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What is a product owner? An essential role for Scrum team success

Caeleigh MacNeil contributor headshotCaeleigh MacNeil
January 24th, 2024
7 min read
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A product owner is a standard role on Scrum teams that focuses on delivering the best possible product. They connect the Scrum team to stakeholders and advocate for the needs of end users, so everyone understands what the product is trying to achieve and why. In this article, learn about the five key responsibilities of product owners and how they help Scrum teams accomplish their best work.

Imagine you’ve just bought a house. As a new homeowner, you’re now responsible for the long-term vision of what you want your property to be—like how to decorate, maintain, and improve your home to get the most out of your (hefty) investment. You coordinate with inspectors, builders, and housemates to create the best living environment you can—all while balancing your finances and long-term goals. Phew. 

Like a homeowner, a product owner is responsible for long-term vision—but instead of improving their homes, they improve products. A product owner works with stakeholders to make the best possible product for end users. 

Free user research template

What is a product owner?

A product owner is a person dedicated to maximizing the value of a product. To do this, product owners develop a vision of how the product should function, define specific product features, and break those features into product backlog items for the Scrum team to work on. They act as a liaison between business stakeholders, Scrum team members, and end users until the final product is completed. 

What is Scrum?

Scrum is an Agile project management framework that helps teams build and iterate quickly. It’s most commonly used by product, engineering, or software development teams—though any team can be successful using the Scrum framework. Scrum teams complete work in sprints, a fixed period of time (usually two weeks) when they focus on specific deliverables. After a sprint is over, the Scrum team incorporates their learnings and uses them to optimize their process for the next sprint.

The product owner is one of three standard roles on a Scrum team: 

  • Product owner: Works with stakeholders, end users, and the Scrum team to make sure the end product meets user requirements and aligns with business goals. 

  • Scrum master: Leads the development team to help them prepare for and successfully execute sprints. Scrum masters also focus on continuously improving internal processes. 

  • Development team: Works on the deliverables that need to be completed for each sprint. Developers are the core of the Scrum team, since they’re responsible for completing product backlog items that translate into new product features.

[inline illustration] What makes up a Scrum team? (infographic)

Product owner vs. Scrum master

A Scrum product owner and Scrum master are two integral—but different—roles on a Scrum team. 

Scrum masters are responsible for:

  • Leading and improving internal processes necessary for Scrum teams to complete their work

  • Helping the team prepare for and successfully execute sprints, so developers can focus on their work instead of more logistical tasks

  • Facilitating planning meetings, daily standups, and sprint retrospectives 

  • Removing roadblocks for developers and keeping everyone aligned with Scrum framework principles

On the other hand, the product owner role has a more external focus than the Scrum master. Instead of leading team processes, they’re more focused on the product itself—specifically how to create the best possible product for end users. 

Product owners are in charge of:

  • Incorporating feedback from stakeholders and end users

  • Translating that feedback into specific product features and backlog items for the Scrum team to work on

Product owner responsibilities

An Agile product owner connects the Scrum team to stakeholders and advocates for the needs of end users, so everyone understands what a product is trying to achieve and why. Scrum product owners often end up wearing many different hats, but their role is defined by these key responsibilities.

[inline illustration] Product owner responsibilities (infographic)

Define product features and goals

The product owner determines the goals of each product so they can define specific product features to achieve those goals. 

To develop goals, the product owner has to understand the end users’ product vision and what their common pain points are. That means a big part of the product owner’s job involves working with stakeholders to conduct user research. 

For example, imagine you’ve been tasked with improving a calendar app. To determine what your specific goal should be, you could study how users interact with the existing app—then ask what they struggled with and what they wish the app could do better. 

In addition to defining goals based on user feedback, the product owner also needs to make sure all new features align with overarching business goals. In the above example, users may want to be able to share calendars with people outside their organization, but that may not align with your organization’s overall business goal to improve security and user privacy. As a product owner, it’s your responsibility to identify which user requests to prioritize.

Free user research template

Develop backlog items based on product goals

The product owner then translates those goals into specific product features and backlog items for the Scrum team to complete. That way, the Scrum team can zero in on the specific details of each backlog item while the product owner ensures each item addresses specific company goals and user needs. 

To continue with the calendar app example, let’s say you’re designing a product feature that tracks the preferred working hours of different team members. The product owner would work with the Scrum team to break that feature up into smaller actionable tasks for the product backlog—like a task to develop front-end design, one to create an interface for users to input their preferred hours, and so on. 

Prioritize input from stakeholders and end users

While stakeholders often think their projects are high priority, the product owner has the context to decide what the Scrum team should prioritize. 

Since the product owner has insight into business priorities, they understand why specific initiatives matter and how work ladders up into them. That means they can prioritize feedback from stakeholders and help the Scrum team focus on the most important work. Without a product owner, Scrum teams often end up prioritizing work based on directions from cross-functional teams. 

In addition, the product owner collects feedback from end users through user testing. This allows them to stay in touch with user needs, so they can also prioritize work to resolve common pain points as needed. 

