DU023 – What is a Product Manager – Interview with Josh Harris

Chris speaks to Josh Harris, Product Manager at Dog Buddy. We chat about the difference between a Product Owner and a Product Manager, what they do, who they talk to and why they are important in the project delivery process. We also talk about drills for the second time in two episodes. 

Season 0 - Getting Untangled
Season 0 - Getting Untangled
DU023 - What is a Product Manager - Interview with Josh Harris

Chris speaks to Josh Harris, Product Manager at Dog Buddy. We chat about the difference between a Product Owner and a Product Manager, what they do, who they talk to and why they are important in the project delivery process. We also talk about drills for the second time in two episodes.

Further reading:

Product Managers – What do they do?


The Design Untangled Podcast

Episode: DU023 – What is a Product Manager

Host: Chris Mears

Guest: Josh Harris, Product Owner/Manager

(00:16) Chris: Hello and welcome to Design Untangled with me, Chris Mears. And this episode, I have once again replace my Colombian co-host with someone from somewhere just as exotic, which is Devon. I am joined by Josh Harris, who is a product owner slash manager, when we get into that scene. How are you doing?

(00:38) Josh: Hey Chris, I am very good. Thank you. (00:40) Chris: Welcome to the podcast.
(00:41) Josh: It is pretty exciting to be here.

(00:43) Chris: Yeah, I am pretty pumped. You sound pretty pumped as well. So we interviewed you on the UX Review a while ago, probably like a year, two years ago now or something.

(00:56) Josh: Got it open in front of me so I can remember what I said. Yeah, it was like a bit over a year ago.

(01:00) Chris: Excellent. so no doubt your answers to the questions today will be a lot better, or well thought out.

(01:08) Josh: A nice plug for that blog post.

(01:11) Chris: Yeah, plugging that hard. Yes, so 4I thought it would be good to get a practicing kind of product owner slash manager on to the podcast to answer some questions that people may have about the role and what you guys do. And so let us get the job title out the way first then. So is there a difference between a product owner and manager or is it the same shit?

(01:34) Josh: Yes, it is like a classic you know, in the sort of product manager or product owner corners of Twitter, like the classic a conversation to have. I think probably it is pretty meaningless. My take on it is I think product owner is like a job title kind of role. I think it is in scrum. It is a classic thing to have a product owner, that is an important part of scrum, and having this position. Whereas product manager is a bit more of a broad kind of catch all term for the function or that stuff needs to do, but they are just job titles. I think probably pretty similar to you and Carla have talked before about in UX, are you a service designers, or UX designers, or product designers, or UI designers, or whatever. I think it is a pretty similar, kind of meaningless distinction, a lot of the time.

(02:19) Chris: Yes, here even knows what we are anymore. So what does your typical week look like as a, well, what do you prefer to be called, product owner?

(02:30) Josh: Product manager.

(02:31) Chris: Product manager [inaudible 00:02:32] the big chase kind of a big deal. You have got to get the manager in there. Yeah, so what does your typical week look like?

(02:42) Josh: So I mean, I think a typical, one of the a characteristic things of product management is that probably unlike design positions or development positions, there is not so much kind of concrete outputs. Like you are not sitting down and doing this design or writing this code or whatever. It is maybe slightly kind of softer than that. So the point of the product manager in the team is to kind of set a direction or set objectives for the team and kind of provide context about why we are focusing on those things. So, my typical week involves kind of gathering those different bits of context. So there might be meetings with the business about how we are doing on our targets, growth, or sales, or whatever. How we are doing in our operations teams? Like how are things working, are we missing anything, and how are we doing in the customer success teams? Like what are the common customer complaints that have come up recently? Thinking both about, are we having any particular nasty bugs or anything like that? But also what are we just hearing in general, as feedback? And from there we might be doing autism kind of direct customer interaction. So doing customer research, phone calls, interviews, that kind of thing. To see what people think directly from their own mouth rather than kind of via other places.

(04:06) Chris: Okay. So it sounds like you are almost doing a bit of a UX research function at the same time. Is that just because you do not have researchers in your team, or do you see that as a core part of being a product owner?

