Think Like a Product Person
How to think like the best product people in everyday life
We all regularly build products in our lives. We encounter a problem. Say, how to organize our email. We develop a system. We iterate. This is product building, everyday.
The fact that we are all building products everyday means we should also all improve our product thinking.
Product thinking is problem solving. This piece is all about helping people develop your product thinking in your day to day life. Here is our roadmap:
What is product thinking
Everyday activities to practice product thinking
How to improve your product thinking
Why this matters
1. What is Product Thinking
The best product people walk around the same as you and I. But when they walk around thinking, they think about things differently. They do not simply use products. They ask specific questions, think specific thoughts.
💭 “I wonder who this product was built for - it seems like …”
💭 “The job to be done by this product, as I would describe it, is…”
💭 “The team behind this seemed to have built a solution that prioritized…”
You too can think this way. But it will take time. Let’s get started.
🤔 The product process
Design thinking is many ways an ode to the design process. Product thinking is also an ode to the product process. While the obvious product process is problem → solution, there is a broader framework. Most product people practice it. So it makes sense to understand it. It actually turns out to be great scaffolding for product thinking:
Instead of starting with the problem, start with an understanding of who the user is. The more detailed the better. The idea is to understand how this person stands out from the crowd, not what makes them the same. In our example silhouette, a product builder would study the details and try to infer more:
They are wearing a sports coat, maybe more affluent
They are talking on their phone, perhaps busy
They are going for a walk, perhaps more exercise oriented
These details set the frame to describe the problem in a specific way. That specific way is to describe the problem as a job to be done.
The famous example that Clayton Christensen, the former HBS professor who invented the framework, tended to give was that of Sonic milkshakes. It turns out that over half of milkshakes were sold before 12pm. What were people doing having a milkshake so early in the day? They were hiring the milkshake for the job of providing a snack that lasts throughout their morning commute. A bagel got all over the place. A banana was done in 1 minute. A milkshake lasted without making a mistake. Understanding the job to be done is crucial.
Let us take another tough job to be done example - video games.
Aren’t they just for fun?
To describe the job to be done for a video game for a young 11 year-old boy who plays a lot, we may say something like, “to provide an interactive entertainment experience that connects me with my friends, provides challenges, and helps me express myself.” The description attempts to explain how the product helps transport the person to the better future reality they are looking for.
The last step in the product process is to decide what solution to pursue. There are a myriad potential prioritization frameworks. One of the most common is to think about two axes: business value and effort. Things that are high business value and low effort are naturally the one’s to pursue first.
✨ Good v Great Product Process
Eventually you are going to want to improve your product thinking. Those three steps only go so far. As you think aspirationally about product thinking, think about the differences between a good and a great product process.
To really understand these distinctions, we will need to dive further into the life of a product person. It also makes sense to get a bit clearer about who these people are. Great product people are the product engineers, designers, and managers at the world’s most innovative companies. Good product people are their counterparts at less innovative companies.
Marty Cagan’s Inspired was an in-depth study into what their great product processes look like vs everyone else’s good product processes. Several findings have emerged and built upon since then at this blog and others like it. Great product processes:
Build product features that generate positive outcomes for the business: outcomes are prioritized over output
Robustly and continuously improve how they solve for users’ core needs: they never rest on one way or approach of solving the problem
Result in new, novel features; not copy-cats: they sit at the edge of innovation, taking the latest technology and deploying it to solve user problems
The exact mechanics of such great product processes looks like something this:
By understanding each step of the process, you can actually start to think about improving your product thinking at each step of the process:
Vision: Where do we want to focus? Who are the user groups that matter?
Strategy: What problems do we solve? What are the principles guiding our solutions?
Discovery: How do people’s problems differ? What do they think about them?
Specification: What is the user story? What are the tradeoffs the feature made?
Test: What is the alternative? What are the metrics to measure impact?
Roll-Out: How would I roll this out to pressure test it before hitting scale?
🤓 Great Product Thinking
Now that we understand what makes a truly great product process, we can describe great product thinking.
Great product thinking is the art of asking what makes a product click for users. It is the art of solving problems for users. If not solving their problems, then delighting and thrilling them in such a way as to keep them coming back with their time.
