The "Product Sense" Interview

Because we're still a relatively small organization, it's important to us that product ownership isn't just a one-person job: our engineers, designers, and other R&D staff are all stewards of our platform and take an active part in designing and shaping our product.

As part of that, we run a "product sense" loop for some candidates. I'm not sure whether this happens elsewhere, but I know I've run into a loop like this during interviews for product positions, and whether they're part of a an explicit loop or not, most product manager interviews will be trying to assess for this. It's one of the ways we try to get at the "smart" piece of Joel Spolsky's "Smart and gets stuff done" hiring framework.

I'm a little wary of the term "Product Sense," because it's so nebulous, and I worry that, like "Culture Fit," it leaves itself open to unconscious bias or selecting toward like-minded people. So I'm trying to make it a little more scientific. I want to know:

  • Given a piece of information or news about our general problem space, can this person connect it to something else they know to draw a better insight than someone else might?
  • Does this person form strong opinions about the products in his/her life? Can they articulate the reasons behind those opinions? Once they are versed in our product, they'll need a strong, credible voice to move things forward.
  • Based on what this person knows / should reasonably know about our product, what insights do they have, or what are they curious about?

This stuff will generally come up over a long, meandering conversation, but I'll use questions to kick off, or to change subject once I've gotten the information I want in a particular area. Starter questions:

  • iOS or Android? Why? Bonus points: have an opinion both as a user and as an app developer, particularly if they're interviewing for a mobile role.
  • Describe an app or service you think is particularly well / poorly executed. Why?
  • What do you think of our app? How well do we manage experiences across iOS, Android, and Web?
  • What features from our web app should we port to mobile?
  • What could we improve about our trial new-user experience?

An ideal candidate generally doesn't take much prompting: given a little nugget of topic area, they'll start diving into what they like and why, what they're curious about, and synthesize information to come up with new insights. And hopefully they'll have fun doing it, since it will be a big part of the job they're signing up for. Transparency is important too— we don't dock points for not having domain knowledge, as long as you're up-front about it and don't pretend you're versed in something you're not. In fact, really clear self-awareness about what you're fluent in and where you want to learn more tends to be a big plus when we do candidate reviews.

And finally, some things candidates have done / can do to set themselves way above the rest of the pack in this area:

  • When asked to compare / contrast two products, or when asked whether you like a product, have some kind of structured framework for thinking about it. It can be a SWOT diagram, it can be a basic pros/cons covering user experience, business strategy, technical excellence, it can be an interpretative dance— the important thing is showing that you have a repeatable system for analyzing new information.
  • If the company you're interviewing with has an API, go read the API docs! If there's an app store or sample code available, play with it. You get mega-bonus points for actually building a tool on the API before you go in, but even implementing a third-party tool or reading up on what's been built puts you ahead of the pack.
  • If there's a free trial available for the company's product, spend some quality time with it, and come with questions and feedback ready.