(04:19) Josh: Specifically, at the moment, we do not have researchers in the team, in the company I work for. Because we are kind of a slightly smaller startup, so we do not have so many of the people in these kind of dedicated role. So it is definitely part of my job as a product manager, to be doing that. Actually, I think in general it is completely chord. So, in the same way, your UX researcher is the expert, in helping you kind of guide and manage that research process. But yeah, you should not be kind of leaving it to them and just reading their three bullet points on the PowerPoint afterwards, to understand what your users want, because it is completely fundamental to the role that you know, what the customers need.

(04:58) Chris: Yeah. I guess the office side of the role as well as, is probably your a bit the decision maker in terms of balancing all these different view points, and requirements, and needs from different parts of the business, as well as with the user as well?

(05:13) Josh: Yeah, definitely. Kind of a bit like, someone once said to me, you need 3Ds to make software – developer, a designer and a dictator. It is kind of a stupid joke, but the dictator thing, I think is the kind of product managing role in at least, as so far as, they are making decisions on stuff. So you are making decisions on the big, broad level, of like what are we even working on? And then maybe down to some more specific things, about like, in what order are we going to work on these things? What are the main priorities? For example, for me at the moment, in my role I am making decisions on things like copy writing, design stuff, and even like pricing. Like how much are we pricing this thing on? So you are making lots of small decisions and lots of big decisions all the time.

(05:58) Chris: I guess the clue is in the title, right? You are the owner of the product. So everything that essentially gets released or built into that product, it has got your name on it I suppose. And you will not be letting anything free, that you do not agree with, or you do not think meets the objectives of I suppose, the business and your users?

(06:19) Josh: Yes, exactly that. The classic phrase is that the product owner or the product manager is the single, ringable neck in the system. So it is obviously, the output is a team effort from everyone, from not just engineering, and design, and product, but also from the business, and marketing, and everything like that. But when it comes down to it, if there is someone that the finger needs to be pointed at, it is going to be the product person. So that is why you are kind of given this extra incentive to make sure you are on top of all of those things you just mentioned.

(06:47) Chris: Yeah. I have worked in places that have not had that decision maker type person. And what tends to happen is you just get analysis paralysis and you are going, should we do this? Should we do that? And because there is no one kind of point of call to make that decision, you end up just going in circles for ages and ages. So it is a reasonably recent-ish job role, I suppose product owner, maybe even more recent than UX I would say?

(07:17) Josh: Yeah. I mean that is my impression as well. Is that it is something that came out of, used to be sort of in scare quotes like the business would give design, and an engineering, like here is what we need, build us a website and we need it to do these five things, and whatever, and then kind of shut the door, and then come back in a month and see how you are getting on. And I think that obviously did not work, for kind of reasons we could all guess. So the role of the product manager is to be that, I used to think of it as being an agent, kind of, you are the go between for these two different groups. So you are negotiating on behalf of the engineering team and, and stuff with the business, and vice versa. So you are taking what the business needs and giving that context to the engineering team, and you are taking kind of the constraints and the questions of engineering team, and taking those to the business. So you are making sure everyone is informed about all of those thing

(08:08) Chris: And how do you tend to do that? Is that sort of, group meetings or are you going to people individually? How do you sort of spread that decision making love around the team?

(08:22) Josh: Yeah, I am not sure how much love there always is, but I am a big fan of, this is… Probably, people would have different opinions on this, but for me, I like to try and get people together, so I do not see any reason for me to have a meeting with one person, to then just shuttle that information over to someone else. Like there is no point in me just being this information conduit. Like we might as well, the three of us be in the room, if that is what is going to be needed to make the decision. So for example, in the same way I would not want to have the designer needs to tell me, so that I can tell the engineer, who is going to tell me, so I can tell the designer back again. I think it is better to kind of get all of those people together. So for me, if I realized we are coming into one of these situations, where we need to yeah, like share some of this information, I try and like arrange a meeting or like if we can do it more informally and just walk over to someone’s desk, let us do that. So yes, I try and get people together, that is the main thing I am doing.

