You’ll be evaluated on a characteristic called “product thinking,” sometimes known as “product sense,” in many designs, product management, engineering, and even venture-capital interviews and pitches. Having well-honed product thinking can help you — and the things you work on — stand out from the crowd if you’re a builder hoping to develop something unique and useful (or someone who invests in such builders).
But how can you characterize the quality of the product thinking? This particular question is so noisy there that the signal can be difficult to discern, so I thought that I would tell what it is, what it is… and how one gets good. Because product thinking alone is not enough; you must also be able to develop products to get greater results. Although well-functioning product thinking is typically the beginning of many enterprises, analysts, and investments, product thinking affects all stages of technological development beyond that, from introducing new line-ups to enabling a product to react to new market trends.
Therefore, it is important for everyone who covers trends or builds outstanding goods to nurture and improve their product thinking. It is not simply an academic or techie activity when technology businesses focus more on product-led innovation than, for example, financial engineering — it is also one that actively adds to the market value.
What is a Product Thinking mindset?
The simplest way to define product thinking is that it is the skill of knowing what makes a product useful — and loved — by people.
Product thinkers love to discuss their favorite products, of course, but not just what they personally liked or disliked; rather, they seek to understand the broader question of why a product might or might not work for a broader set of people. The very best product thinkers are voracious about understanding why things work.
Think of it as a puzzle:
Why is App X becoming increasingly popular? What particular decisions have led to productivity for some of my colleagues Product W, while others have to oppose it? What is the Y service that continues to use Aunt Laura for years; is it the Z or W characteristic that allows it to develop beyond early adopted persons like her? How did Elias and his buddies get this new software to try? Were the alerts pushed convincing, or irritating? And how can we learn how to develop better goods from these insights or how can we help others on our team?
Product thinking is a habit, an eye, a mindset.
If you’re trying to understand whether you already have some product thinking instincts, or are assessing someone else on this dimension, these types of questions get at the product thinking mindset:
- Critique Product X — which decisions seem the most responsible for its success? Why?
- How would you help Product X win over Audience Y if you were its leader?
- Take Problem Z … What would you design to solve it?
And since there can be confusion about product thinking — after all, doesn’t some of this apply to just about anything? — these are not product thinking mindset questions:
- What’s your favorite product?
- How should Product X decide how much money to charge for Service Y?
- How would you explain Product Z to a five-year-old?
Another common misconception is the confusion around product thinking vs. design thinking vs. product vision. In general, product thinking tends to precede and guide how design thinking is used or how a product vision evolves.
Design thinking is a methodology — the process of conceptualizing solutions that involves research, prototyping, and testing — while product thinking is the skill of understanding and being good at predicting what people want. Design thinking tends to be an outwards-in and iterative approach to solving a specific problem, while product thinking is more holistic and intuitive about the relationship between people and products. Of course, researching (through various methodologies) to deeply understand a problem and testing early assumptions via prototypes are valuable tools in any builder’s toolkit; at the same time, they’re not pragmatic for the thousands of product decisions, big and small, that go into building something. At some point, you rely on your instincts for what you believe will work the best for your audience.
A product vision, furthermore, describes an idealized end state for how a product will create value in the world, but it doesn’t necessarily describe why or how. It might be a story to latch onto, or a vivid image of a possible future that paints what success looks like, but it isn’t sufficient for building a resilient and detailed product roadmap that can drive product design and business decisions through the phases of a product’s life cycle.
While many designers, product managers, and startup CEOs have developed product thinking over time through training and practice, it’s not an exclusive skill that can only be honed within the confines of a tech company. In fact, it doesn’t require insider knowledge at all. So, how do you develop your product thinking skills? The two most important habits are observation and inquiry.
Observation is about attention to reactions in the day-to-day lives of individuals who find items or services. You may begin with looking at yourself easiest. When is a product pleasing to you? When are you upset?
Once you’re in the habit of continually observing your own reactions, observe also the reactions of those around you. When do your friends gush about a new discovery? When do they complain? What’s their feedback about the products you recommend?
Finally, observe the world’s reactions. What are the reviews saying? What are the opinions on the Internet that people are picking up and repeating? What differentiates this product from those of its competitors? Most importantly, why are people saying the things they’re saying?
As you develop the habit of observing your own relationship with products and then generalizing this to your friends and the broader world, it will lead to more questions that will help you gain an even deeper understanding.
Asking the “why” behind your observations leads to the other practice necessary for developing a product thinking mindset (and for being able to apply observations): inquiry.
Inquiry comes from genuine curiosity about people and their behaviors, and can take different forms depending on how you learn best. The key is understanding the “why” behind the reactions. Some ways of doing this include:
- Reading books about human thinking/behavior
- Dissecting cultural phenomena through articles, discussions, blogs
- Soliciting customer feedback in the process of building products
- Asking others why they have the reactions they do
Of course, to arrive at a true understanding, you’ll need to dig deeper than simply taking people at their word when they tell you what they like and what they want. This is where data (from user research and customer discovery to market data, clicks, views, etc.) becomes valuable.
You don’t need to build a particular kind of product for years to hone these kinds of instincts. If you’re looking for a quick rule of thumb to proactively develop your product thinking, try the below:
- Every week, try at least one new product, feature, or service.
- Every week, have at least one conversation or reflection about how a specific product decision impacts its intended audience.
Over time, you’ll start to see more non-obvious answers to why some products tend to take off and others don’t. If you build products yourself, you’ll observe a richer palette of inspiration for how you might achieve an intended outcome based on your learnings. The simplest test is one of prediction: are you getting better at identifying which products or features will succeed? Are you improving in your ability to create such products?
Excelling at product thinking is not innate; growth comes from practice. Designers are relatively strong in this dimension because of the hours they spend every week in design critique or listening to customer feedback. Everyone has an opinion on design (for better or worse), which means designers are constantly getting exposure to product reactions.
The best we can do is hypothesize. But with a mindset of observation and inquiry, builders do not have to rely purely on guesses. They can gather feedback — both qualitative and quantitative — to help them understand how customers feel. It’s the repeated process of learning, feedback, and iteration that both improves the product and the builder’s sense of what makes for an improved product.