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 What is product operations?

What is product operations?

Product ops (short for product operations) is an operational function that optimizes the intersection of product, engineering, and customer success. It supports the R&D team and their go-to-market counterparts to improve alignment, communications, and processes around the product. 

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.

What does product ops do?

Product ops responsibilities fall into five core areas:

  • Tools: Similar to other ops roles, product ops manages the product tech stack, establishes internal best practices, and ensures team members are using tools effectively.
  • Data: Product ops collects, organizes, and analyzes quantitative and qualitative product data and enables the entire organization to make the most of their insights. Data can include everything from product usage data, Net Promoter Score (NPS), and product stickiness to customer feedback, feature requests, and support tickets.
  • Experimentation: To help eliminate friction within the product experimentation process, product ops tracks, sequences, and implements all experiments, and creates processes to drive efficiency.
  • Strategy: Product ops fosters cross-departmental collaboration around the product, and uses their product insights to identify areas for improvement and inform business decisions.
  • Trusted advisor: By providing product information to key decision makers, product ops is an important advisor to CPOs, VPs of product, and other R&D leadership.

Why does a company need product ops?

The main reason for establishing product ops is to take operational (and time-consuming) tasks off of product managers’ plates, so they can focus on building products that delight customers. With this also comes improved communication and efficiency, since product ops acts as a resource that provides product expertise for teams across the company.

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