(09:20) Chris: Yeah, that is quite interesting because you are talking about being that kind of bridge person. I would say quite a lot of UX people might see their role as being that. So it is being kind of taking obviously the user requirements and the business requirements and then turning it into something that can be delivered. So I suspect there is probably a bit of crossover there, at least in people’s perceptions of how these projects move forward.

(09:48) Josh: Yes, I guess my experience is that like I really value the UX person or whatever, who is on the team, who is that kind of real advocate for the user? And obviously as a product person, I also have that bit of me as well, but I think the product manager, their kind of responsibility is also to be a bit pragmatic about those things. So I have also had things where the UX person is kind of, so fundamentalist about, well the user said this, so we have to do this thing exactly as the user said, otherwise there is no point in doing it. Even when you realize like that is not going to really get us anywhere. When other people are not gonna be able to agree to that or it is going to take too long to build. So the product person has to bring that bit of pragmatism. So it is not just about spreading, hey, here are the user needs around the place. But also trying to balance that with like, what does the business need? What are our priorities, where we trying to focus?

(10:41) Chris: Issuing elbow drops right in their face when required.

(10:45) Josh: When required. Yes.

(10:46) Chris: What do you, we have just done a podcast on jobs to be done. Just like an intro thing. Is that something that you are using in your role or something you are familiar with?

(10:57) Josh: Yes, it is something I am definitely familiar with, and super interested in. I find it very, I think on the broad level, the framework is super interesting. Like this whole idea that people hire products to do jobs for them and you know, you are not trying to, I cannot think of, the classic example is around I think is around milkshakes. Like you are not getting in the milkshake because you want a milkshake. You are getting it to do a thing. And it is because what they found in their research on milkshakes, was that people were buying them because they were hungry in the morning when they were driving to work. But they were driving so they did not have kind of hands-free, so they could be eating food, that would be like spilling all over them. So they wanted something that would kind of fill them up, so they could eat, or drink with just one hand. And it would be kind of satisfying and keeps them full. So like, so the idea there was, what are milkshakes competing with? It Is not with other milkshakes or with other drinks. It Is like actually with food for example. I think the other example people give is about, oh, ‘The Hole’ example.

(11:59) Chris: Exactly, that is it, that is what I remember.

(12:01) Josh: Why do you get a drill? It is not, you are not getting a drill to drill a hole, is that you want the hole in the first place, or is there another way of doing that? Or even beyond that, why do you want the hole? Is it to hang up a picture? In which case could you get some sticky thing that would hang up the picture?

(12:15) Chris: But then again, the drill is quite fun, so that is a reason entirely. Just looks cool.

(12:22) Josh: Yes. And so, to kind of be a bit more succinct on that, we definitely are aware of jobs to be done and I think it is super interesting. But I find the top level, very useful, to remind ourselves like, why are we doing this thing? What is it that people actually want from this service or from this product? But as so often happens with kind of software development frameworks and methodologies, it just descends into templates and acronyms ,and all this kind of thing. And I find at that level it gets much less useful.

(12:55) Chris: Agreed. What are some of the typical issues you face doing your role?

(13:03) Josh: Because you are the decision maker, you are the one who is kind of setting the strategy or, the direction for the team. So like literally what should we work on next? And that is really hard because I used to, you can look at lots of companies, let us say Twitter, right? And say, how come they have not added an edit button? Everyone wants an edit button so they can edit their tweets. How come they have not done it? And it is not that Twitter have not thought of it or considered it like probably very deeply, but for whatever reason, and I do not know what that reason is, because I am not in those internal discussions, they have decided, that is not an important feature for them. That is not a priority. They need to focus on other things and it is really hard for people to, from the outside to see that and understand why you are making those decisions. So I think from the outside of your product, from your customers, but even from internal teams, like people who are not directly involved in the decision making process, struggle sometimes to maybe they just, they disagree with some of the decisions you have made. So a big part of my job is to do that kind of communication thing and sell people on why are we doing what we are doing? Like why do we think it is important? So at least, even if you would have maybe made a different decision, you at least understand why we made that decision.

