they are responsible for translating the client’s needs to the development team. Their key tasks include:

  1. Managing the product backlog – usually, they are the only person in the team who can make changes to the backlog
  2. Changing the order of items in the backlog according to priority
  3. Being always available to answer questions from the development team about the customers’ needs
  4. Communicating feedback from the owner on their views on how features have been implemented
  5. Working with the team to produce an up-to-date product roadmap

Most of the tasks above are done ahead of the current sprint. So, the product owner should always be ahead of the development team.  

One of the major advantages of having a product owner is that they act as the single point of contact for the development team. Which helps make the product development process more streamlined and efficient.

“The Product Owner is one person, not a committee. The Product Owner may represent the needs of many stakeholders in the Product Backlog. Those wanting to change the Product Backlog can do so by trying to convince the Product Owner.” – Scrum Guide 2020

What about Product Managers? The roles of Product Owner and Product Manager are often used interchangeably. But in larger organisations, the Product Manager will oversee many product teams, each with its own Product Owner. This approach has its pros and cons and raises questions over communication and efficiency.

Product Designer

The Digital Product Designer turns the users’ requirements into a cohesive user experience. They do this by leveraging UX, visual design, and prototyping. They are highly skilled problem solvers, who think visually. The best designers create intuitive, elegant solutions users love.

A product designer’s key tasks include:

  1. Work with the Product Owner to understand and form priorities
  2. Make sure all artefacts needed for the sprint are ready ahead of time
  3. Propose solutions to user requirements
  4. Help write or update acceptance criteria for the features they have designed
  5. Work closely with the rest of the team to refine designs based on technical or business concerns

Sidenote: Design Sprints

In some projects designers may lead a sprint where the goal is to find and prototype solutions to a specific problem – this is known as a Design Sprint. The idea of the Design Sprint was pioneered by Jake Knapp from Google Ventures. Rather than try and explain what a Design Sprint is, here’s a quote from Eric Ries (the guy who started The Lean Startup movement).

“Sprint offers a transformative formula for testing ideas that work whether you’re at a startup or a large organisation. Within five days, you’ll move from idea to prototype to decision, saving you and your team hours and countless dollars. A must-read for entrepreneurs of all stripes”. – Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup

For more info on the Design Sprints, Jake Knapp wrote a book called “Sprint – How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days”. Where he explains the process, they use and how to run one with your team. I recommend this book to every entrepreneur and product team I work with. You can get the book here on Amazon, (it was £14.95/$16.95 last time I checked but it may have changed).

Software Developer/Engineer

Software Developers meet user needs by breaking problems down into small manageable chunks. These chunks are then turned into code. Developers in small teams with limited budgets need to be generalists. But have core expertise in the platform you are building for (i.e., web, mobile, desktop). As your product matures you may need to bring in specialists in a technology you’re using, like AI.

A developer’s key tasks include:

  1. Estimating, planning, and managing all their own tasks
  2. Reporting on progress of their tasks
  3. Discuss implementation trade-offs with the Product Owner
  4. Collaborating closely with all other team members, particularly designers
  5. Taking responsibility for the quality of the software they produce

On Quality: The quality of the product is the responsibility of the entire product team. But when we talk about quality in software development terms this often means ‘clean code’ that can be tested. For this reason, some teams use Test Engineers. Who write automated programs to ensure that code works as expected.

How big should a product team be?

Product team sizes should be small, with 3 – 10 people being optimal. This is because once team sizes go beyond 10 people communication starts to break down. 

For an explanation of how communication starts to break down in larger teams, we can turn to a concept called ‘Brook’s Law’ – proposed by Fred Brook’s in his 1975 book ‘The Mythical Man Month’.

‘Brook’s Law’ states that as the number of people in the team increases, so too does the number of channels of communication. The formula for Brook’s Law looks like this: 

n (n − 1) / 2

Where ‘n’ is the number of people in the team. 

As an example:

  • A three-person team would have 3 channels of communication
  • But for ten people it would increase to 45
  • And for a 50-person team, it skyrockets to 1225 channels of communication

This Law provides us with some explanation on why it is, when a project is running behind, adding more people to the team can slow progress even further – rather than improving the situation. Because each new person needs to be brought up to speed on the project, and the communication overhead uses up more, and more, valuable time.

Solutions? Well, to help keep team sizes under control you may want to adopt a practice started by former Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos. 

Bezos realised that the more people in a meeting, the less productive they were. So, he proposed the ‘Two Pizza Rule’. The rule states, “Never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn’t feed the entire group.”

What is the structure of a product team?

Most Product Teams have a flat structure where members report to the Product Owner. Although there may be an additional hierarchy within the team if senior members are overseeing/mentoring juniors. But for the most part team members should feel like equal partners, with respect for each other’s expertise and level of skill in their craft.

In larger organisations, there may be multiple product teams reporting up to a Product Manager via the team’s Product Owner.

What attributes make a good product team?

Not all product teams are equal. Average teams can manage to scrape together average results. While good ones work well together and develop a track record of delivering amazing products time after time. Here are some of the attributes that good Product Teams share:

Shared Vision

A common vision is a prerequisite for ensuring that team members work well together. When people are focused on their major areas of interest, having a clear, common knowledge of the business goals clears out ambiguity, encourages collaboration and boosts productivity.

Focused On the End-User

Interactions with end-users are at the heart of everything a great Product Team does. Their focus is on developing a product that provides value to them. 

Strong Individual Skillsets

A successful product team needs the right mix of skills. Having the best people isn’t necessarily about replacing team members. 

Instead, there should be a culture of professional development. Where there are opportunities for honest feedback and help when individuals fall below the standards expected. So that they can level up and deliver great work.

Good Communication

To be successful, team members must collaborate closely, which requires good, clear, communication. As part of this, they make transparency and information sharing a priority. Valuing knowledge sharing over secrecy.

Their communication extends outwards to interactions with end-users and stakeholders when required. And of course, make themselves open to receiving feedback at any time.

Lack of Ego

They recognise when an individual does great work and will not shy away from giving praise when deserved. On top of this, they do not covet individual ideas. As they know the power of collaboration when searching for creative solutions to complex problems.

Summary

As we’ve covered in this article: Successful Product Teams are small and agile, with a shared vision and focus on the end-user. They consist of professionals with diverse skill sets and hold different roles within the team.

Whether you’re about to join a Product Team. Putting one together for your startup. Or looking to outsource the whole thing to a Digital Product Agency. I hope you’ve found this article useful. And if you have any questions feel free to reach out to us and we’ll do our best to help you out.

Written By

Aron Marriott-Smith

Software developer and tea drinker. Helping startups and creative agencies build digital products.

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