For well-understood problems with known solutions, it is often appropriate to optimize around job functions and roles. Think Henry Ford’s assembly line, the ultimate waterfall. Handoffs and transitions between individuals and teams can be executed with little fanfare as long as each follows a precise set of instructions.
But when we develop software products, we’re often solving problems that are less well-understood and we should optimize around the discovery process in addition to the construction process. There are three roles that need representation during product discovery (1):
- User Experience Design – Responsible for the usability and aesthetic of the product
- Engineering – Responsible for feasibility and engineering direction
- Product Ownership – Responsible for driving the value of the solution for customers
Successful product teams have all three of these roles represented (2).
Depending on the scale of the product, the three roles don’t have to be played by three different individuals. In today’s startups, these responsibilities are split in varying ways across two individuals. In some rare cases, all three are played by one person. Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper, comes to mind.
Early on, it doesn’t really matter if these roles are played by 1, 2 or 3 different individuals (long term, it does) as long as usability, feasibility and value are all actively considered.
What does all of this mean? It means that an engineer, a good one, may be spending a lot of time talking with users, not coding. It means that a product manager may spend a lot of time working to understand the benefits and tradeoffs of implementing a certain technology. An interaction designer might spend time helping groom the backlog to determine proper delivery order.
In my experience, teams with members who allow the edges of their roles to be blurred produce results far superior to those whose members live neatly inside the box of a well-defined role. Does it impact engineering to have a top engineer engaged directly with users? Yes, absolutely. But the impacts are far greater when product managers and design throw projects over the wall to engineering.
You can have the most efficient engineering team in the world and still deliver a product that users users hate and the market rejects.
Everyone involved, engineers, product owners and user experience designers should make it their business to understand all facets of the problem and solution space. Your product and business will benefit from the diversity of views represented by the individuals who play these roles.
1) I first learned of the core team (“triad”) concept from Marty Cagan‘s book, Inspired. Read this book if you’re interested in understanding what it really means to be a product owner who drives the product development process in your organization.
2) A good example is Apple. Interaction Design – Jony Ive, Engineering – Bob Mansfield (hardware), Product Owner – Steve Jobs.