(14:17) Chris: Yeah. Thinking of a recent example of that, so there is a startup bank called Munzo here in the UK. I am a big fan of them in general, but they had this feature where it basically rounds up your spare change and puts it in like a little side account. So the idea is you can save little and often, but on the recent release of it, in the main sort of feed of your transactions, that only shows the rounded up value. So let us say, I spent, you know, four pounds 50 at Starbucks, it would show that transaction as five quid. So you cannot actually match up what you have spent with what i,s showing up on your essentially your life bank statement. So that is quite a hard decision, I thought from the user point of view to understand, because I would suspect that most people, the main thing a bank should do is tell them exactly how much they have spent, but obviously not being privy to their decision making process. I would admit, I found that a bit irritating that that feature and it is something I had to turn off to make the app usable again. I think there is a little bit of a move these days to push things out quickly and just see how they land, rather than necessarily working them through as thoroughly as they should be. I do not know if you have seen that trend.

(15:40) Josh: Yes, definitely. And I probably am more, on the side of push it out and see how it lands, I reckon. I tend to be like, that is a good example that you just gave, I would also find hard to understand. Maybe they had a really good reason or maybe it was just, Hey, this is taking too long, let us just go with what we have got. That kind of thing. I think something we think about a lot, you mentioned earlier like this kind of analysis paralysis, a situation where people were sort of desperately trying to look for more data, more signals so that they can decide what they are working on or what is the right decision to make. And I think actually it is what I would rather do than, than spend lots of time doing that. Obviously you want to do some analysis, but once you realize your kind of deep in the weeds, and you are not improving your situation, is just try and make the cost of, of getting your decisions wrong, very low. So just for example, this feature they released, the one that you were talking about. They put it out there like maybe, they kind of got the balance wrong on this one, because you have turned it off and it has made you like less happy with the product. But there are lots of situations where you can just put something out there and see, if this was the wrong decision, we can reverse it quite easily. And actually that is the best way of getting your answer, rather than trying to guess, or do surveys, or tall of these kinds of things. Let us just put something in front of people and see, see how they react.

(17:05) Chris: I suppose it is down to the impact of the change you are making, as well, if it is a kind of lesser used feature or something, I would maybe agree with that. If it is something that more or less is the fundamental proposition of the app, that strategy is potentially quite a lot more risky. Monzo’s a little bit different in the kind of customers the user are early adopters, essentially, and maybe a bit more open to things being pushed down, just see what happens. But if you are working on a more maybe established product, with a slightly older user base, or something, if you are throwing out something which changes the way something works at a fundamental level, the chances are even if it is actually better, the feedback maybe quite negative.

(17:50) Josh: Yeah, definitely. And we talk about this idea as well of, kind of, one way decisions or two way decisions. So is it going to be something that you can roll back with, and that means not just literally technically, can you kind of remove this feature, once you have released it, but what is going to be the impact on your public perception, on your users or this kind of thing. So what you want to do is, I mean with the two way decisions you can like make those quickly and not worry about them too much because you can always easily reverse them. But when you find a one way decision where like it is going to be very hard or impossible to roll back, then it is worth doing the extra analysis to make sure you are making the right decision.

(18:28) Chris: What do you see is the future of product owner or product manager role? Is it going to stay the same or is it going to start changing in terms of how we deliver software, do you think?

(18:45) Josh: I do not know how far sighted in this, I think there is probably a crisis to come in software development in general with kind of machine learning, and that kind of thing where, we are not a million miles away from a machine learning how to code, and make these decisions in a way that we cannot. So I think that is in the long-term. I think as with all jobs, we will see big changes from that kind of thing. In the shorter term, I am not so sure. I think there is a trend to kind of despecialize in lots of areas. So like with the sort of waterfall software development process, everyone had their, had their step in the waterfall, like their, their silo and you would hand things over and over to people. And so every role was very defined, and you had your business analysis, and then you, sorry, research first, then your business analysis, and then you hand it to do requirements, and then that goes to design, and that goes to development, then it goes to testing, then to release. Everyone had their role. Whereas, I think in the kind of more agile, modern, sort of structure, people are a bit more responsible for more than just their kind of defined bit. So for example, like I do stuff copywriting, that kind of thing. Where they might have been someone’s job individually before, but equally I think there is no reason why your UX person or one of your engineers might start making more product based decisions. If they have the skills for that. So I think we might see a more generalizing of the roles.

