It Takes More than Just Developers. The Must-Have Roles to Create a Digital Product

By Nick Epson on August 9, 2021

Forming a team of people skilled in different, highly specific roles is how people efficiently tackle all kinds of complex, challenging projects. It’s how our favorite superheroes take down the toughest bad guys. The same goes for building a new home or commercial structure, just with a little less superhero magic and fancy sci-fi tech. It should come as no surprise that this is also how apps are built as well.

For most of us, there’s a ton of mystery to “how” a lot of things in everyday life really work and especially how they’re built – beneath the everyday objects all around us are often fascinating tales of how they come to be. Much like we see in the popular, long-running series like How It’s Made, there are often many layers to even the seemingly simplest of things.

While we don’t necessarily need to overwhelm ourselves with understanding everything at a granular level, it is important to have some understanding and most importantly, an appreciation for what goes into making certain products. If you’re planning to build an app, knowing the “who does what” in creating a digital product will help you with everything from interpreting a proposal from an agency to properly setting and managing expectations. Here, we’re going to dig a little deeper into “why” knowing these details is helpful for the process then we’ll take a look at the cast of characters behind the scenes.

You need developers but also…

Let’s start with an analogy: In the world of automotive repair, ASE standards have evolved to recognize a variety of specific proficiencies (and ideally, excellence) with systems in a vehicle like end-to-end alternate fuel system operations, electronic diesel engine diagnostics, light-duty hybrid/electric vehicle maintenance, and so much more. Because our automobiles have become more complex and just “different” (think Tesla), this has given rise to more specialists and the need for additional “hands” to solve what often appears to be a single problem, at least from the customer’s perspective. Moreover, in the past, you usually had one person or shop who handled all the mechanical and electrical systems and another for body and collision repair. To adapt to today’s needs and tackle solving these new complexities with efficiency, many modern shops often hire different specialists because Steve who could “do it all” with a lit cigarette hanging out his mouth just doesn’t cut it today.

Similar to the auto repair industry, certain beliefs or experiences seem to lead entrepreneurs to believe they “just need a couple of developers” to build their app. We’ve all heard stories about how business X started in a garage with just two people. Or maybe we recall that one guy from college who built that cool computer game all by himself. Whatever the reason, unless you’ve been close to software development projects in the past or have some general interest in the matter, there’s no real reason to dig through all the layers of technical jargon to comprehensively understand how low voltage current running through some silicon lets you Facebook message your mom a cute picture of your cat.

However, if you’re planning to take ownership of a digital product, you’ll be better equipped to navigate all the wonderful (and occasionally frustrating) things that will happen throughout its lifecycle.

So for starters, “developer” has evolved to be a kind of umbrella term for an expansive collection of skillsets, yet it’s just one segment of a diverse software development team. Knowing what each person contributes to your project is instrumental for forming reasonable expectations for costs, time, and beyond. Plus, it will help you relate to the people you’ll be working with and reduce the likelihood of you questioning the guy who makes your explainer video as to why one of the links in the home screen goes to the wrong page 😊

It happens…

The crew in digital product development

When working with an agency like Blue Label Labs, you don’t need to worry about what’s exactly happening behind the scenes; what you do need to know is what’s reasonable for the output you expect. There are times we and other agencies will fall behind expectations for any number of reasons and as such, it’s important to be able to recognize the difference between situations when you’re working with an otherwise competent team who simply hit a snag – technology doesn’t discriminate as it acts up for techies too – and when you’re working with a group that can’t cut it.

Even a Benz S-Class gets bogged down in traffic – if you’re making a cross-country trip, it’s important that you’re efficient while on open stretches of road and when stocking up on snacks at rest stops.  

One last thing to note before the credits roll is that if you’re still reading this because an internal project has stalled or is too tangled in red tape to get off the ground, it’s likely there’s either a missing piece or just not enough of the right skillset. As a true digital product agency, we have flexible engagement models for enterprises and startups where we can quickly figure out what to do, assimilate where needed, and move the ball down the court.

Throughout the following, we’ll cover the various roles that work together to deliver and support a digital product.

Product Manager (PM)

The PM acts as the overseer and liaison between all the different groups who have their hands on the project. We call them the “CEO of the project” as they’re ultimately responsible for connecting the dots to make sure goals are hit in a timely manner as well as for problem-solving when an issue surfaces. They work closely with the stakeholders to execute a vision by organizing efforts, delegating tasks, and doing whatever it takes to check off boxes that drive the project to its next milestone. This person is also typically instrumental at gathering client requirements from internal stakeholders as well as existing or potential users.

They’re the captain of the ship and as such, everything that happens while at sea is their responsibility.

Developers (“Devs”)

Like Ben & Jerry’s, devs come in all flavors but for the sake of simplicity, we divide them up by “where” they write code for a product as either a frontend or backend developer.

Front-End Developer. These are the folks that make the designs that the product designers generate come to life in the user-facing app. They are responsible for creating responsive code that makes different elements work, for example, the text boxes in a form and how they securely transmit information to a backend database. Everything that you see “happen” in an app is a result of frontend code, such as JavaScript, which is the primary language used in our preferred cross-platform app development framework, React Native.

