How can I identify these digital product studios or agencies?
With experience, the differences become obvious. But, there are a few key areas to observe:
1. They have strong product engineering teams
Product engineers are software engineers who think holistically about the product they are building, and how a business’ customers will use the product. They aren’t just content to implement features from a backlog, they need to know the ‘why’ behind the features they are building.
This is important for two reasons:
Firstly, so that they can build the best possible solution with the least effort required. If they are simply being dictated solutions, an inefficient solution may be implemented without being questioned.
Secondly, so that they can react quickly to customer feedback. Without the direct context of customer feedback and data, they will have to rely on long feedback loops from other members of the team who have to distil this feedback into a backlog of work for engineers to tackle.
Some key signs that a team has a strong product engineering culture:
- They don’t use a rigid framework like Scrum. Engineering teams manage their own work using their own chosen techniques and focus on delivering value to customers rather than story points.
- Engineers have as much access to customers and clients as they want. They are not hidden away. This allows them to receive feedback from customers directly.
- They are led by experienced Engineering Managers, rather than people with a non-technical background. Having leaders with technical backgrounds avoids heavy reliance on delivery frameworks or other abstractions in order to understand the problems at hand.
2. They have product managers who focus on customer problems, rather than project managers who focus on delivering features
In empowered product teams, the Product Manager focuses primarily on understanding how the product will provide value to the customer. They do not lead the team, but help influence the team to create the best possible product by focusing on customer problems and data.
They don’t spend a lot of time managing backlogs or facilitation “rituals” with the team.
Some key signs of an empowered Product Management team are:
- Product Managers who are commercially-savvy, and understand the key KPIs of the business.
- Product Managers who are creative and enjoy problem solving.
- An absence of the Product Owner title, which is typically associated with Scrum.
3. Their designers are part of the core team
In an empowered product team, the product designer forms a core part of the team in the trio of engineering, product and design. The designer focuses on ensuring that alongside the solution being valuable to users, it will be a seamless and enjoyable experience for them as well.
Here’s what to be on the lookout for:
- Designers equally balance desirability (the visual side of design) with usability (user experience and how the UI actually works).
- Designers play an active role in customer interviews, often using tools like design sprints.
- Designers have a strong partnership with engineering, and iterate together to create optimal solutions.