There’s a burgeoning new function cropping up across the careers pages of forward-thinking software companies: product operations (or product ops). Companies such as Google, LinkedIn, GitLab, and Drift are currently hiring for it.
So, what is product operations and why does it matter?
Table of contents
- What is product operations?
- Why does product ops matter?
- Product ops in action
- Typical expectations for the product ops role
- Increased automation
- Optimized product development timelines
- Onboarding support
- Data management
- Repeatable frameworks
- Streamlined communication
- Actionable, standardized experiments
- Accelerated customer feedback loops
- Product stack management
- Up-to-date knowledge on industry best practices and market research
What is product operations?
As with all nascent functions, the definition of product ops is a bit nebulous.
The basic concept is this: product ops makes it easier to scale the product team, improves feature adoption, and accelerates feedback loops between product, engineering, and customer success teams. Depending on the company, product ops may also regularly connect with sales and data science teams.
The product ops role is analogous to the marketing ops and sales ops roles. Your marketing ops person ensures that your marketing strategy is informed by the appropriate data, supported by the necessary infrastructure, follows industry best practices, stays within budget, and is tracked accurately through consistent reporting on agreed-upon metrics.
Similarly, product ops helps the product management team make data-based prioritization decisions, manages the product tech stack, researches and implements best practices, and serves as the conduit between the product, engineering, customer success, and other relevant teams.
By operationalizing outcome-driven products, building qualitative and quantitative feedback loops, and scaling product knowledge, product ops empowers teams to create and scale the best possible product.
Why does product ops matter?
Increasingly, product teams at large or fast-moving companies are inundated with more data, tools, and user feedback than they can confidently and consistently manage on their own. That’s not a huge surprise given that the average company ingests data from at least 400 different sources. Worse still, somewhere around 80–90 percent of all data is unstructured.
Complex data environments that include hybrid, on-prem, and cloud warehouses make this data even harder to aggregate and analyze. These data silos reportedly slow 45 percent of companies in their efforts to actually use and interpret data.
The sheer number of different tools a product team is expected to use can also be an impediment to productivity: new product management tools materialize from the ether every day, and most teams use several tools and apps across daily tasks.
Yes, product teams can make better-informed decisions using all of the product data, analytics capabilities, and project management tools available to them. But it takes a significant amount of time and administrative overhead to aggregate, synthesize, analyze, and act on this information.
Product ops alleviates this pain point by overseeing all tools, data, and experimentation for the product team. As a result, product teams can spend more of their time gleaning valuable insights on product functionality from end users and actually helping to build the product.
Considering that customer interaction is the foundation of User Research, MVP, Design Sprints, and other popular frameworks and methodologies in the product management space, it’s best that product teams devote as much time as they can to interacting with actual users rather than staring at dashboards of data.
As of 2019, product managers reported spending 7.2 percent of their time interacting with users. Hiring someone to run product ops would ideally increase that number significantly to improve feature adoption and customer success.
Product ops also helps product management teams make crucial, data-driven prioritization decisions.
Developing a company-wide priority scheme is one of the most important steps of the product development process, and it helps organizations effectively and efficiently allocate resources and drive execution. It also prevents product teams and engineers from straying off course and ensures the most important features ship first.
By supporting the product team, product ops ensures each product manager is focused on the right tasks at the right time and firing on all cylinders. This pays dividends: a fully optimized product manager can increase company profits by 34.2 percent.
Product ops in action
Uber could be considered an early adopter of the product operations role, and the 11 billion-dollar company has employed product operations specialists as core members of its team for more than six years.
At Uber, product operations specialists serve as the point of contact between technical teams and city operations teams to ensure product-market fit. Uber constantly iterates on its software and frequently launches new products, including Uber Pool, Express Pool, Uber Eats, and others, so achieving product-market fit is an ongoing challenge.
Uber needs to see a significant amount of adoption among users in its target markets to determine whether each product can sustain its own profitability and growth. But striking the balance between bold innovation, practical implementation, usability, and customer satisfaction can be pretty tricky.
“Global teams need local feedback to refine products,” said Bradford Church, a product operations specialist, in a 2018 Uber case study. “We work closely with city teams to collect information and feed it back to the engineering teams.”
“A good example is how we integrate with airports. Engineering teams might only be familiar with how a couple of airports work, so, without product operations, they might build a product feature that works well at the San Francisco airport but does not work for the vastly different airport setups around the world.”
Basically, product operations specialists at Uber take granular information about customer experience, combine it with the logistical nuances of different cities, and apply these insights to the larger product strategy.
Engineering manager Danny Guo noted that product operations specialists give engineers “perspective, which helps us build pragmatic products.”
Before launching a product in a new city, Uber sends two advance teams: one team to stoke rider demand and one to recruit drivers.
“We let riders get used to our core products, and then we iterate and alter our offerings depending on the market’s reaction,” said Jane Lee, another product operations specialist.
After launching a product, Uber’s operations specialists run rider surveys and look at proxy data indicating rider satisfaction, including ride re-requests and driver ratings, to understand riders’ experiences.