Back-End Developer. The data you enter and information you see (e.g., someone’s Tweet, a song on Spotify, etc.) mostly lives in databases that are supported by backend devs. Other tasks like programming the logic for certain systems, for example, the AI system built on Azure Cognitive Services in the Sol LeWitt app that analyzes pictures taken by the user with computer vision, are also backend dev responsibility. While frontend developers are essentially responsible for what the user sees, backend developers work with computing, storing and delivering data as well as systems that process it.

Full Stack Developer. These individuals possess skill sets that allow them to be proficient in both front and backend development. This individual is most like “Steve” from above and thanks to the fact that certain some modern programming languages (e.g., JavaScript which is used in both React Native for frontend development and NodeJS) work on both ends, these individuals can be useful in certain situations, provided they’re not expected to handle the workload of two people. 

Technical Product Managers (TPMs) / Engineering Managers

The TPM or Engineering Manager (the terms are mostly interchangeable) are more leadership-focused and administrative in nature. Though these individuals are sometimes developers themselves, their main function is to act as management for a development team (or teams) and serve as the first technical point of contact with the PM. For these individuals, technical acumen is second to communication and problem solving as they’re responsible for ensuring that things go smoothly by functioning as an effective extension of the project’s PM.

Product Designers

Like development, designers come equipped with different talents – for example, the person making a funny cover graphic for a blog and the individual who does layout and design for the screens in your app are usually two different people. For digital product development, we have two main types of product designers.

User Experience (UX) Designer. These people are tasked with a design process that’s more meta in nature as it often doesn’t require any well-refined graphic design or digital illustrative skills (although both are helpful.) These people are architects for the feel and movement of an app: their goal is to transpose the product’s vision into an engaging user experience. They work closely with designers who build the UI by defining a kind of template for the product (and subsequent feature releases throughout a product’s lifecycle) with the goal of delighting the end user. UX Designers also typically have a heavy hand in qualitative (e.g., interviews) and quantitative (e.g., survey) user testing. Without user testing your digital product is DOA – just take a look at the epic failure of Quibi.

User Interface (UI) Designer. Much of the frontend development relies on the screens and layouts as well as other visual elements the UI designers create. These individuals are responsible for capturing the stakeholder vision by working closely with the UX designers to produce the various graphics used throughout the app from menus to aesthetics of specific features. In a sense, the actual development portion on the front end starts with UI designers who provide the visual foundation that developers will eventually make functional.

Other supporting roles

Aside from the graphics used in the app, you need visuals in your product like graphics, photos, a logo, as well as other content like blogs, social media posts, compelling videos, and whatever else makes sense for your line of business. While it varies quite a bit between apps (e.g., an eCommerce app has different needs than a medical platform), you’ll need some of the following to help throughout the product’s lifecycle.

Content producers

Your landing pages, blog, notifications, and beyond all need various kinds of content to engage your users. The following people are essential to helping flesh out delivering your vision by constructing content that attracts and retains users.

Graphic Designers. Creating elements like custom graphics, visual branding collateral, and many other aesthetic elements is the responsibility of graphic designers. These individuals often work closely with other marketing roles to aid in communication whether it’s visuals in a patient booking app for healthcare or creating crisp product images on an eCommerce site. Some graphic designers might focus on illustrations or animations, while others on pixel-perfect ads. 

Video Producers. The amount of video transmitted across the web for everything from mindless entertainment to real-time coverage of important geopolitical matters is staggering. Video is one of the most effective ways to communicate with virtually every audience meaning you’ll need people who can make high-quality videos to supplement your platform.

Copywriters and Editors. Content like, well, this blog article and just about every bit of written content on a website or app is usually written by a copywriter, from a snappy tagline to an SEO-optimized landing page for a service you offer. These people are responsible for working closely with other entities, whether colleagues in a marketing department or directly with stakeholders, to effectively communicate ideas through written content in a tone that’s accessible to the users.

Third-party specialists

Certain third-party plugins or internal features/systems can require the help of a specialist who knows who to take full advantage of the product such that it integrates seamlessly with your product. For example, you could use Twilio to build out a comprehensive call-center solution but this would require some thought and time, plus it would need dedicated supervision over the lifecycle of the app. In some cases (depending on the magnitude of a feature), you might need a specific developer, specialist, or small team to supplement your core efforts. 

***

Of course, all software projects are different – Netflix is different from Facebook and both are different from Apple Health. Naturally, you’ll need to be able to staff and scale different departments as needed, for example, sales teams or warehousing staff for shipping and receiving. By empowering them with good software, they should be well-equipped to drive your business forward.

Blue Label Labs comes prepared with everything you need

There’s a considerable amount of talent that comes together to build a great digital product. Working with us effectively eliminates the need to hire, oversee, and connect all the different people required to create a successful product. To learn more or discuss your idea for an app, reach out to us to get the conversation started.