How Mobile Is Evolving the Product Manager Role

by Jonathan Tarud
Blog Post

Smartphones and tablets have become so common that it’s no surprise that some people in the software industry are transitioning to mobile specialties. We’ve already seen this with designers, marketers, salesmen, and developers.

Our consumption of mobile-based applications is increasing. According to comScore, a majority of Americans are consuming digital media through mobile applications. More products are being created with significant mobile components. Some applications are only available on mobile devices.

Mobile product management is a relatively new profession, but it’s growing every year. The role of a mobile product manager (MPM) is unclear in many organizations, especially B2B companies who don’t create applications for large user bases. Moving from a traditional product management role to MPM is a challenging experience, but many managers do it to be on the cutting edge of technology.

Before we get into how mobile is changing the product manager role, let’s talk about product managers in general.

The role of a product manager

Role of product manager

Every software product has a manager. This is the person who is responsible for identifying the end user, determining the product’s scope and features, and organizing those specifications into a blueprint for development teams. If a product team was an orchestra, the product manager would be its conductor.

The product manager is someone with a technical background. They should be able to understand how software products are made, right down to the code. They should have competency with multiple disciplines and technologies.

For instance, your product manager should be able to have intelligent conversations about system architecture, user experience, programming, cloud computing, etc. But he or she should also have a capable understanding of “softer” topics, like customer success, the user experience, and onboarding.

A product manager makes actual decisions about how the product is made, when (or if) features are added, and how the developers implement solutions. This is why in many software organizations (especially newer companies), the original product manager is often the company’s founder. Many times, the founder takes the role of product manager and hires a business-oriented person as CEO.

What is a mobile product manager?

Role of product manager

Just like traditional product managers, mobile product management is a vast role. The job of a mobile project manager is to see oversee the planning, building, measuring and optimizing of a mobile application. They conceive and develop a functional product, launch it, and adjust it according to market conditions and customer feedback.

But in several ways, the job of an MPM differs from a traditional product manager.

1. The MPM uses functional wireframes and limited features

Mobile apps have a far simpler presentation than web or desktop applications. Behind the scenes, there may be just as much going on, but the user only sees a basic interface. The application has to be designed to function properly on very little real estate. This requires a laser-like focus on the function of the app. In many cases, developers and designers strive to slim down mobile apps as much as possible for a better user experience.

Every product manager is familiar with wireframes. They are key to organizing information and layout. But mobile apps often require functional wireframes that depict a mobile application’s fluidity and movement. (A great tool for this is paths JUSTINMIND.) Oh, and don’t forget orientation changes!

Furthermore, the “smallness” of an application forces the MPM to limit features to only those that serve the app’s purpose. Yes, that quick-to-add feature would be nice for 5% of your user base. It would work well in a web app, but on mobile it’s just distracting. MPMs have to be sensitive to these situations.

2. The product is constrained by the operating system

Naturally, a mobile application’s functionality is limited to the device’s operating system. The MPM needs to have a clear understanding of the chosen platform (iOS, Windows, Android, etc.) and how the application will be developed and perform in that context.

OS creators like Apple and Google want their users to have a positive experience, so they place design and function conventions on application developers. You’ll have to be sure to follow their rules. If your application is rejected from their platforms, you may have wasted time and money if the problem can’t be fixed.

Furthermore, your application is dependent on the mobile platform’s life cycle. Mobile operating systems offer less leeway in this regard than desktop platforms. If Google makes a dramatic change to Android that affects your app, you could be forced to spend unplanned development time fixing the problem.

You can somewhat counter this by creating a long-term roadmap of your app’s evolution to be prepared for changes. “Do your due diligence to keep tabs on what Apple and Google are planning for their mobile platforms,” recommends Annum Munir at Localytics. “Be quick to update your app to take advantage of new APIs, features, and developer tools released by these tech giants. Don’t be blindsided by major announcements and unprepared on next steps.”

3. You’ll pay attention to new metrics

Mobile product managers have to be familiar with some new metrics that traditional product managers never had to worry about. This is especially true if the app is your organization’s first experience with cloud-based technology.

A mobile product manager has to be familiar with these metrics:

  • Users
  • Session length
  • Session interval
  • Screenflow
  • Time in app
  • Acquisition
  • Lifetime value
  • Cohort retention

You’ll notice that those metrics all relate to the user’s likeliness to use the application more than once. Creating an application that encourages user adoption is part of the MPM’s job.

In some sense, the mobile product manager will become part marketer. Marketing campaigns have become integrated with app development. Push notifications, transactional emails, clear interfaces, in-app promotional advertising, and integrations with other apps and solutions are all tools the marketing team will demand.

4. Mobile product managers oversee iterative development cycles

If your product manager has never created an iterative product in an Agile development environment, there’s no avoiding it when they work on a mobile application. Apps are routinely adjusted and refined over time based on customer feedback, analytics, usability studies, and other measuring strategies. In some cases, your MPM may need to recognize when / if the app needs to pivot to a new customer or to a new solution.

Building an iterative product doesn’t just mean responding to bug fixes. It means using data to create a customer-driven product that acutely addresses the needs of your user base.

The MPM needs to evaluate feedback (hopefully with the help of a customer success manager or team), draw insights, and turn that information into features. Those insights – the learning component – is a critical step in the process. If the MPM hasn’t read the Lean Startup, he or she should right away.

Final thoughts

Mobile devices and applications have already changed the world, but specialty professions are just catching up. Over time, mobile product management will evolve. Standards and best practices will emerge.

If you would like to discuss your mobile project, contact us.

by Jonathan Tarud
Blog Post