Product operations specialists also assist in conducting three main types of experiments at Uber: user-level A/B testing, switchbacks, and synthetic control experiments.
“At any given time, we have teams experimenting with rider-side and driver-side features, and other teams making smaller product tweaks, all within a finite number of cities,” said Lee. “So figuring out how to launch new products and test their effects without interfering with other people’s experiments is challenging.”
By serving as the liaisons between engineers, data scientists, city operations specialists, and product managers, product ops specialists at Uber keep the company aligned across teams on both micro and macro goals.
Typical expectations for the product ops role
So, let’s say a startup has been hiring like crazy, its customer base is multiplying quarter over quarter, and it’s time to hire someone to streamline, manage, and scale the product team.
What do they expect from a product ops hire?
A key objective of product ops is to make it easier for product teams to focus on the most meaningful, high-value tasks and make the low-value or administrative aspects a lot less time-consuming.
Identifying opportunities to automate the responsibilities of product managers promotes consistency, standardization, and efficiency, which becomes increasingly important as the company scales.
Optimized product development timelines
The primary goal of the product team is to help engineers create the best product they can. But they also want to hold engineers accountable to their product development timelines to keep customers and shareholders happy.
Product ops recommends and implements optimizations to product development timelines and informs prioritization for engineers. Finding ways to optimize the design, development, testing, and implementation phases through best-practice methodologies helps to keep all teams focused and productive.
Part of scaling the product team includes quickly and efficiently onboarding new product team members onto the myriad collaboration, analytics, and product management tools they’ll use everyday.
Product ops is the touchpoint who onboards and acclimates new product team hires to the product management tech stack. They also contribute content to Product Handbooks and other standardized materials that keep both new and longstanding employees up-to-date on skills and processes.
As a rule, SaaS companies today make almost exclusively data-driven product decisions and measure every possible KPI with deft precision.
Collecting so much data can be helpful, or it can be overwhelming. Product ops makes the difference here by managing this data and ensuring the product team has easy access to important insights at the right time.
Developing a standardized, repeatable framework to guide the activities product managers and their teams do most frequently helps to streamline and accelerate daily tasks.
Product ops is in charge of developing resources, including user story templates, interview guides, survey frameworks, and other materials, to ensure these tasks are repeatable. These reusable frameworks must be user-friendly and easily accessible to all product team members in a centralized hub.
Product management and development is a cross-functional undertaking. Product ops helps to keep all teams spanning customer success, engineering, data science, and product management aligned.
Product ops organizes and leads cross-functional team meetings, develops internal assets including product and process docs, and serves as a central node of communication and connection between all contributors across the product development lifecycle.
Product ops is also responsible for continually refining the product vision, communicating the vision to executive leadership, and keeping the product team aligned on the business vision.
Actionable, standardized experiments
Running experiments during product development enables product teams to establish a quantifiable, causal relationship between inputs and target outcomes. It informs prioritization and allows developers to test their ideas and solutions.
Product ops assists in facilitating and streamlining experimentation by developing best practices to guide the design, implementation, and analysis of experiments. The product team can use this framework to run, measure, and report on experiments and collect actionable insights from the results.
Accelerated customer feedback loops
Product teams collect a lot of customer feedback through user surveys, interviews, and other methods. Unfortunately, much of this feedback gets lost in the shuffle and ultimately dies in a doc somewhere without being seen, analyzed, or leveraged by other team members.
Product ops rescues this feedback from obscurity by collecting, prioritizing, and analyzing it for useful insights that can be integrated abstractly into the product vision, or more tangibly into product fixes and features. By closing and accelerating the loop on customer feedback, product ops eliminates the likelihood that customer interviews and surveys will have been conducted in vain.
Product stack management
Dealing with a bloated product tech stack can lead to the familiar paradox of too much of a good thing; in this case, too much information and too many apps. Product ops reduces the fatigue of app overload by managing the product tech stack and helping team members get the most out of their tools.
Ensuring product teams only use the tools they absolutely need for product strategy and roadmapping, analytics, customer feedback and surveys, design and wireframing, user experience testing, user onboarding, collaboration, and task management is crucial. It prevents these tools from becoming a burden rather than a boon to productivity.
Up-to-date knowledge on industry best practices and market research
Product ops needs to be the trusted expert on the latest best practices, methodologies, tools, and curricula related to SaaS and product management. It’s their job to update the rest of the product team on industry-wide changes and developments.
Developing a continuing education curriculum for the product team based on market research and best practices, scheduling trainings, and developing educational content helps to ensure product teams are constantly evolving and improving upon their own skills.
Filling the product ops role is not a particularly pressing need until a company begins to grow at a pace too fast for its product managers to comfortably match. When it’s time to start seriously scaling the product team, however, product ops can make nearly every aspect of product management, customer success, prioritization, experimentation, and product strategy a lot more seamless and a lot less stressful.
If your SaaS company is currently drowning in data, struggling to standardize and maintain the product tech stack, and bogged down by a lack of alignment across crucial technical and customer-facing teams, it may be time to hop on the latest startup bandwagon and find your product ops linchpin.
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