5 Tips for Developing Your Product Sense

Data drives our decisions, and A/B tests are the norm, gut feelings and hunches don’t carry much weight anymore. Stakeholders don’t want to hear what “feels right” or “seems” like a good idea. They want evidence and measurability to dictate which moves the product should make. This is why developing your product sense remains so important

This might lead some product professionals to bypass their own spidey senses in favor of simply facilitating prioritization exercises. Moreover, they may want to execute a product strategy created by the committee. But ignoring your instincts only makes sense when you haven’t honed the right ones yet. Effective product leaders learn how to integrate them properly into your otherwise fact-based approach.

For individual contributors and product leaders, a strong product sense fills out the intangible qualities and skill set separating adequate product managers from standout superstars. But before we dig into how to best develop that product sense, we should first define what it is.

What is product sense?

Although it’s tough to pin down, product managers with a strong product sense consistently deliver products. Moreover, they update those products and deliver value that satisfies customer needs. This is the intent for most product management use cases. Yet, increasing revenues and boosting profit margins may sacrifice these goals and is often easier said than done.

A well-developed product sense may feel like you’ve got great intuition, but no one is born with this quality. Rather, by building on some of the hard skills all product managers must possess, it’s honed and enhanced by finding the sweet spot between creative problem solving, strong customer empathy, and a deep understanding of context.

Those three pillars may benefit from some natural ability. Still, it ultimately comes from immersing yourself in your target market. You can attribute the skill to constantly listening and asking deep, probing questions. Furthermore, by connecting the dots between discrete learnings, you can understand how it all fits together.

True product sense extends far beyond the solution’s user experience and design aspects. Anticipating each product decision’s drawbacks and tradeoffs is part of the product sense equation. Moreover, it also encompasses knowing which ideas not to pursue.

With a track record of product success, product managers can become even more confident in their product sense. For example, they’re locked into understanding user needs. They achieve this through answering those challenges with superior solutions. So now, let’s look at some of the best ways to build product sense in yourself and your colleagues.

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Tips for developing your product sense

A strong product sense can help you and your team deliver better products to your customers. Now is the time to think about exercising those muscles. Here are five different ways to bulk up your product sense:

1. Observe users in their natural environments

Product managers are typically expert users of their own products, at least within the limited scope of giving product demonstrations and user acceptance testing scripts. But since you played a major role in designing the product and managing its subsequent iterations, you have an unfair advantage in determining just how “usable” your product is.

The only real way to evaluate a product’s ease of use and value is by watching other people try it. We often get a taste of this during the usability testing phase of product development, but that’s no substitute for real-world experience.

But to truly understand your users’ experience in the wild, you must get out of the office. Schedule site visits with customers, including sessions where they use your product to do their job. You’ll get a realistic sense of how users interact with your products in the real world. Furthermore, you will see how the real world impacts that usage.

And don’t forget to have users give a running commentary on what they’re doing, experiencing, and feeling throughout. You can even pepper them with questions to draw out additional ideas and emotions they’re experiencing.

The nuggets these sessions unearth are invaluable sources of user feedback you simply can’t discover any other way. And experiencing how beneficial the product is for some users can help make you even more enthusiastic about improving things.

2. Domain expertise

Customer empathy is critical to a strong product sense, and there’s no better way to embellish that than truly understanding what your customers face regularly. But in most cases, this requires plunging into the deep end and doing a lot of primary and secondary research to truly comprehend all the dynamics and details users must contend with.

Product managers with on-the-ground experience in a given industry have a great head start. As a product leader, it’s important to remain current on the latest trends and changes.

Regardless of how this expertise is built and maintained, it’s an invaluable ingredient to developing a strong product sense for offerings in that space. Instead of making decisions based on assumptions, product managers can operate from a position of strength and confidence.

3. Adopt an IMPACT mindset

ProductPlan’s former VP of Product, Annie Dunham, created the IMPACT framework to ensure you’re always solving interesting problems that are meaningful to people with actionable plans that are clear and testable. Adopting this approach, you’ve also signed up for an accelerated boost in your product sense.

That’s because ensuring everything you do has an IMPACT means diving into the deep end of customer empathy. You must soak in the user perspective and apply it to every aspect of your product, from the product roadmap to execution to delivery and post-purchase support.

By asking yourself these six questions every step of the way, none of these essential aspects of building a great product get ignored:

  • Are we solving an interesting problem?
    • Most importantly, is it of interest to your users?
  • Will this product or enhancement be meaningful?
    • Think about whether the customer would pay for it… or not pay for it at all without it.
  • Which people is this for?
    • Remember that “users” are not a monolithic population but a sea of individuals with their own circumstances… Are you impacting enough of them to make it worthwhile?
  • Is this an actionable idea?
    • If it’s outside of scope or unrealistic, set it aside and focus immediately on what can make a difference.
  • Is it clear what we’re doing?
    • You should be able to connect the dots from a product change to a direct benefit or improvement for the user experience.
  • Is it testable?
    • User experience improvements can be measured and tested, whether it’s an objective increase in productivity or a more subjective increase in customer satisfaction.

4. Sweat the small stuff

In the rush to continually deliver value, keep up with the competition, and provide marketing with a steady stream of bells and whistles to promote, minor details sometimes get short shrift. But what feels like a nothingburger to you and your colleagues could be annoying or problematic for some of your customers.

As users, we quickly learn to live with inconvenient user experiences because we don’t have any choice. But as the person determining how a product works and functions, you get a say in the matter in this case.

For example, having to click six buttons in three different parts of the screen to complete a workflow is something you must live with as a user, despite how annoying it is to have to slide your mouse all over the screen over and over. But when you’re applying your product sense and putting yourself in the user’s shoes, you might realize that you’re creating a lot of unnecessary labor for your users.

Will such a trivial tweak accelerate revenue and increase your Net Promoter Score? Probably not. But will it make a cohort of users less frustrated and a little bit faster? Definitely.

5. Practice makes perfect

To keep your product sense muscles in shape, try applying your sensibilities to a product you or your team don’t even manage. Pick almost any product for this exercise, from something you’re familiar with as a customer, such as your car or dishwasher, to something you’ve only witnessed, like an agricultural combine harvester or medical imaging equipment.

Even without deep domain expertise, plucking a random product and digging into the details of who it’s intended to serve, what problems it solves, the environment and setting it’s used in, and what might positively or negatively influence the user experience can be invigorating. Applying the same mental toolset to a new challenge brings inspiration and a burst of fresh air that you can then tap into when you’re grinding away on your own products.

To fill in the gaps in your existing knowledge of the said product, you can do a little research to identify who built it, bought it, and used it. Consider the goals each of those three parties have and how well the product helps each achieve them, including reading some product reviews.

You can also go for extra credit by evaluating the product’s PR and marketing materials to see if the company messaging aligns with those goals.

Utilize your honed product sense

Whichever of the above tactics you utilize to help you develop your product sense, the most important thing is that you care about your product sense! Good things always happen when you keep users top of mind. You can even imagine how they’d fare when the user is drunk!

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