Product Sense is a recurring topic for product managers, whether you’re starting out in your career or a seasoned executive. JustAnotherPM and ibscribe spent some time thinking through why it matters and how to refine the skill
What is product sense?
In product management, there is rarely a "perfect solution"...so then how do product managers know what solution to build?
It’s one thing to look back and decide whether a solution worked. But it is another thing to look forward and create solutions that, we hope, will work.
That is product sense at its core:
Product Sense is the ability to create solutions today, with limited information, that will solve the user's problems tomorrow, and keep solving them for the foreseeable future.
Let’s unpack this a little more. Product sense is the ability to:
- Identify a consistent (behavior-wise) set of users
- Understand the biggest user needs and problems
- Have a logical rationale for each problem identified
- Think of creative solutions for the above problems
- Objectively lay the pros/cons for each solution
- Select the one that makes the most sense for the user
- While connecting user value back to business outcomes
Based on the above diagram, you can also view product sense as a combination of user sense + business sense + market sense.
Before I share a more practical definition of product sense, let me break the theoretical definition into one more level of detail:
While this step might sound simple, it might not always be. Let's take an example, let's say:
We're product managers for a mobile product that wants to help school-going children learn better. We're a new-ish startup, and our goal is to drive adoption and engagement on the App.
Let's identify users for this exercise.
The first thing we should do in this case is to narrow the definition of school-going children:
- are we talking about ALL age groups?
- are we thinking of a specific age group only?
- are we limiting by any kind of physical attribute -- like height, weight, disabilities, etc?
- are we thinking of children in a specific region/country/city?
- are we thinking of all school types and sizes?
- are we thinking of any other dimensions like social status, intelligence levels, etc.
At this point, we should look back to our company/product goal and use that to answer each of the above. And then use these answers to create a persona. So let's just say that based on all the information we have, we feel that targeting children in 1st to 5th standard in private schools in a specific city (let's say New Delhi in India) is a good place to start.
Why is it a good place to start?
- This age group is only starting to learn and impacting their journeys will enable us to change/create the long-term behaviours for the app to be successful and show results
- Private schools in India are more reachable, open to technology based solutions, and will have the means to pay for the solution (if we plan to monetise)
- Choosing New Delhi gives us access to a large number of students in our target persona compared to other cities which might have lesser schools and lesser students per school.
- Private schools in Delhi are not cheap. Parents always want their children to get a good education. And both these aspects create an opportunity for our app to leverage.
To summarise, the chosen persona helps us maximise the impact to the goal, gives us a large population to work with, and (theoretically) there is a benefit (better education) that our TG (target group) is seeking.
Now let's get back to our original task -- Identify users.
Children are the primary users. Parents are an obvious second.
What next -- and here is where this gets interesting. Are there more users? Should we even care about other users?
The answer is YES.
There are many other users -- teachers, school's admin staff, principal, third parties like food suppliers, stationery and books sellers, uniform sellers, and maybe a few more.
We might not target or create solutions for all of them, but it is important to think of the entire ecosystem when we're thinking of users. Without this information, the solutions we create might be limiting in its impact.
Most product managers limit themselves to the most obvious user personas and never think of other users in the picture.
The next time you're solving a problem like this -- ask your self what is the larger ecosystem for your user and what other users exist in it.
Identify users for Instagram reels
Identify users for a food delivery app
Identify users for a news website (like CNN)
Pick one user persona with logical reasoning:
I want to select the parents user persona from the universe (children, parents, teachers, staff) for multiple reasons:
- Children in this age group usually don't have access to devices. And since we're building a mobile product, it makes sense to get parents on board.
- Our goal is to "make children learn better", and we know that parents will back this goal more than everyone else. This should allow us to get adoption.
- Most decisions in a child's life at this age are made by parents, and that is another reason to focus on parents.
Identify the biggest user needs
This is where it gets really tricky (at least for me.)
In this step, we're required to practice what many call user empathy. We're required to think of what problems the selected users face, and which one of them is the biggest.
I am not a parent, I am not a 1st to 5th grader any more, I am not a teacher or school staff. So for me to truly know the problems that any of these people face is tough.
So what do we do to empathise with the users in such cases?
