Great PM Interview Answers Include Tradeoffs. Here's How.

Guides Jan 7, 2019

Product management is all about tradeoffs. Should the team launch a new feature in the international market? Or should the engineers focus on code refactoring to reduce issues down the road? It is very rare that there are no downsides to one choice over the other even if it initially seems that one option is inherently better. A great PM can always articulate why they made a certain decision and talk intelligently about its downsides and its advantages. Hence, it is important that PM interviewees are able to logically discuss tradeoffs during their interviews to demonstrate that they have clearly thought about alternatives. Effective discussion of tradeoffs can make or break your PM interview. Here are some helpful tips on how to bring up tradeoffs in your upcoming interviews to impress your interviewer.

Product Questions:

In product interview questions, you often need to focus on a particular customer segment or user pain point. Every time you decide to narrow in on a particular choice, you should provide a clear line of reasoning as to why that choice is better than the alternatives. An example of this is stating that “I think we should focus on millennials as they are more likely to be transacting online than the elderly, and millennials are easier to market through paid social media campaigns. The drawback, however, is that younger people would not be as willing to pay for the product. Here we clearly reasoned as to why millennials are a better user segment for to target than the elderly after considering the pros and cons. This reasoning helps the interviewer understand the rationale behind our decision and also demonstrates that you did recognize the potential drawbacks.

Furthermore, during product interviews, it is important to have some understanding of the pros and cons of the different solutions you propose. For instance, it might be great to personalize recommendations for your user, but your user might be concerned about their activities being monitored and an invasion of their privacy. Demonstrating such awareness highlights that you are able to thoughtfully consider your product choices. This strategy can also help the interviewer understand that you are well aware of the pitfalls with your proposed solution.

Estimation Questions:

As you already know, it is highly unlikely that in an estimation question your answer will correspond to the actual real world value. For instance, I once got the question “Estimate the number of videos watched in YouTube per day.” My answer was off by a factor of five, but I still managed to leave a good impression on my interviewer. The key here is at the end of your answer, reveal some factors that you might have over or underestimated. In my answer, I largely underestimated the amount of time each user spends on YouTube, since I did not segment my users into different groups. This led me to underestimate the actual number, but I brought up this concern towards the end. By revealing the potential flaws in your approach for estimation, you can demonstrate to your interviewer that you made a deliberate decision to exclude some details in the interest of time. Most importantly, this technique will help alleviate any unspoken qualms your interviewer might have had with your answer. Overall, tradeoffs can be a significant differentiating factor in estimation questions as they provide an opportunity to address potential issues with your response.

Analytical Questions:

Analytical interviews broadly encompass questions that involve setting up some kind of A/B test or picking the right metrics for a product. For A/B testing related questions, it is important to state the pitfalls of your proposed experiment.  Let’s say you launched an experiment to increase the size of a button on your website. Here, a larger button might potentially increase the CTR, but it could potentially hurt user interactions with other elements on the page. For instance, the user might click less on other buttons or spend less time on the initial page. Articulating these tradeoffs demonstrates that you are aware of the potential issues that might emerge during the test.

With metric questions, the key tradeoff to consider is to understand the impact of the choices you make. In one interview I was asked, “What metrics would you track for Spotify?” I decided that the average listening time per user would be an important metric to track. I also was aware that focusing too much on listening time can lead to unhealthy user addiction. By indicating my concern for this issue, I was able to exhibit user empathy and strong analytical skills. Demonstrating a high degree of user awareness can help the interviewer understand that you are able to put the user first above all else.

As you prepare for PM interviews, you should spend some thinking about what are the shortcomings of every choice you make. If you struggle with thinking about tradeoffs initially, you can consult others like friends about pitfalls they notice in your responses. Furthermore, another good framework is to think about the opportunity cost of your decision. You should understand what exactly is foregone in not choosing the next best alternative. There are also great articles around that discuss the specifics behaviors of certain user demographics and the issues with certain technologies like virtual reality. These articles can help better inform your understanding of the drawbacks of choosing a particular customer segment or adding a new feature.

Overall, tradeoffs can help improve your responses across every type of question for product management interviews. They help demonstrate that you have strong critical thinking skills and show that you do not make decisions on a whim. Most importantly, tradeoffs help you address any qualms the interviewer might have with your answer, allowing you to leave a stronger impression.

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


Sushanth Raman

Future: Google APM Intern Current: CS @ Columbia, Investing @ Contrary Past: Product @ Microsoft, HealthTap More about me:

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