(20:13) Chris: Yeah, that is quite a new career path. I am seeing a little bit of, is UX people moving into product owner kind of roles. I guess it is down to what we were chatting about before, that maybe previous to the product in a row being around so much, it was the UX people doing this kind of thing, and talking to the business and talking to the users and stuff like that. So there is quite an interesting shift I think, as people maybe get a little bit more senior in the UX role rather than becoming a head of UX or something that they actually move into product management.

(20:45) Josh: Yeah, I mean I think that makes sense. I am biased probably, because it is my job, but I think it is a really, really great job. You get to make really important decisions, and kind of own those things, and you have to live and die by this. So when they go great then, then that is excellent. And when they go badly, then that is kind of on you as well. But I think it is very easy to be in a room and see other people, someone else in that room making all the decisions. I think, I could do a better job than that, so I am not surprised that people want to have a go.

(21:13) Chris: Do you want to tell us about this crazy dot company you work for? I really get what it is.

(21:22) Josh: Sure. So I work for Dog Buddy. They are Europe’s leading dog care platform. So basically, the idea, the classic way of pitching, like all startups is by comparing them to other startups. So we are like the Airbnb, but for dog care. So the idea is that if you have a dog and you are going on holiday and you do not want to leave it in kennels or something like that. And you have not got any family members or friends, you can, to look after the dog, then you can go on the platform, you can search in your area and you can find you know, people, who have got reviews and profiles and photos. And you can pick someone I think and send him a message and say, Hey, like these are the dates. Could you look after my dog? And then you negotiate with them and they come up with a price and all that kind of thing. So it works for both, both sides. If you have got a dog and you need someone to look after it. But equally, if you are someone who really loves dogs and you want to look after them, then you can like offer your services up for looking after dogs.

(22:22) Chris: Okay, cool. Is that just in Barcelona at the moment or is it elsewhere?

(22:26) Josh: No, it is in gosh, I am going to get in trouble with my marketing manager. We are in seven or eight countries in Europe. So yeah, in lots of different places in pretty much all cities in all of those countries. So we are in Sweden, Norway the UK, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, and probably missing some, but yeah, other places as well.

(22:48) Chris: So that is quite interesting though. So you have got a platform essentially in different regions and territories and stuff. Have you got aligned, what you are delivering over in Spain, with what the other markets are doing or are you sort of independent existentially?

(23:04) Josh: No, not at all. We are set up as kind of one, one product and the different markets, the different countries are kind of all part of the same product. So I am the product manager for all of that. So there is not as product manager for Spain, and a product manager for the UK, product manager for Germany, it is, we are one team. We do everything. So we do the website. We have got apps on Android and on iOS and also the same team is working on the internal tools. So things for support, for operations, all of those kinds of things. So actually makes the job of the product manager super interesting because you are not just prioritizing a user facing features but also internal features as well. And you are kind of trying to balance things on different platforms. It is a very interesting.

(23:48) Chris: Oh, so you are kind of a pick cheese then?

(23:51) Josh: Well that is the benefit of being this small team, is that you are just the only person. So it is not like you are the boss of everything. It is your…

(23:58) Chris: The biggest cheese in a bag of baby bell.

(24:01) Josh: Yes, exactly, it is not saying so much. No, but it is very interesting. And actually, I said, it brings up very interesting things on prioritization, having these kinds of marketplace, assist systems where you have a bit like, with Uber, you have the drivers and also the riders, I think they call them, the people who are using Uber. So you are trying to balance those two sides, who often, are going to have kind of conflicting priorities. Even down on the basic level of like the rider wants it cheaper and the driver wants it more expensive. So how do you like kind of balance those different things? Yes. Super interesting.

(24:41) Chris: Yeah. Sounds cool. And do you have any personalized messages for our mutual friend and listener, Paula that you wouldd like to share?

(24:51) Josh: I think the main thing I would suggest is that everyone follows Paula’s Instagram because [inaudible 00:24:55] Extremely high quality photos, any blurr is completely deliberate. So I really recommend you get on there.

(25:04) Chris: Yeah. Back in the wild again, I think it is.
(25:07) Josh: Yes, exactly. Yeah. which maybe sounds more exciting than the pictures will actually be, you will see lots of coffees. But…

(25:14) Chris: Yes, blurry coffee, blurry buildings of London, and maybe a few blurry selfies.

(25:22) Josh: That is when you are really lucky. I had a question for you, Chris, actually as well. On the product stuff. Have you you have worked in lots of different teams, like have you had any particular standout, good or bad experiences with product managers?

(25:43) Chris: Well, you obviously, are an absolute legend. I am trying to think back. Like I said, there has only been a few places that have had product owners unfortunately, and I need to remember where I have actually worked. But in all seriousness, you, I would say the best one.

(26:03) Josh: This is not a set up I swear.

(26:03) Chris: Just because I think you did understand the different angles and you were able to make decisions on stuff, which was good and very helpful. I think it is very important to have that, that kind of person in a project, as I have said already, It really does mean that you can move forward even if you do not agree with the decision necessarily at the start. As long as the product owners are willing to listen to your side, and balance it up with all the other stuff, company is going to make money at the end of the day, generally speaking. So someone has got to make the big call.

(26:37) Josh: Yeah, definitely. I think that is a good way of looking at it. My best times at work have always been when we are like, whatever it is we are working on, if we are making progress, and moving forwards. And even like you said, even if you maybe do not agree with the overall direction, at least you can see we are getting somewhere, we are doing a thing. Whereas on the other hand, the most frustrating times have been in the different teams and places I have worked where you are not making progress and you feel like you are standing still. And like say you are in this analysis paralysis kind of mode and that can be really frustrating and unfulfilling. So I think is important having someone, whether that would be the product person or your UX designer, or your tech lead, or whoever. So it is sort of at some point just stop offering opinions and actually make a decision, is super important.

(27:24) Chris: Yeah. I think having visibility of how that decision is made helps a lot as well, because we all have the kind of see, oh poop and sweep quick that happens from time to time, then you have spent ages working on something, they just kind of fly in and peep all over it, and then fly out again. So if you have got someone embedded in your team, most people would not mind if you want to kind of question about how they came to their decision. If you want to understand a bit more. Usually, if there are any good there will be a decent reason for it. And that can normally reduce your anger levels somewhat.

(27:59) Josh: Yeah, definitely that is a really good example of, I said earlier on that like, I like to try and get people together and so I would definitely always want to avoid the situation where after like several days, or weeks, or months of work, like you then do this kind of big presentation and yeah, you get swooped and pooped. And like trying to find opportunities to show that stuff a bit earlier, or just like even if it is as basic as like printing off designs,, and pinning them up in the corridor or whatever, like trying to get things in people’s faces so that when those final, like big presentations come, it is not some big surprise, and it is like, hey, I was not thinking about this. I thought it was going to be blue, not red. Yeah, go and do it again. It is like, you want to avoid these situations.

(28:42) Chris: Cool. I do not have any more questions.

(28:45) Josh: Excellent. That is good for me as well, because I talk about it everyday.

(28:48) Chris: All right, cool. Well thanks for joining us. No doubt we will have you on again, in another year, see if you can improve your answers. We will keep reiterating on them until, you know, yeah. In the true product way, we will keep reiterating on them.

Alright. Cheers.

Narrator: Search and subscribe to Design Untangled using your favorite podcast app and leave us a review. Follow us on the web at designuntangled.co.uk or on Twitter @designuntangled. Become a better designer with online mentoring at uxmentor.me.