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Developing Product Sense

By Malay Krishna Lead Product Manager at Vyapar

One of the most challenging yet crucial skills for product managers to master is product sense. As the name suggests, product sense involves an inherent understanding of how products work. While product managers need a diverse skill set—communication, strategy, collaboration, data analysis, and technical know-how—developing product sense stands out as particularly tough. However, contrary to popular belief, product sense is not an innate gift but a skill that can be honed over time.

Key Takeaways:

  • Product sense can be defined as an intuitive grasp of what makes a product successful and how it aligns with user needs. 
  • Product sense is about finding the balance between empathy and creativity. Empathy allows you to understand and anticipate user needs, while creativity enables you to devise innovative solutions.
  • To develop empathy, you should observe user interactions and deconstruct everyday products.
  • To develop creativity, you should learn from great product thinkers, understand problems, and follow technology and domain changes.
In this article
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    Understanding Product Sense

    What is Product Sense?

    Product sense can be defined as an intuitive grasp of what makes a product successful and how it aligns with user needs. It is about consistently making decisions that result in positive outcomes for users and the business. Developing product sense involves understanding user behavior, anticipating needs, and creatively solving problems.

    While some individuals might naturally excel in the product sense, similar to any other skill, it can be developed through practice and experience. Just like building physical muscle, building product sense requires consistent effort and practice.

    The Key Components of Product Sense

    • Empathy: The ability to put yourself in the user’s shoes and understand their experiences and needs.
    • Creativity: The ability to come up with innovative solutions to meet those needs.

    Product sense is about finding the balance between empathy and creativity. Empathy allows you to understand and anticipate user needs, while creativity enables you to devise innovative solutions. Together, they help you create products that not only meet but exceed user expectations.

    Why is Product Sense Challenging?

    Product management is a relatively new field compared to established disciplines like physics or operations management. Many frameworks and methodologies in product management are still evolving, and product sense remains one of the vaguest aspects. This vagueness can make it difficult to assess and develop product sense, as there are no definitive guidelines or extensive literature on the subject.

    Building the Product Sense Muscle

    To develop product sense, it’s essential to practice regularly and integrate empathy and creativity into your problem-solving process. Here are a few steps to help you get started:

    • Understand Users Deeply: Engage with users, conduct interviews, and gather feedback to understand their pain points and needs.
    • Analyze Successful Products: Study products that have been successful in the market and try to deconstruct what made them work.
    • Prototype and Test: Create prototypes of your ideas and test them with real users to gather feedback and iterate.
    • Collaborate and Communicate: Work closely with cross-functional teams to gain different perspectives and insights.
    • Stay Curious and Learn: Continuously learn from various sources, including articles, books, and experiences from other product managers.

    Examples of Products with Great Product Sense

    Understanding product sense can be made clearer by examining some iconic examples that demonstrate this crucial skill in action. Let’s explore how product sense played a vital role in the success of the iPhone, Facebook, Snapchat, and TikTok.

    • The iPhone: Aesthetic Appeal Meets Functionality

    When the iPhone was launched, phones were primarily functional—calling, messaging, and basic games. The creators of the iPhone, however, understood that users also valued aesthetics. This insight—that people want devices that are both beautiful and functional—was key to the iPhone’s success.

    • Facebook: Embracing Openness and Connectivity

    Initially, Facebook faced resistance to opening the platform to a wider audience. The product sense here was recognizing that people enjoy sharing and staying connected. Features like the news feed, initially seen as intrusive, were based on the understanding that users are curious about their network’s activities, driving engagement.

    • Snapchat: Valuing Relationship Durations

    Snapchat’s “Snapstreaks” feature taps into the human tendency to track friendship durations. By allowing users to see how many consecutive days they’ve been in touch, Snapchat encourages frequent interaction and fosters a sense of connection.

    • TikTok: The Power of Short, Engaging Content

    TikTok’s success is rooted in its understanding of content consumption. The platform’s focus on short, 10-15 second videos leverages the human desire for immediate gratification, driving high engagement and repeat use.

    How to Build Empathy for Good Product Sense

    Developing empathy is crucial for building product sense. Here are some effective ways to build empathy by observing and interacting with users:

    1. Observing User Interactions

      • Watch How Users Interact with Products: Regularly observe users as they interact with products, whether your own or competitors’. Pay close attention to their facial expressions and reactions, noting any hints of nervousness, confusion, happiness, or delight. These observations can provide valuable insights into how users truly feel about the product.
      • Measure Reactions and Emotions: Track user reactions, including where they tap next, their body language, and their facial expressions. Understanding these subtle cues can help you gauge their comfort level and overall experience with the product.
      • Ask Open-Ended Questions: Follow up observations with open-ended questions to gain deeper insights. Questions like, “How would you describe the purpose of this product?” can reveal if users understand the product’s purpose and if your communication is effective.

    Key Questions to Ask Users

      • Purpose of the Product: Ask users, “How would you describe the purpose of this product?” This question helps identify if users grasp the product’s intent and if the messaging is clear. It also provides insights into the language users naturally use, which can be incorporated into your product communication strategy.
      • Next Steps: Once users are on a screen or in a flow, ask, “What is the next step you want to take?” This question helps understand if the navigation is intuitive and if users can easily discover the intended features. It also highlights potential areas for improving the user journey and call-to-action effectiveness.
      • User Feelings and Thoughts: Regularly ask users, “What are you thinking?” or “How does this screen make you feel?” Since users often don’t self-reflect on their feelings while using a product, explicitly asking these questions can uncover important insights about their emotional responses and overall satisfaction.

    Importance of Microfunnels

    Understanding user actions within micro funnels—small, specific flows within the product—can significantly impact overall retention and usability. Observing how users navigate these micro funnels and asking targeted questions can help refine the product’s navigation and improve user engagement.

    2. Deconstruct Everyday Products

    Empathy in product design can be significantly enhanced by deconstructing everyday products. This process involves analyzing how you and others interact with a wide range of products, from everyday items like water bottles and chairs to software applications and websites. Here’s how you can cultivate empathy through product deconstruction:

      • Compare and Contrast Similar Products

    A great way to understand product nuances is by comparing similar products within the same category. This can reveal differences in functionality, design, and user experience.

    Example: Compare cameras from two brands to see how features, aesthetics, and usability differ. In the software realm, compare communication tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack to understand their unique approaches. Teams might feel more professional, while Slack could have a more vibrant and casual interface.

      • Analyze Everyday Products

    Don’t limit your analysis to software. Everyday items like plates, remotes, and chairs can offer valuable insights.

    Example: Compare plates from two different brands to see how they differentiate through branding, design, and functionality. Understanding these differences helps identify what makes a product stand out versus blending into a commodity market.

      • Observe Self-Talk and Emotions

    When using new products, pay attention to your own reactions. Note moments of frustration and delight to better understand user experiences.

    Example: Using Google Photos, you might notice the app creates collages or videos from your photos. This feature, although not perfect, can be delightful as it shows the product’s effort to enhance your experience. Note these reactions to replicate positive user experiences in your own products.

      • Regular Deconstruction Practice

    Make it a habit to deconstruct products regularly. This practice helps you gain deeper insights into user motivations and preferences.

    Example: Set aside time weekly or monthly to analyze different products. Write down your thoughts and feelings about their design and functionality. Compare competitive products to see how each one communicates its value and uses color, branding, and user interface design.

      • Use Case Studies and Collaborate

    Leverage existing case studies and collaborate with peers to deepen your understanding. Join communities or take courses focused on product management to enhance your skills.

    Example: Participate in product tear-down sessions with fellow aspiring product managers. Discuss and analyze products like Slack versus Teams or Google Search versus Bing. Understand the strategic decisions behind design choices, branding, and user interactions.

    Five Key Tenets for Developing Empathy in Product Design

    Empathy is crucial for designing products that truly resonate with users. Here are five essential principles to keep in mind:

      • Assume Users Are Time-Crunched and Distracted

    Always design with the assumption that users are in a hurry and distracted. Unlike product developers, users are juggling multiple tasks and distractions. Whether they are watching TV, listening to music, traveling, or working, they are not fully focused on your product. Therefore, clarity and simplicity are paramount.

    Actionable Tip: Make primary actions and call-to-actions (CTAs) highly visible and intuitive. Avoid relying on detailed labels or verbose instructions as users likely won’t have time to read them.

      • Eliminate Confusion and Nervousness

    Confusion and nervousness are the primary reasons users abandon product flows. Even simple tasks like entering a phone number can cause drop-offs if users feel unsure or uneasy.

    Actionable Tip: Ensure every step in the user flow is clear and unambiguous. Guide users with obvious next steps and avoid presenting multiple options that could lead to decision paralysis.

      • Avoid Overwhelming Users with Information

    Too much information can overwhelm users, causing them to leave your product. It’s better to communicate one key message at a time rather than bombarding users with multiple features and capabilities.

    Actionable Tip: Focus on the most critical information and functionalities. Run experiments to find the optimal amount of information that keeps users engaged without overwhelming them.

      • Context Influences Decisions

    User decisions are heavily influenced by the immediate context. What users see and feel at the moment of decision-making can significantly impact their choices.

    Actionable Tip: Use contextual cues like comparisons, social proof, and clear benefits to influence decisions. For example, highlighting the positive outcomes of using your product versus not using it can effectively sway user choices.

      • Clearly Communicate Your Product’s Goal

    From the app store listing to the home screen, ensure your product’s goal is always clearly communicated. Users should immediately understand what job your product is meant to accomplish for them.

    Actionable Tip: Regularly run experiments with your onboarding process and other key user interactions to ensure your product’s value proposition is clear and compelling.

    How To Build Creativity for Good Product Sense

    After empathy, the other important skill to develop for good product sense is creativity. Let’s explore how you can build creativity.

    1. Learn from Great Product Thinkers

    One of the most effective ways to boost your creativity is to spend time with people who are already creative and have strong product fundamentals.

      • Join Innovative Companies: If you haven’t worked at a company known for strong product thinking, consider joining one. Think about companies whose products you admire and use regularly. These companies often have a strong culture of product fundamentals that can help you hone your skills.
      • Observe and Learn: Once you’re in the company of great product thinkers, pay attention to how they review products. Look for patterns in their feedback and questions. Over time, you’ll develop a mental checklist of what successful product ideas need.
      • Follow Thought Leaders: Follow creative thinkers on social media platforms like LinkedIn. Read their essays and posts to gain insights into their thought processes. This continuous exposure to creative thinking will gradually enhance your own creativity.
      • Engage in Creative Communities: Join communities, forums, or groups where creative product thinkers gather. Engage in discussions, attend webinars, and participate in workshops.
      • Mentorship and Collaboration: Seek mentors who are known for their creative prowess. Collaborate with peers who have a knack for creativity. Through mentorship and collaboration, you can learn new approaches and gain different perspectives.
      • Identify Key Elements: Take note of the most common feedback and questions that creative product thinkers use during reviews. Identify the top two or three elements they consistently focus on.
      • Create a Checklist: Develop your own mental checklist based on these observations. Use this checklist to ensure that your new product ideas cover all essential aspects for success.
      • Stay Updated: Keep up with the latest trends, tools, and techniques in product development. Attend industry conferences, take courses, and read relevant books and articles.
      • Experiment and Iterate: Don’t be afraid to experiment with new ideas and approaches. Creativity often involves trial and error. Learn from your experiments and iterate to improve your concepts.

     

    2. Understanding Problems

    One of the most critical skills for product managers is the ability to thoroughly understand problems before jumping to solutions. Many product managers make the mistake of rushing into solution-finding without fully grasping the issue at hand. This often leads to ineffective solutions that don’t adequately address the real problem. Here’s why understanding problems deeply is crucial and how you can do it effectively.

      • Avoiding the Solution Trap

    It’s common for product managers to have a pre-conceived solution and then try to fit a problem into it. This approach can lead to struggles within the team as they attempt to implement solutions that aren’t well-suited to the actual issue. The key is to avoid this trap by first ensuring that you have a clear understanding of the problem.

      • The Importance of Problem Framing

    Good product thinkers excel at reframing problems. They distill the issue down to its core essence, which leads to more effective solutions. Here’s how you can reframe problems to uncover better solutions:

    Example 1: The Slow Elevator

      • Initial Problem Statement: “My elevator is too slow.”
      • Initial Solution: Upgrade the motor or change the algorithm to speed up the elevator.
      • Reframed Problem: “The wait for the elevator is annoying.”
      • Reframed Solution: Make the wait more enjoyable by adding mirrors, playing music, or providing hand sanitizers.

    Example 2: Long Grass in the Garden

      • Initial Problem Statement: “Cutting grass in my garden takes too long.”
      • Initial Solution: Build a faster lawn mower.
      • Reframed Problem: “Maintaining the grass is messy.”
      • Reframed Solution: Use a fertilizer that prevents the grass from growing beyond a certain height, reducing the need for frequent mowing.

    Breaking Down the Problem

    Breaking down the problem into its core components can often reveal simpler and more cost-effective solutions. Here are a few more examples:

    Example 3: Feeling Cold in a Room

      • Initial Problem Statement: “It’s very windy, and I’m feeling cold.”
      • Initial Solution: Use a heater to warm up the room.
      • Reframed Problem: “The window lets too much air in.”
      • Reframed Solution: Replace the window to prevent drafts.

    Example 4: Slow Car

      • Initial Problem Statement: “The car is too slow.”
      • Initial Solution: Improve the engine performance.
      • Reframed Problem: “The travel time feels long.”
      • Reframed Solution: Enhance the in-car experience with better entertainment or comfort features to make the journey feel shorter.

     

    3. Follow Technology and Domain Changes with Curiosity

    To thrive as a product manager, it’s crucial to stay informed about the latest technology and domain changes. This involves being curious and proactive about understanding new trends and shifts that could impact your work. Here’s how you can keep up and why it matters.

      • Follow Emerging Trends

    Product managers need to be aware of the latest trends and advancements in their field. This involves:

    Learning About New Trends: Spend time understanding emerging trends and their potential impact. This includes attending keynote events from tech giants like Apple, Meta, and Google to see what technological and societal changes they are focusing on.

    Understanding Technological Possibilities: Knowing what is possible within your domain helps you come up with creative and effective solutions. Stay informed about advancements in technology and shifts in user behavior to stay ahead of the curve.

      • Macro-Level Trends

    At the macro level, focus on significant platform shifts and societal changes:

    Platform Shifts: Be aware of major technological shifts like Web 3.0, augmented reality (AR), and artificial intelligence (AI). These can drastically change how products are developed and used.

    Societal Changes: Understand how changes in society, such as the rise of remote work, affect user needs and product requirements.

    Regulatory Changes: Stay informed about regulatory developments, especially in developing countries where regulations can change rapidly. This ensures your product remains compliant and competitive.

      • Embrace New Technologies

    Product managers often encounter skepticism about new technologies. Rather than dismissing these as fads, approach them with an open mind:

    Opportunities in New Technologies: Consider the potential of new technologies. For instance, early skepticism about e-commerce has given way to its widespread acceptance and growth. Ask yourself how emerging technologies could benefit your product if they reach their full potential.

      • Micro-Level Changes

    On a micro level, focus on specific technological advancements and improvements:

    Engage with Experts: Regularly meet with engineers and domain experts to discuss the latest developments. Understand new coding languages, APIs, and technical improvements that could enhance your product.

    Detail-Oriented Awareness: Pay attention to minor changes and updates that could provide new opportunities or improve existing functionalities.

    Having a good product sense can play a major role in understanding users’ needs, preferences, and behaviors, ultimately leading to the creation of products that resonate deeply with their audience. Hence, we can say that a good product sense differentiates a good product from an average one. Product managers should cultivate important skills like empathy and creativity to thoroughly understand their audience, and deliver products that not only impress users but also drive business outcomes.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Having a product sense is the ability of product managers to consistently design products or make changes to existing products that have the intended impact on their users.

     Great product sense is a mixture of empathy and creativity. To develop a good product sense, they need to be in the middle of being very empathetic to the user and creative in the way they approach problems or solutions.

    Product sense involves understanding user needs, market trends, and the competitive landscape to develop intuitive and impactful product solutions. On the other hand, product thinking goes beyond this by encompassing a strategic mindset focused on problem-solving, innovation, and long-term product vision. While product sense emphasizes empathy and market understanding, product thinking emphasizes critical analysis, strategic planning, and holistic product development.

    Product sense involves the ability to understand user needs, market dynamics, and product strategies to conceptualize innovative solutions. It emphasizes empathy and creativity in identifying opportunities and defining product direction. Execution, on the other hand, focuses on implementing those ideas efficiently, translating them into tangible products or features, and managing the development process to deliver value to users.

    Product sense typically revolves around three key pillars: empathy, creativity, and problem-solving. Empathy involves understanding user needs and behaviors deeply. Creativity entails generating innovative solutions to address those needs. Problem-solving entails identifying and framing problems effectively to devise optimal solutions. This structured approach guides product development and decision-making processes.

    About the Author:

    Malay Krishna Lead Product Manager at Vyapar

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