If we have the time and access to the users, we could talk to them and ask them their problems. It will be a long drawn process, but should yield meaningful results.
If we don't have the time or the resources (which in most cases we don't), then we can do this: think of a typical user journey, break it down into simple steps, and identify potential pains that users might face in each of the steps.
While I am not a primary or secondary user in this scenario, I know many people who are. I also know the general state of schools and education in Delhi. And for this step, I am going to use all of my existing knowledge to create a long drawn use journey.
Reminder: product sense requires us to work with limited and ambiguous information to create a meaningful solution. And this step is the perfect example of how that can be done.
Let's see what I can think of in this situation.
As next step, I thought about the different steps in the parent's journey wrt their child, and this is what I came up with.:
As a parent:
- Choose the best school for my kids
- Get my child admitted in the school of choice
- Ensure child's well being
- Ensure child is learning the right things at the right pace
- Keep track of the learning progress for my child
- Get in touch with teacher, child, staff if/when required
- Ensure that the child gets the required attention at school.
(PS: this is not an exhaustive list. But good enough to make the point for this article)
Pick 1-2 that have the highest impact on goal
In an ideal world, I would rank (high, medium, low) these pain points on the importance. And I will then rank them on the reach or scale (i.e. an estimation of how many parents in my Target Group are facing this pain)
Based on the ranking from the previous step, I'd pick one and go with it.
Without going into the details of the ranking, #4 would probably win on both dimensions
- Every parent's primary goal to send their children to school is to get a good education
- "Learning the right things" is also very tough to measure, which makes the problem even harder for the parents.
- Not too many other products (in my knowledge) are doing this.
- If we're able to solve it well, we will be able to create a real impact.
Think of creative solutions and pick 1
And now that we have selected a pain point to solve for, we need to think of multiple creative solutions and pick the one that makes the most sense. Instead of features, I usually think of solution sets.
Then, I rank all the solutions across two dimensions: Impact to goal and cost or speed to build.
So now let's change gears, and stop thinking about the above sample problem.
What part of this process is product sense
In the above example, we made quite a few tradeoffs -- we picked a specific user persons. We also picked one problem statement over the others.
In a perfect world, the PMs making these decisions will have all the data and will be able to make an objective and logical decision.
But in the real world, that is hardly the case. And that is where product sense plays a role.
A PM with a strong product sense has a higher probability of making the right decision even in the absence of data.
The orange boxes in the above diagram have the least data and highest ambiguity, and specifically solving them well is a good sign of strong product sense.
That is primarily because they are able to empathize deeply with the user and then tie user needs to business goals.
Does that mean product managers with good product sense always know the best answer?
They do most of the times, especially when they're working on a product (or on an aspect) that they have experience with.
There are other situations where PMs (even with good product sense) do not have the required experience to make the right decisions. In such cases, they know that they are not best person to make the decision.
So what do they do?
They usually lean on others (who might have better sense or data) to get more information and then try to make the best decision collectively.
With that said, product sense is not an exact science. There is no practical way to know which solutions will be the best in a given scenario. Two product managers with excellent product sense will, in all probability, have different solutions to a given problem.
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Why is product sense important?
The simplest way to answer this question is -- good product sense is the difference between making the best series of decisions that lead to a near-ideal solution to solve the user's problem vs making decisions that may or may not have any impact. And for that reason, product sense is always easier to judge in hindsight.
Product sense exists at every level -- minor feature enhancements, major product changes, new product launches, or defining the overall product strategy. So irrespective of your level (PM, Senior PM, Group PM, etc), having good product sense is critical for making the right decisions.
As you go up the ladder, the impact of product sense increases. Good decisions from the top will foster good decisions at lower levels. At a VP level, good product sense will lead to sound strategic decisions that will directly impact most, if not all, tactical decisions that PMs, Senior PMs, and Group PMs make. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true; bad decisions will make the entire team move in the wrong direction.
Remember Blackberry? What do you think led to their demise?
In my opinion, it was terrible product sense.
They failed because they did not anticipate the rise of the iPhone and Android smartphones. Even after iPhone's and Android's popularity, Blackberry chose to refrain from innovating or adapting to changing market trends. They overlooked the most crucial aspect -- understanding the user's needs.
