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How to Improve your Product Sense

Shreyas Doshi is a product lead at Stripe. We discuss how to improve the elusive "product sense," a relevant skill to all product managers. Previously Shreyas has served as a director of product management at Twitter, and a group product manager at Google and Yahoo!.

This blog post is paraphrased material from Shreyas and Stephen's interview on 10-30-50 product management.

So, how should a product manager go about improving their product sense?
The first step to improving one's product sense is understanding what it really is. I define it as the ability to make correct decisions even when faced with considerable ambiguity. This should be at multiple levels: at a "what products should we build" level, but also at a fairly granular level with regards to user interactions and interfaces, and everything in between. That's what product sense looks and feels like.

Now, it turns out product sense has three key elements to it.

  • Empathy. This is the ability to simulate the mental processes of multiple different types of personas that are nothing like you. To be able to say well, in this situation, this type of user is going to react in this manner. Or to say our partners are going to react in that manner, or even our competitors are going to perceive this move in that way. To be able to really do that well is one key element of product sense.
  • Domain knowledge. If you understand the domain you're operating in extremely well, it will just naturally lead to better and more correct ideas about what product to build and how to build it. To be specific, I would say to focus on knowledge about your customers and your users, the competition and what they are doing, and technology limitations or opportunities.
  • Creativity. This is the most elusive but nonetheless important aspect of product sense which is being able to think differently and being able to come up with new ideas for how to address a particular situation or problem.

Improving your product sense, then, boils down to developing more empathy, growing your domain knowledge, and boosting your creativity.

How should a product manager improve their sense of empathy?
One surefire way I have found to improve your empathy is to talk to different types of users and partners. As you do this, don't just talk to them and take the information they're giving you. Try to evaluate why they are saying what they're saying, because that is the more important aspect of building this empathy. You're not always going to have the user in front of you to ask them what would work, but you can reliably predict it by understanding why they feel or react in a certain way.

The second tool to improve your empathy is to get a deep understanding of psychology. One of the things I have done to improve my empathy is to read as much as I can about things like cognitive biases, including behavioral economics. Also, general psychology literature is incredibly useful in being able to build user archetypes for any situation and empathize with each such archetype.

What about domain knowledge?
I won't spend too much time on domain knowledge. This just requires the grunt work of identifying resources that are relevant to your domain and spending the time to review those resources on a regular basis. I've found that diving into books, online resources, and podcasts ends up being great ways of gaining domain knowledge.

You mentioned creativity as the most elusive one. Any tips for improving your ability to be creative?
You can't really teach creativity, it's one of those things that you're mostly born with. If you aren't naturally gifted here, it's going to be tough, but it isn't impossible. That's because you can hack creativity for the purposes of product sense.

What's one way to hack creativity?
One technique is to familiarize yourself with everything in your domain. So, concretely let's say you're building smartphone apps. Well, play with more apps than anyone else. Diligently inspect the details of those apps. Ask questions such as why was this button put in this place or why was this animation done in that manner? Next time you are faced with a problem without an obvious solution, you can call upon your extensive experience. It's sort of like enabling creativity with pattern matching.


Learn more about Shreyas's perspective on product management leadership, including 10-30-50 product management, at his Tweetstorm here.

Visit Exponent's PM Interview Course for more great product management interview prep.

Stephen Cognetta

Stephen Cognetta

Hi, I'm Stephen Cognetta, co-founder of Exponent and a former Google PM who has conducted hundreds of interview sessions. I've spoken about product management at Google, WeWork, Duke, Yale, and more.

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