10 Ways Mobile Is Changing the Role of Product Managers

By Ashley Sefferman | December 8th, 2015

Mobile product management as a profession is still relatively new, although it’s picked up speed over the last year across companies of all sizes. Many senior product managers are making the switch to mobile, and despite their years—sometimes decades—of experience, the transition can still have challenges.

While the fundamentals of product management (including roadmap creation, requirements definition, performance measurement, and customer obsession) remain the same, there are a few key differences between the goals of general product managers and mobile product managers, especially when it comes to prioritizing projects and delivering new ideas for product improvement.

Today’s post covers differences in the ways mobile product managers think about their products, along with tips to help you boost your technical skills to dive into the world of mobile product management. Let’s begin!

10 Concepts Unique to Mobile Product Management

Moving from product manager to mobile product manager has its challenges, but is incredibly rewarding as mobile continues to eat the world. The biggest change in moving to mobile is a shift in the way a product manager approaches their work.

Here are 10 main ways product managers and mobile product managers think about the world differently:

1. Constraints on screen real estate and usability.

When you’re creating a mobile product, screen size dicates all. Feature prioritization is key to providing a positive customer experience, and whether you’re building for 5 inches, 2 inches, 6.5 inches, or more, thinking backwards from the amount of screen real estate you have to determine usability is key.

Image source: Pandera Systems

2. Prioritizing number of features on mobile.

The biggest change in moving a desktop experience to mobile? You’ll likely need to restructure and/or reorder the page’s features. Successful mobile PMs are masters at evaluating relevance and priority when it comes to features and usability, and are able to shift the structure of the page to fit new customer expectations set by the mobile device.

3. Storyboards over documents.

Most product managers are familiar with documents to bring their products to life, but mobile PMs are moving into the age of storyboards to help facilitate human-centric design. To get started on storyboarding, check out this excellent course from Stanford’s HCI.

4. Understanding usability differences in customer expectations.

Speaking of customer expectations, the ways people engage with a mobile device vary dramatically from desktop (and even across different types of mobile devices). Becoming an expert in mobile usability is key to success for mobile PMs—the more you know about what people expect out of their mobile experiences, the faster and more seamlessly you can deliver said experiences through your product.

5. Orientation changes.

One unique aspect of mobile is that you have two main orientations to build for: portrait to landscape. The challenge is making the two work together in a beautiful, intuitive way. Mobile product managers first have to decide if they will support both orientations and that decision is not always an easy, straight-forward one. If they do choose to build their product for both orientations, they are then faced with the challenge of being creative in how the two can work together.

Image source: Stack Exchange

6. Browsers vs. operating systems.

There are myriad differences between designing for browsers vs. operating systems. When it comes to optimizing for operating systems, mobile product managers haven’t done their jobs well unless different OS-capable versions of their product have been delivered. Understanding technical differences and constraints between operating systems allows mobile PMs to better predict scope of work, and will help alleviate bugginess once a mobile product is released.

7. Factoring in submission time to app stores.

Mobile product managers face a unique challenge in submitting app updates through some of the app stores. Whenever an app is first submitted to the App Store, the Windows Store, or the Amazon AppStore, and whenever updates are submitted to the App Store, there is a period in which the update must go through approval before it’s publicly available. On the web, there is no need to submit updates for review, and the time it takes to deliver a new product to consumers is instantaneous once it’s ready for release. Since many app stores require a submission period for new apps and updates, mobile PMs need to take this time into consideration or they face serious consequences across their product’s roadmap.

8. Device-specific factors.

Aside from screen real estate, mobile devices have many features product managers can use to meet mobile-specific customer expectations, and to give their product an extra edge. Many features unique to mobile (including GPS, push capabilities, cameras, etc.) can be leveraged to provide an extra- personalized experience, and mobile PMs who don’t take advantage will be left behind.

9. Mobile gestures.

The standard “point and click” doesn’t exist on mobile. Instead, people swipe, tap, zoom, etc., to complete the actions necessary to get to their end goals. Because people are so much closer to the product (there’s not a mouse and cursor in between), it’s important that mobile product managers think about how users will want to interact with each area of their product. Users naturally feel more connected to the product because they are touching it, and the best mobile PMs maximize that sentiment to create more engaged users.

