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

Great PM Interview Answers Include Tradeoffs. Here's How.
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Sneak Peek: Top PM interview questions
- What's your favorite product?
- Tell me about a time you made a mistake.
- Design a product for drivers during rush hour.

This guest post was written by Sushanth Raman, a former Microsoft and Google product manager.

Product management is all about tradeoffs.

  • Should the team launch a new feature in the international market?
  • 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!

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A great PM can always articulate why they made a certain decision. They can talk intelligently about its downsides and its advantages. 

PM interviewees must logically discuss tradeoffs to show they've considered alternatives.

Your PM interview depends on how you discuss tradeoffs. Let's talk about how to bring them up!

Product Questions

In product interview questions, you often need to focus on a particular customer segment or user pain point.

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Watch: An Amazon PM answer the interview question, "Tell me about a time you solved a customer 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.

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Sample Answer: "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 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 recognize the potential drawbacks.

During product interviews, it is important to have some understanding of the pros and cons of the different solutions you propose.

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Example: 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 this 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 of 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, to reveal some factors that you might have overestimated or underestimated.

In my answer, I largely underestimated the amount of time each user spends on YouTube.—I didn't 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 to estimate, you can demonstrate to your interviewer that you made a deliberate decision to exclude some details in the interest of time.

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Tip: Tradeoffs can be a significant differentiating factor in estimation questions. 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.

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Let’s say you launched an experiment to increase the size of a button on your website. 

A larger button might potentially increase the CTR, but it could potentially hurt user interactions with other elements on the page.

The user might:

  • Click less on other buttons
  • 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.

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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 AverageDailyListeningTime would be an important metric to track.

I was also 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.

Example PM Interview Question

Let's say I was just asked, "How would you improve Google Maps?"

My answer might look something like this:

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Answer: "What if Google Maps could help you remember where you left your stuff?

If it wasn't just your car, maybe it was your suitcase or maybe even your house keys.

Google Maps can help you remember where these items were located if you have better tracking data."

Now, this sounds like a great feature and I could have ended my answer here. But there's something more that I can add.

Here's what I would have said at the end of that interview:

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Answer: "Yes, we've created a great feature here, but I want to alert us of the privacy concerns.

Of course, Google has an important relationship with its users and a very trusting relationship with its users. It's important that we don't break the user's trust here.

There's a lot of information we're collecting about users and it could be sensitive or private. So we want to make sure that we're not overstepping our privacy bounds by collecting this information.

Before launching this feature, I'd test out this feature on some users to see how they respond to this privacy collection and see if they react negatively after doing that.

I would be very careful and make sure that we're clear with our PR plan on how we're marketing this feature.

We want to help users, we don't want to collect data and we don't want to sell it to other companies."

Here, I'm taking the answer that I gave and showing ways it might be wrong.

Why is this so effective?

The interviewer might have been thinking about these things throughout the interview.

They might say to themselves, "He's not thinking about privacy. He's not thinking about user feedback."

No answer you give will be perfect. There will always be flaws.

At the end of your answer, give a little bit more information about how you might change the product under different circumstances. Show concern for how the product impacts users.

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.

As you prepare for PM interviews, you should spend some thinking about what are the shortcomings of every choice you make.

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.

Product Management Today