What is a product owner? An overview of the role and its responsibilities

Contrary to how it may sound, a product owner isn’t someone that ‘owns’ the software that a business is creating. It’s not the owner of the business, and it isn’t the person with a majority stake.

Rather, the product owner is someone that ‘owns’ the decision-making power in the dev team.

Of course, there is a lot more to it than that. So, what does a product owner do exactly? Here’s a simple overview.

First, a glance at the industry terminology

The product owner: a member of the scrum team in agile development. They’re responsible for the outcome of the project.

Agile development: an approach in which the software development team delivers work in fast, bite-sized increments.

See also: Batman and agile development

Scrum: an agile development environment that comprises a team of programmers, a ‘scrum master’, and a product owner who presides over all and makes decisions.

Back to the product owner role

The product owner focuses on creating value. So, they define user stories, and ensure those stories are met. They prioritise features, and make sure they maintain conceptual and technical integrity. They ensure that projects are aligned with the needs of the business, then take charge of delivering those projects.

A product owner will work with stakeholders across the business. This includes working closely with the developers and with the product manager(s), as well as with shareholders and even with sales and customer service.

As a relatively new role, there’s no hard and fast definition of what a product owner is. However, the general consensus is that they’re someone that takes responsibility for creating a clear understanding of the future of the product — and how to get there.

The goals of a product owner

The goals of a product owner revolve around connecting teams and people that might otherwise be working in siloes.

They aim to:

  • Facilitate communication

A product owner should aim to act as a bridge between development and stakeholders/end-users. This means they listen to what the end users, customers, and stakeholders want and expect from the product, and communicate with the dev team to gain an understanding of what is possible.

  • Maximise a product’s value

The product owner will use the information from both external and internal voices to develop a view of what will be the most profitable and healthy future for a product. This means which features are most wanted, which bugs need their fixes prioritised and so on. The goal is to facilitate making the product as good as it can be.

  • Develop a shared understanding of the product’s intended form, function, and operation

To that end, the final core goal for the product owner is to translate their findings and targets regarding the project into something actionable for the dev team. That is, a refined, clearly prioritised product backlog from which the developers can work. This includes a clear idea of the target time frames.

The tasks and responsibilities of a product owner

How does someone in the product owner role meet these goals, then? In no particular order, here’s an overview of the tasks and responsibilities that make up the day-to-day working life of the product owner.

  • Liaising with customers, end-users, and stakeholders

This may look like discussing feedback received by the sales and customer service teams, or answers to social media surveys put out by marketing. It involves being a contact for stakeholders — and listening to their concerns and suggestions for the future of the project in question.

So, the product owner can then generate insight into the expectations and hopes for the future of the software product. And they can do so from the people that actually use it.

  • User story creation and definition

Armed with the information they get from end-users, another task for this role is to create and define the user stories that will guide developers in making desired features. This is all part of creating a shared understanding across teams and groups.

  • Product backlog refinement

Perhaps the biggest ongoing task for the product owner is product backlog refinement. This is the management of the product backlog. It essentially involves organising and prioritising the to-do list of the dev team.

This means working out what needs to be done, and in what order it needs to be done. All, that is, while taking into account the resource costs and the stakeholder and end-user feedback in the process.

  • Represent the interests of the customer

As well as translating end-user/stakeholder wants into actionable to-do lists, a product owner must also represent these wants to developers.

This means that they will need to be available to answer any dev questions from the customer/stakeholder point of view. It also includes attending daily scrum meetings and representing the end-user voice there, too.

Do you have a product owner? Do you need one?

When it all boils down to it, the product owner is essentially a decision-maker for the development team. They take ownership (control) of the project, and their responsibility is to make the decisions and do the research to ensure a bright future for the software product.

So, is it time you added a product owner to your team?

Useful links

What is a scrum master?

Product management: how a new field was born

A four-point guide to product backlog refinement