Image source: UX Mag

10. Frequent app updates.

The web has been stable for years, but the world of mobile apps is constantly being updated. Between OS updates and updates across the app stores, mobile product managers are constantly playing a game of catch-up.

Tips for Moving to Mobile

The product management profession requires varying degrees of technical skill, typically dependent on how technical the product being worked on is. However, mobile product management requires an added level of technical understanding that is likely different from what today’s product managers are used to bringing to the table.

Building a foundation in mobile is imperative to success for mobile PMs, and in order to expand your knowledge, it’s important to focus on the basics. Below are a few tips to help you take your technical skills to the next level:

1. Surround yourself with mobile to understand what makes a good experience good, and a bad experience bad.

By immersing yourself in mobile, you’ll begin to intuitively recognize product experiences that are worth emulating, and will have an easier time brushing up on the basics. For example, do you know the difference between a mobile website, a hybrid app, and a native app? Now is the time to dive in and learn. For your first quick lesson, here’s the difference:

Source: Nielsen Norman Group

  • Web apps are not real applications; they are really websites that may look like native applications, but are not implemented as such. They are run by a browser and typically written in HTML, and are accessible in the same way all other webpages are.
  • Hybrid apps are part native app and part web app. Like native apps, they live in an app store and can take advantage of the many device features available. Like web apps, they rely on HTML being rendered in a browser, with the caveat that the browser is embedded within the app.
  • Native apps are installed directly on a device’s hard drive and can maximize the capabilities of the hardware. Native apps are installed through an application store (such as Google Play or the App Store). They are developed specifically for one platform, and can take full advantage of all the device features.

2. Use your device often.

The best mobile product managers are always on top of new trends, and the best way to see what’s hot or not is to use your device(s) as often as you can. If you can’t explain what makes your favorite apps great from a technical, marketing, and product perspective, chances are you have some learning to do. The more you challenge what you like and dislike in the mobile experiences you use consistently, the better it will translate to how you build your product.

3. Build an app from scratch. Sound crazy?

You’ve got this! Not only will this exercise help broaden your coding skills, it will also help you understand your development team and process at a deeper level. The more confident you are in your technical skills, the more trust your development team can put in your hands when it comes to assessing scope of work, solving challenges, ordering bug lists, etc. Plus, building an app from scratch can be tons of fun.

Check out these tutorials to help you start:

4. Become an expert in mobile usability.

Customer expectations shift dramatically depending on device. Whether you help your team build for iOS, Android, tablet, wearable, or all of the above, having a deep understanding of how to use specific mobile devices will keep you a step ahead. People have different expectations depending on what device they use to engage with your product, and knowing how to “design for mobile” in a broad way is no longer enough. The more you know about customer usability expectations, the quicker you can make data-driven product decisions.

5. Change your mindset to mobile-first.

To take on the world of mobile product management and build world-class app and mobile experiences, the only way to think is mobile-first (more specifically, you could go one step further and start thinking “screen-first” or “platform-first,” depending on your needs). As mobile continues eating the web, many companies are beginning to take on the “mobile-first” mindset as their standard for designing new products and features. Is your company mobile- first? If yes, you should already be thinking this way (but there’s always room for improvement!). If not, be the change you wish to see across your company.

6. Read. All the time. Every day. As much as you possibly can.

Here are a few product and mobile-focused blogs recommended by mobile product managers we work with at Apptentive:

Wrapping it Up

As the mobile product management profession matures, industry standards and focus will evolve with it. Mobile has already changed the world of product management, and I hope you’ve taken away a thing or two that will help you level up the world of mobile product management.

If you’re interested in hearing more or have feedback/experiences you’d like to share on the content above, I’d love to chat. Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Ashley Sefferman
Ashley Sefferman is Head of Content at Apptentive. A mobile marketing and content strategy enthusiast, she writes about mobile apps, loyalty, inbound marketing, and making the mobile world a better place for people. Follow Ashley on Twitter @ashseff.

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