We can return to our email example at the top of the article. Let us use the questions at each step to refine our product solution. Here is one example way to apply product thinking at each step to refine your product:
Vision: We want to reduce the amount of time spent on email, while increasing quality and timeliness of responses. We will focus on ourselves.
Strategy: The main problem is removing emails that do not need to be read or responded to immediately. We want to make this an easy solution without third party tools.
Discovery: My problem is similar to most others. I am annoyed that other solutions I have tried have not worked.
Specification: I will go ahead with solving the problem by automatically archiving and tagging my emails that I do not need to respond to. The trade-off is I have to rely on reading the tagged categories occasionally.
Test: The metric that is easiest to measure will be time spent on email. To measure it, I will install a tab time tracking extension.
Roll-Out: I will begin by tagging a few types of emails, like company-wide newsletters, and see the percentage reduction in time. If it works, I will tag status updates and other emails as well.
By thinking through each step of the process, we were able to develop a much more refined solution and roll-out plan.
To summarize, great product thinking means noticing who a product was made for, what jobs it fulfills for them, and then thinking through the solution thoroughly. It means not stopping at a simple framework, but being rigorous. From there, it means actually implementing product improvements to the problems you face in everyday life.
🔖 Why it is Different From Design Thinking
Product thinking is not design thinking. Yes, many of the elements above actually were borrowed from design. But product thinking takes design thinking, and then it adds technology and business elements:
That is why a great product process has many steps. Product thinking is not just about solving user problems, but also the broader context of what that operates in. What a product person wants to build needs to be technologically feasible. It also needs to bring solid returns for the business. (Or for your everyday problem, it needs to move a metric you care about.)
To be really specific, here are the two types of thinking product thinking integrates into design thinking:
Technology thinking: This is the engineering mindset. Thinking about how the thing will be built. Is it easy or hard? What is the work effort involved? Is it ‘of the times,’ or is it outdated? Is the infrastructure up to snuff? Will it scale if volumes are suddenly 1000x?
Business thinking: This is the business people mindset: marketing, finance, strategy, and executives. Thinking about whether the thing will generate profits. Is the solution compatible with our business? Does it have a model to generate profits? What metrics matter?
The product thinker is one who understands and appreciates design. But they also think about the technology and business implications. For our everyday problems, this means practically we think about how we will engineer the solution, and how we measure it.
🪙 Bonus: What is Product Growth Thinking
If you work in product growth, you may want to consider improving your product growth thinking specifically. Product Growth thinking is thinking about what makes a product grow. This is a sub-field of product thinking:
This is a topic I could write an entire article on. Let me know if you want me to. But at the high level, you take the design, technology, and business thinking intersection we start with for product thinking. Then put a growth spin on them:
How did the needs this problem solved help it grow?
Excluding marketing and sales, what about this product drove growth?
What are the growth levers and techniques this product team is using to enhance their product’s growth?
2. Everyday Activities to Practice Product Thinking
As you go about your normal day to day life - shopping, streaming, and using everyday software - you have opportunities to practice and improve your product thinking.
Best Buy is one of my favorite trips to get better at Product Thinking. But even a trip to Neiman Marcus is an opportunity, properly framed.
As you are examining the product you are looking to buy, think about the job to be done. “What exactly am I hiring this product for?” Thinking this through will exercise the ‘writing jobs to be done’ muscle in your brain for you.
Then, as you are comparing the product amongst its set to decide which one, ask, “what different product decisions did these different options make?” Notice how they have different target customers, how they build for different needs.
Finally, as you narrow it down, think, “Which one is the best fit for you?” This will help you compare and contrast different products. Then, as you make the purchase, “What made you make the decision to purchase?” This will help you get better at the language of describing product value.
You can watch Netflix and get better at product thinking. Everything is an opportunity. The trick is to have the right frame of mind to think about what you are watching.
Let us say you just finished the infamous fight of Oberyn and the Mountain in Game of Thrones. As you stir, reflecting on the gory head-explosion before bed, think about, how did this show manage to appeal to so many different types of television viewers at once? How has such a gory show managed to capture such a broad audience?