Create user stories

The product owner also creates user stories to help team members understand the context for each product feature. In Agile project management, a user story is a non-technical explanation of a product feature written from the user’s perspective. User stories define the end goals of a product feature—so the development team knows what they’re building, why they’re building it, and what value it creates.

User stories are often expressed as a single sentence, structured as follows: 

“As a [persona], I want to [software goal] so that [result].”

In our calendar app example, a Scrum product owner might create this user story to define the feature’s goals: 

“As the manager of a remote team, I want to understand when my team members are working so I can schedule meetings during times that are convenient for everyone.” 

Prioritize and manage the product backlog

Along with defining product features, the product owner is responsible for backlog refinement. This includes:

  • Creating and managing the product backlog 

  • Prioritizing tasks based on business needs, product goals, and user requirements

  • Clearly defining all tasks and ensuring the product backlog is communicated to all team members

  • Establishing product requirements and user expectations with the Scrum team

In addition to sharing the product backlog with the rest of the Scrum team, the product owner also makes sure stakeholders can see and understand it. That way, stakeholders can follow:

  • How the Scrum team translates their feedback into specific product features

  • Why they prioritize certain tasks over others

  • What a realistic timeline looks like for new feature requests

Oversee product development stages

When teams develop a new product or feature, they often follow a preset process to ensure the product is properly defined, tested, and implemented. This practice is called the product development process—a six-stage life cycle that takes a product from its initial concept to the final market launch. 

The product owner coordinates with key stakeholders to guide a product through each stage of the product development process:

  1. Idea generation: Brainstorms product concepts based on customer needs and market research

  2. Product definition: Scopes the feature, defines its value proposition, and identifies success metrics

  3. Prototyping: Creates a proof-of-concept version of the product to identify the feasibility of different features and creates a development strategy

  4. Initial design: Creates a first-draft version of the product that they can use to collect feedback from stakeholders and end users

  5. Validation and testing: Makes sure every part of the product is working effectively before it’s released to the public

  6. Commercialization: Launches and implements the final product

Following this process ensures the Scrum team produces the best possible product with the least amount of risk. 

Ensures the Scrum team follows guidelines for product development

During the product development process, product owners are also responsible for ensuring their team follows development guidelines and best practices. This could include: 

  • Creating a prototype to test the initial concept

  • Completing front-end tests to identify any development errors or risks

  • Running user testing to ensure the finished product meets the expectations and requirements of end users

The product owner doesn’t create this process from scratch (it’s typically defined by leadership within the product team), but it’s their responsibility to coordinate with stakeholders and ensure the team follows each step. 

Why is a product owner important?

From managing stakeholder feedback to developing an all-encompassing product backlog, product owners play an integral role in the product development process. These key Scrum team members help iron out design and coordination issues between stakeholders and developers while keeping the product aligned with the company’s goals. 

To better understand the importance of designating a product owner for your Scrum teams, here are a few benefits you can expect from this position. 

Free user research template

Better communication between stakeholders

One of the chief responsibilities of a product owner is ensuring seamless communication between all the product stakeholders. They act as a liaison between the technical development team and not-so-technical stakeholders and end users to provide both sides with the knowledge they need to put together the best possible product. 

For example, stakeholders involved in creating a calendar app might want to add a collaboration feature so users can share what’s on their agenda. The product owner then takes that information, breaks it down into backlog items for the development team to complete, and relays any questions or comments the team may have back to the stakeholders. 

Having a product owner manage communication between stakeholders:

  • Improves communication between all parties

  • Boosts efficiency when prioritizing product features and backlog items

  • Enables the Scrum team or stakeholders to make important decisions based on feedback from both sides of the process

Improved product creation process

Product owners pull ideas and recommendations from stakeholders and end-user research to present new, innovative product features. They work closely with stakeholders to determine the product creation process and offer suggestions for making great product decisions. 

Because the product owner has created a product vision, user stories, target personas, and overall product goals, product development teams have a plan to guide them when being pulled in multiple directions. A product owner is there to make sure the team stays focused and on track. 

More efficient processes with the product backlog

The development and management of the product backlog is perhaps the biggest benefit of appointing a product owner. This backlog acts as a short- and long-term planning tool, presenting the product roadmap in a whole new level of detail. 

By giving a view of the big-picture product and the tasks it’ll take to get there, a product backlog helps teams understand the next steps and relations between tasks. This helps:

  • Improve efficiency by creating a smooth, transparent development process

  • Organize tasks and ensure deadlines are met

  • Prioritize work and stakeholder requests

  • Reduce the risk of scope creep and keeps the team on track

Build better products with a product owner

Product owners are an essential component of any Scrum team. They develop the high-level vision for a product and help the team execute that vision—so everyone understands the purpose of new product features and why they’re important. 

In order to be successful as a product owner, you need to collaborate with Scrum team members and stakeholders on a daily basis. Consider streamlining your work with a project management tool so you can plan your sprints, execute tasks, and communicate all in one place.

Free user research template

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