What is a Product Owner?

When I tell people I’m a Product Owner, I’m often met with confused faces and a few questions – “a what?”, “what does that involve?”.

The most important question, though, is “why do I need to know what a Product Owner is?”. Well, it’s likely you’ll meet or work with one of us at some point if you work in ONS, or you might be interested in becoming one yourself.

Traditionally, a Product Owner works as part of an Agile team developing a technology product, such as the Data Access Platform or the ONS website, and is the key decision maker in the team. The Product Owner quite literally owns the product – they make sure the needs of the users of the product are being met, prioritise the requirements of users, and regularly share progress on the product with stakeholders.

There are also other types of Product Owners across ONS. These individuals own business systems and are responsible for prioritising the development of these systems, statistical methods and statistical outputs much in the same way as a Product Owner working on a technology project.

Every day in the life of a Product Owner is different. We define the direction of our product, design plans for future product development, regularly meet with our users and stakeholders, and work with different members of our team to develop our product to meet our users’ needs.

Four golden rules of product ownership

Everyone has their own unique way of fulfilling the role, but here are my four rules for product ownership that I often use to explain the role to new Product Owners in the office.

1 – Be a “Jack of all trades” (in a good way!)

New Product Owners need to quickly gain some of the skills of other members of their team. There’s a Venn diagram by Martin Eriksson which describes the role. It shows that when working as a Product Owner, you need to know some information about what your users need from your product (user experience or UX), what business objective your product is fulfilling, and the technology needed to build and support that product.

Product Owner- venn diagram

Venn diagram by Martin Eriksson

Now, that doesn’t mean you need to become a Software Engineer to do the role (I can’t code a thing!), but you should understand key information about your product from all three perspectives, and be able to explain this in simple language to your users and stakeholders. Your delivery team are experts in their fields, but it helps to learn their language so you can effectively share the information with others.

2 – Listen

This is probably one of the most important rules: Product Owners need to be excellent listeners. You need to listen to users – they should be at the centre of everything you do. Users may not always know what they want, but it’s the job of the Product Owner, User Researcher and Business Analyst to identify what users need by listening to them and taking their feedback on board. You also need to listen to your team – I’ll talk more about this in rule 3.

3 – Don’t make decisions in isolation

There’s often a misconception that because Product Owners are responsible for making decisions about their product, they don’t involve others in the decision-making process. Product Owners should never make decisions in isolation! As a Product Owner, it’s your job to gather the information you need to make an informed decision by speaking with experts, ensuring that any decision made is measured and appropriate. Ultimately, it’s your responsibility to come to a decision, but this should always be based on as much evidence as you can find.

4 – Own it!

Finally, you need to own the product. It’s important that you believe in your product as it’s your responsibility to promote it to stakeholders, users, the wider ONS and external parties. Be positive about the work you and the delivery team are doing and tell as many people as possible about it. If you’re excited about the product then others will be too.

 

In a nutshell, being a Product Owner involves lots of communication and a fair amount of responsibility. It’s a busy role, but when you’re covering such a varied number of activities across interesting and innovative projects, no two days are the same.

We’re always keen to speak to the next generation of Product Owners. If you’re interested in moving towards a Product Owner role in the future, or would like to find out more about what we do, then please feel free to get in touch with me in the comments below.

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