🤳 Using Everyday Software
Using Google, YouTube, your email software, your work software - these are all great opportunities to exercise and improve your product thinking. Many times the key is a re-frame of things you are already thinking into a product lens.
Think about the problems you are facing with the product. How could it be better? What would be the actual feature? This helps you think of generating product specifications easily.
3. How to Improve Your Product Thinking ↗
“Perfect practice makes perfect”
❧ We all know the quote, but do we apply it to our product thinking?
While practice matters, we can always practice better. As you go about doing these product thinking ideas, do not settle. Always assume your answers could be better. They could! So improve your own thinking.
What makes for good product thinking is having true clarity, being rigorous about incorrect answers, and not overstating. This means you should run your thinking through these lenses. Is this point truly clear, or is it wishy-washy? Is this the right answer, or the first that came to mind? Do I overstate any of my linkages or points, or are they all defendable? Play devil’s advocate to your own ideas.
Extra Credit: Taking Your Thinking to the Next Level ⏭️
If you are loving this way of product thinking, then there is actually a set of steps I recommend implementing to take it to the next level. It means going beyond just thinking:
📲 Step 1: Capture
There is a huge shift from errant thinking to intentional product thinking. There is almost as dramatic a shift by then capturing your product thinking. Take note of your thoughts. Add them to a lightweight place. Maybe it is a voice memo in Otter. Or perhaps it is a note in your Apple iCloud Notes.
If you are so inclined, I am a fan of developing a note taking system. This is a way to capture your best ideas as you consume online articles, books, and podcasts. This adds layers to your information capture system. Product thoughts are errantly captured, then organized, then progressively summarized.
📢 Step 2: Share
Bring your product thinking into your conversations. Conversation has a variety of benefits.
➡ You have to formulate your ideas. Saying your idea makes it more concrete.
➡ You hear your idea. This helps you see the idea for what it is. Inside your head, emotions can sway your thinking to think it is more or less insightful than it really is.
➡ You hear others’ reactions. Conversation is one of the quickest and strongest feedback mechanisms.
✍️ Step 3: Write
Once you have talked about your idea, write it down. By writing your idea down, you get similar but enhanced benefits to conversation. By having to put the writing on the page, your argument becomes clearer. By seeing it on the page, you can evaluate it more objectively. Then, you can iterate upon it to make it shine.
Pro Tip: If it’s a product feature, consider tweeting the suggestion straight at the product. If it is a small enough team, you may even get a response!
🔁 Step 4: Iterate
Once you have written up the idea, get feedback on it. If you are like me, this means sending it to another product manager colleague, for instance. If you do not have that person, you can reply to my newsletter, and I will share feedback on the idea. You can also revisit your own idea a few days later.
This four-step process is for those who really want to improve their product thinking abilities. You can even take your idea through the rubric of this article. Does it go through the vision & strategy questions? Or is it specification only?
4. Why This Matters
🧑🏾🤝🧑🏾 Who this is for
Everyone can benefit from product thinking. If you have problems in your life, you can build your own mini products to solve them. Product thinking is problem solving. Since we all have to do some problem solving, we all could afford to improve our product thinking.
If you work in a business, your business has a product. So thinking like a product person can help you, from your role, enhance the overall product experience. It may help you interact with the product team. Or even move into the product team.
Perhaps most importantly though, this type of thinking is especially important for product professionals:
Product designers and engineers
For these groups, improving everyday product thinking has one final, critical impact:
🔥 Work Less, Impact More
Outworking your colleagues is not the path to success. Instead, the goal is to do more with our time than our colleagues. Practicing product thinking is one path to outperforming our colleagues without outworking. Time is a limited resource. Efficiency is theoretically unlimited.
The art is to subtly use your other time and downtime to improve your product thinking. By infusing these activities in your everyday life, you are improving your career, while not spending added time to work on your career. This type of thinking becomes your normal way of being.
In addition, sometimes it is better to focus on areas around your topic. We spend so much time on the content, but less on the process. We need to focus more on improving our thinking, not just the actual features we are working on.
The skill curve goes on forever. You can always get better. The trick is to constantly improve. This improves the amount of time you can improve.