During that time period (2007-2008), users wanted touch screens, multiple apps, and a better online experience. Blackberry ignored all of that, while others capitalized on the changes in user behavior, business models, and market trends (again, product sense = user sense + business sense + market sense).
While Blackberry is an extreme example, the larger point is that lousy product sense compounds negatively over time. It leads to an increase in accumulation of tech debt and risk of user churn, while corresponding to a negative impact on the business. In most cases, it forces the company into a spiral where it becomes harder and harder to dig out of the compounding effect of a series of sub-optimal decisions.
What are some common myths about product sense?
Even today, product sense is one of the lesser-understood aspects of product management. As a result, a few common myths about it persist:
- Product managers are born with product sense: While some people may have a natural inclination towards understanding user needs, it's also a skill that can be developed and improved over time. (More on this below)
- Product sense is only about intuition: What a lot of people refer to as intuition (in product management) is actually not intuition, but actually a mix of multiple things like historical context, general awareness, deep understanding of users, access to data, and understanding of the market, among other things.
- Product sense is only needed for certain types of products: In our experience (across various industries and products), product sense is essential for all kinds of products, from physical goods to desktop software to back-end services.
How can you build up your product sense?
Now that we’ve dispelled the myth that product sense can’t be built or refined, let’s talk about ways to actually build the muscle. Since we split product sense into user sense, business sense, and market sense, we need to look at the ways each of those sub-skills can be built up:
- Use the product yourself regularly for a breadth of use cases
- Watch user’s use the product live or async (qualitative input)
- Analyze segments of user’s with behavioral data (quantitative input)
- Read user feedback around product bugs and features requests
- Talk to current / prospective / former customers to understand buyer behavior
- Talk to the folks that serve as intermediaries to customers (sales/support/partners)
- Understand current headwinds / tailwinds and developing trends in the industry
- Read win / loss reports from sales, read churn forecasts from CS
- Absorb your competitor’s roadmap and reverse engineer their strategy / beliefs
In order for a PM to develop great product sense, a few conditions have to be true for the product org:
- PMs get to talk to and observe users regularly and directly in their local environment
- User Research is a discipline in the org (funded centrally or through embedded model)
- PMs have access to a self-serve behavioral analytics tool and/or Data Science time
- User feedback is collected, collated, and synthesized regularly with a review ritual
- PMs either understand commercial strategy or work with GTM peers who clarify
- PMs have access to industry trend reports and competitive intel through partners
Now the manner in which you access all these sense-building avenues varies on your role / level…
- More inclined towards direct user access
- Smaller surface (less breadth) but going deep
- Tightly scoping research sprints
- Focus on avoiding getting into traps
- Talking to same customers over and over
- Relying on past insights for too long
- Expand into adjacencies vs core (PMF expansion)
- Low depth across a broad surface area (portfolio)
- Focus on long-term action to take from forecasts i.e. what does your product sense tell you to build / deprecate in a multi-year time horizon (vs sprint / quarter view)
- Think about framing current view -> future view
- What actually changes?
- Why does it matter?
- What does it mean for the business + user base?
But no matter the methods you utilize to get better at product sense, it all fundamentally comes down to reps (repetitions) - every PM at every level needs regular opportunities to exercise product sense to refine the skill. And the best way to ensure everyone in the product org is getting reps (both quality and quantity) is to ritual-ize it. Some rituals to considering establishing:
- Learning review: a regular check-in where product decisions are re-visited to gauge impact and course correct (again, product sense can only be judged in hindsight)
- Interlock with cross-functional partners: every department has access to different information and develops a slightly different perspective on the user / business / market, so regular touchpoints with internal partners are a great way to round out product sense
- Expose PMs directly to customers: whenever an intermediary (sales/support/research) is used to help translate user needs for PMs, something is lost in translation…so while proxies for customer pain are valuable in terms of speed and coverage, it’s critical that PMs find ways to directly interact with users in the wild and form a direct point of view on the pain they are dealing with
What are you doing to improve your product sense?
We’d love to hear from our readers on the tactics they’re using to build up and improve their product sense!
Further reading and references: