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Let's Replace "Product Sense" With the Skills That Actually Matter
Product sense is really 3 separate skills - empathy, creativity, and craft
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Let’s retire the phrase “product sense.”
I think it’s too vague and implies that only a select few people can have this skill. In reality, product sense is 3 separate skills (building on Jules Walter’s definition):
Product sense = Empathy + creativity + craft
So instead of product sense, let’s talk about how PMs can improve their:
Empathy for customer + business needs
Creativity for coming up with solutions
Craft for making a quality product
Below’s my take.
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1. Empathy for customer and business needs
It all starts with customer empathy. You can’t build it by sitting in internal meetings all day or looking at metric dashboards.
To build it, you need to:
Talk to customers. You’ll be surprised by how many product leaders skip this step. Being busy is not an excuse. The best CEOs make time for customer interactions, so you should too.
Observe customers. Watch customers complete a task or go about their daily lives to uncover pain points that they may not express in words. For example, I often ask customers to screen share their workflow during interviews.
Become the customer. Experience the pain yourself to build empathy. But don't fall into the trap of only using your product as a power user. Instead, try it as a new user - that’s often where the growth opportunity lies.
I once had a CEO tell me that I had built “easily the most customer-centric product in the company.” He was right, customers loved my product.
But a year later, it was canceled.
So what happened? The answer is simple: The economy took a downturn and my product didn’t improve the company’s bottom line.
So customer empathy isn’t enough, you also need to build empathy for the business:
Understand the business. What key challenges is the company facing? What big bets can the company make?
Know the market. How is the market evolving? What are competitors doing and how can the company best position itself to win?
Look up and around. Don’t just execute - speak up if you think you’re building the wrong solution or have been given the wrong problem to solve.
Check out my interviews on how to crack your product strategy and how to grow from product manager to product leader for more on building business empathy.
The bottom line is:
Empathy requires the humility to listen to understand customer and business needs.
You can’t fake empathy so use the tactics above to build genuine interest in your customer and what your company is trying to accomplish. That’s step 1 of demystifying “product sense.”
2. Creativity for coming up with solutions
Empathy helps you understand customer and business needs. Creativity helps you come up with good solutions.
To build creativity, you need to:
Think big. PMs deal with constraints daily, but you have to ignore them when brainstorming solutions. Get as many ideas as you can on paper first.
Find the truth together. Invite your team, experts, and actual customers to think about solutions. Trying to be the lonely creative genius doesn’t go far.
Prioritize until it hurts. Most products do many things poorly. Focus instead on delivering the most important customer benefit that also helps the business.
The bottom line is:
Creativity requires the humility to pull the best ideas from the people around you.
Check out my interview on the rituals of great product teams and especially Coda’s vision artifact template to brainstorm creative solutions with your team.
3. Craft for making a quality product
Ever wonder why people at startups almost never talk about “product sense”? I think it’s because they’re too busy shipping.
All the “product sense” in the world won’t help if you can’t actually ship quality products.
A great vision or strategy doc is only 10% of making a great product. The other 90% comes down to making the right tiny decisions everyday.
Craft means making the right tiny decisions to build a product that you feel proud enough to put your signature on.
Here’s how you can build craft:
Delight users. Good PMs know what the magic moment of their product is and try to get new users there as quickly as possible. Great PMs also think about what emotions they want users to feel and try to surprise them in delightful ways.
Be paranoid about quality. The last 10% of building a product often makes the biggest difference. Great PMs go the extra mile to obsess over the smallest details. They’re paranoid about things that might hurt quality.
Find time to tinker. Spend time reading about the latest tech trends and tinkering with side projects outside of your job. This helps you understand what’s possible and draw connections back to your product.
The bottom line is:
Craft requires the humility to do whatever it takes to make your product great.
There’s a common theme here…
The phrase “product sense” implies that you somehow just know how to build great products. It implies that you can build this skill once and keep it forever.
It implies the opposite of humility.
But the best product leaders know that:
Building great products requires having the humility to constantly work on your empathy, creativity, and craft.
So stay humble, stay hungry, and keep a beginner’s mind. That’s how you build “product sense.”
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