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What is it and how can you improve it?
Product Sense is a recurring topic for PMs, whether you’re starting out in your career or operating as a seasoned executive. Sid (aka @JustAnotherPM) and I (aka @ibscribe) spent some time thinking through why it matters and how to refine the skill, and co-wrote the post below…
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: the ability to create solutions today, with limited information, that will solve the user's problems tomorrow, and keep solving them in 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 option
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.
Now that we have a theoretical definition, let's look at how this translates into the real world. Consider a scenario where you, as a product manager of a new social media app, are trying to choose between feature A or feature B to increase the total time spent on the app.
You can choose one or the other with a high degree of confidence if you have excellent product sense. Similarly, if you had to select design 1 or design 2, it would be an easy choice if you have excellent product sense.
Does that mean product managers with good product sense always have the best answer? No.
But it does mean that PMs with good product sense also know when they do not have the required knowledge to make the right decisions. In such cases, they usually work with others to acquire more information to reduce ambiguity.
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.
The orange boxes in the diagram above are the most challenging components of product sense. And that is because ambiguity at this stage is extremely high. The other boxes in the diagram representing other aspects (like execution, analytics, experimentation, etc.) are comparatively easier because you usually have more comprehensive data or a more complete picture when making a decision.
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? 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 of product sense -- 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 we might think is intuition is actually a mix of multiple things like historical context, general awareness, deep understanding of users, data analysis, 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?
As always, I’d also love to hear from readers about the tactics they’re using to build up and improve their product sense - please chime in via comments👇 or join the chat via the Substack app.
And if you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing.
further reading / references
I’ve talked before about honing product judgement by connecting user sense + business sense + market sense, as well as the imposter syndrome associated with having to develop that muscle quickly on the fly
if you want to get into the habit of iterating on product ideas, I recommend using a spark file for hunch tracking
one of the highest leverage ways to learn user behavior is CX loops
if you’re new to PM-ing and stressed about your lack of product vision, take a look at where I put forecasting the market on my career ladder
once you arrive at an insight, it’s easy to find examples of multiple products leveraging (intentionally or accidentally) one idea - see Skip Step SaaS
Sid and I read and debated several other posts around “product sense” from a variety of PM writers while putting this together - check out thoughts from Paul Adams, Shreyas Doshi, Jules Walter, and Austin Yang
childish drawing / interpretation