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Category: Product Management

Producing Code or Fixing problems?

The role of Developers in user centric design.

I’ve been working with Developers of different flavours for almost a decade now, and in that time I’ve worked with some amazing Devs, and some frustrating ones; the same as any role it depends on the person.

I’ve also encountered a lot of stereotypes about Developers, primarily that they’re all introverts who like to work on their own, which is as true as saying all Product Managers must be extraverts.

In the last couple of years I’ve also been lucky enough to take part in recruiting and interviewing Developers, and as such I’ve found it fascinating to discuss the role of the Product Manager and the role of Developers, how we can work better together, to support each other and get the best out of each other.

I’ve found it very positive to see the role of the Developer begin to be more central within user centric design, and to have more Developers proactively taking part in user research and design sessions. The days where meeting user needs was solely the domain of the User Researcher and the Product Manager, and that Developers only cared about producing code felt like one we had, at least within Government Digital circles, left behind.

Code

As such, it almost felt like having a bucket of cold water tipped over my head to be told recently that Developers shouldn’t be overly involved in user research, and should be focusing on producing code.

As a Product Manager I don’t want Developers who just produce code, I’ve seen in the past the dangerous waters that can lead to. If you don’t understand why users are doing things, what their needs are, the problems we are trying to fix for our users, then how could you, as my technical expert, challenge me? How can you understand the options and give me advice on how best to tackle the problems we are trying to solve? How can you ensure the code you are writing actually meets the requirements if you don’t understand why it’s needed?

The best Developers I’ve worked with have been proactively working with the user researchers to suggest things to test, using tools like A/B testing to help explore the options and determine the best solutions we can test to help fix the problems we’re trying to solve, using feedback from users to iterate and learn and improve.

Product Development Team

I recently did a google search for the ‘role of developers in user centred design’ and was saddened to see there wasn’t much out there, other than a few scholarly articles citing the importance of getting Software Engineers and Developers to integrate user centric design into their approach.

So maybe this is where we are going wrong, maybe we are not talking enough about how important it is that user centric design isn’t just the domain of the designers and user researchers. That the principles of UCD are just as important in the development stage as the discovery phase.

As the Government Digital Service famously said, ‘User Research is a team sport’, and we need to makes sure everyone gets the chance to play.

What is the value in a Head of Product?

Our numbers are growing, but what is the role, and what value does it add?

When I first took up the role of ‘Head of Product Management’ back in October 2016, I was one of the first in Government to have the title, and within a few months there was a very small band of 5 of us, who were responsible for looking after the Product Management professionals within our own Government Departments. We were professional leaders, tasked with building capability and skills, and building communities of practice. The original job description we created for a Head of Product was very different to what I do now.

In my first 12 months of the role I focused on the people, working with the others across government to develop a capability framework, training and development plan and a career pathway that Product Managers could use to develop a proper career as a Product Manager within Government.

A lot of our time was spent debating the skills Product Managers needed, and what value Product Managers brought to Projects and teams. It was, upon reflection, a very inward focused role; which given the maturity of the profession at that time made sense. But several years later user needs have changed and I think it’s a good time to reflect on the value we Heads of Product now find ourselves adding within our work, and making sure everyone understands the work some of us are now doing and why. To discuss what that difference is between what we were doing and what we are doing now, and does everyone understand and agree that difference.

This change in the dichotomy of the Head of Product role came up at our last Head of Product catch up, for those of us in role a few years ago, we have all separately found that our focus isn’t purely on developing that community and the professional skills and capabilities of Product Managers anymore.

Instead we are now focussing on Product strategies, on aiding Prioritisation of portfolios, of working with Senior leaders to break problems down, understanding the value we are trying to gain, or the outcomes we are trying to achieve through the Products and Services we are developing. We’re running roadmap workshops across directorates, debating Targeting Operating Models and strategic alignment.

Most departments are now hiring ‘Head’s of Product’ or ‘Deputy Directors of Product’ to be part of their Senior Leadership teams within Digital, and personally I think that is the right move.

As organisations mature in their agile ways of working, the role of prioritisation has become ever more important, and as Product Management professionals, the ability to weigh up data and evidence to make decisions about priorities is our bread and butter. As organisational budgets continue to be constrained we all need to get better at focusing on outputs and understanding the value we are looking to deliver through our projects and programmes, ensuring we are meeting user needs whilst spending public money wisely. Determining priorities and ensuring we are delivering value for users are the fundamental objectives of the Product Manger role, and as such it makes sense to utilise those skills at an organisational level.

We are, in fact, much closer to our counterparts in the private sector determining Returns on Investment etc. than we have ever been before. Yes, we as Head’s of Product still work with Product Managers and teams to help them ensure they are meeting the standards and delivering value, and we still look at the resource demands of teams and make calls on which person within our professional community might be best placed to work on with Product; and in some departments the community is so big that actually they still need someone to focus onleading that; but for the most part, our communities and our people have grown along with us, and most don’t need the level of support from us as community managers that they did before.

#ProductPeople

Most of the communities now across government are self-sustaining, events like #ProductPeople are being set up and run by members of the community; and while we as Heads of Product are still here to help champion Product Management, and to support the people in our communities, the role of the Head of Product Management as a community lead, has adapted and gown into what our organisations need now, someone who can use those Product Management skills at an organisational level.

As such, I think it’s time we look at the Digital Data and Technology capability framework again for Product Management, talk to community, and review the job description for the Head of Product role we initially developed and iterate that. We need to understand the role of the community lead and the need for that, whilst also recognising the value of Product Management and the skills Head’s of Product can bring to our senior leadership and our organisations.

What does a Product Owner own anyway?

Recently Ross Ferguson wrote a great blog about why GDS chose Product Manager rather than Product Owner as the role title of its Product people.

Ross is right when he says that Product Management is the profession, and more widely understood by the wider industry, so why do we in DWP not use that term for our people?

I could be, and often am, glib about why DWP chose to stick with Product Owner, even after we stopped purely using SCRUM methodology, but a good conversation on twitter got me thinking about the debate again.

So what is a Product Owner?

The question on Twitter was ‘does Business Analyst + Project Manager = Product Owner?’ And while a good PO needs some of the skills from both of those professions, that’s not all they are.

For me, a good Product Owner is part Business Analyst, part project manager, part researcher and part service designer.

They have to analyse and understand the problems and options whilst also researching and understanding the needs of their users. They have to understand and manage the details whilst also being able to dream big and understanding the opportunities.

But they don’t own the analysis, or the research, or the plans or the design, they don’t own the code or the solution. Agile is a team sport, and as @Scott offer says a good Product Owner is the generalist in a roomful of specialists. They manage the backlog and make sure all the things happen, but they don’t own those tasks.

Product Owners are accountable for making sure we develop the right thing. That we solve the right problem. That we meet the needs of our users in the right way. But accountability and ownership are different.

So, if they don’t own the tasks, is it actually the Product they own? In smaller organisations, absolutely. But in an organisation as big as DWP do our Product Owners really own the full end to end service?

Honestly? 8 times out of 10 probably not. Most of our Products and Services are so big they can only be owned by the Senior Responsible Officer.

So what do they own?

The vision.

The vision is what makes or breaks a Product or Service. A good vision solves a bigger problem. A good vision is the difference between transforming something or redesigning it. A good vision challenges and moves us all on.

And that is what a Product Owner owns.

I don’t think Product Manager is wrong, and in the future the community in DWP may choose to being Product Managers, they are all empowered to choose the term that they feel fits best, but it’s not the term that resonates with me.

I own the Vision, it does not own me.

Sorry, for the geeks amongst you, this is Vision…. I’ll get my coat.

Originally posted on Medium