Over the past few years, I’ve interviewed dozens of PMs for Facebook and also helped people from other functions transition into product management. By far the most misunderstood and nerve-wracking PM interview seems to be “Product Sense” (also referred to as “Product Design”, “Business Case”, or “Product Strategy”). In this note, I’ve laid out the common pain points I’ve observed and suggestions for overcoming them. I hope this helps you rock your next interview!
What is the Product Sense interview, and why do people find it uncomfortable?
To start, there’s usually a one-sentence prompt such as, “build an app for X” or “tell me about a product you think is well designed.” There is no right answer. There’s also no single framework for tackling the question. And the method of interaction with your interviewer isn’t well-defined.
Unsurprisingly, many people — especially those coming from engineering or other fields with concrete definitions of success — get nervous and frustrated. How can you possibly do well in this kind of an interview? It’s like trying to win a game that has no rules.
But here’s the thing: the ambiguity in the interview format reflects the day-to-day role of a product manager. Part of the interview is about understanding how you think about products, but part of it is also ascertaining that you can communicate and collaborate on this effectively in an ever-changing world.
Based on my experience interviewing PMs, here are my five top tips for the Product Sense interview.
1. There is no right answer.
When first given the question, some interview candidates spend too much time agonizing over the potential options instead of picking a specific direction and diving in.
As one example, let’s say the question prompt is, “build an e-commerce company.” It’s pretty clear that there are many “right” answers to this. Your company could be a single brand (Outdoor Voices), a marketplace (eBay), a platform (Shopify), a subscription service (Birchbox), etc. An experienced interviewer will not care which direction you choose, as long as you clearly communicate.
At this point, you might be thinking: ok, maybe there are several right answers, but the vast majority of answers are still bad. It’s tough to be put on the spot to come up with something brilliant in an area you know nothing about. This leads us to….
2. It’s more important to show that you can evaluate an idea than to actually come up with a great idea.
One question I used to ask prospective PMs was to create a boat rental start-up. The vast majority of people faced with this question knew nothing about boats. Neither do I. And that’s ok!
Remember the context. These interviews are typically 30–45 minutes long. You don’t have access to any research, data, or even a basic Google search. Nor can you bounce ideas off of anybody except the interviewer. It is a constrained situation and you are not expected to come up with the next brilliant start-up. What you are expected to do is, at a minimum, come up with the more obvious ideas and be able to evaluate them.
Back to the boat rental question. There were a lot of great and completely different product discussions stemming from that same initial prompt. Some PM candidates went down a B2C path of a single boat company renting canoes to tourist families on Lake Tahoe. Others chose the enterprise direction (B2B) of hosting offsites for companies in the Bay Area. Others explored a possible Airbnb model (C2C) for boat-owners.
If you are already evaluating these ideas and think some have major issues, you are spot on. As discussed above, it’s hard to build the next unicorn startup given the constraints. Don’t try to hide the issues or project false confidence. Instead, mention them proactively. Some examples of what people said:
- “Hosting company offsites on boats might be a successful business in the summer, but demand might dry up in the winter when cold, rainy weather sets in.”
- “The Airbnb model for boat owners might work well for some people, but it’s unclear there will be enough demand and supply to make this a healthy business. Even if we choose a popular boating area to focus on such as Lake Tahoe, we might not have a significant number of boat owners who live nearby and would be willing to rent out their boats.
There’s often not enough time in the interview to discuss mitigations to the issues, but even just mentioning them shows you are thinking holistically about the product.
3. Be flexible. There is no single framework that can be applied to all questions
The most sure-fire way to fail a product interview is to jump to solutions right away. This suggests you are blindly building for yourself rather than examining the target market and their needs first. Using a framework will help you avoid this pit, but if you take things too far, you’ll trip into another one.
First, let’s review what a framework is. All of the common interview prep books such as Cracking the PM Interview and Decode and Conquer use them. For example, here’s CIRCLES:
- Comprehend the situation (what/who/why/how)
- Identify the customers (personas)
- Report customer needs
- Cut, through prioritization and ROI estimates
- List solutions
- Evaluate tradeoffs
- Summarize recommendations
The CIRCLES framework is a useful tool for remembering different components of evaluating a problem space. But it is not an exhaustive list. For example, it doesn’t mention competitive landscaping or a discussion on how — and if — you’ll be able to get early signal on product market fit (PMF). It also doesn’t mention privacy/legal challenges, operational and partnerships needs, or branding considerations.
To summarize, there is no one-size-fits-all framework that you can apply to every situation. So why do some candidates do this? They come in with a checklist of points they want to make and steamroll through them, sometimes even ignoring the interviewer’s attempts to redirect.
In my experience, this typically happens when a) the candidate thinks this is what the interviewer expects, b) the candidate is inexperienced, with a limited toolbox to tackle the product question, c) the candidate is nervous and has trouble thinking beyond what they’ve memorized during interview prep.
Whatever the reason, the way to avoid the rigidity issue is to reframe how you think about the interview. If you approach it the same way you might a math problem where you plug in numbers into the quadratic formula, you will fail. Instead, think of it as a product discussion where you apply various tools from your toolbox to explore the space and arrive at a reasonable solution. There are some tools you’ll use more often than others, but ultimately it depends on the specific situation and on what the interviewer needs to get signal on.
Let’s say you are asked to design a Lyft experience for school pick-ups. In this case, it’s important to consider the different personas involved because the decision-makers with the wallets (parents) are not the same as the people experiencing the rides (kids, drivers, teachers/chaperones). Now let’s say you are asked to improve the existing sign-up flow for Lyft riders. It is still important to think about your users (e.g. mobile-savvy city-dwellers) to set baseline assumptions of their knowledge and expectations for the product. But it is unnecessary to go into further detail on personas because (a) you only have 30–45 minutes, (b) Lyft serves a wide audience and these details won’t significantly impact the optimization decisions. Instead, you’ll want to spend time discussing the minimum requirements of a sign-up flow, the tradeoffs of making it fast and frictionless while also ensuring you have real riders with real payment credentials signing up, and how you’ll be able to measure whether your suggestions improve the existing flow.
To recap, avoid using a single framework. Instead, think of selecting the most relevant components (i.e. “tools”) for the interview question. Be ready to add/delete components based on input from your interviewer. To practice, create a list of as many components as possible and consider how you would apply them to different products. Example of components include personas, user needs, business strategies, strengths and weaknesses, competitors, hypotheses to test, and success metrics. Products can be software, hardware, a physical good, or a service. The more practice you get, the better your product sense will become. And this isn’t just for interviews: all PMs benefit from doing this on a regular basis to stay sharp, keep learning, and get ideas from other industries.
4. Manage the interview. Help your interviewer get the signal she needs.
Interviewers are human. Sometimes they are sleep-deprived and have trouble focusing. Sometimes they make mistakes. Sometimes they are biased. Sometimes they are inexperienced or have the wrong expectations. At Facebook, we try to avoid these with a variety of anti-bias trainings, interview prep rounds to calibrate our interviewers, and consistently updating and sharing best practices. Even so, it is always a good idea for interview candidates to assume some ownership over the interview process. Specifically:
4a/ Understand what signal the interviewer is looking for. At Facebook, our recruiting team shares this with all candidates. At other companies, you might not get the details proactively, but don’t be afraid to ask! Getting upfront alignment on the goal of the interview is critical. To help you get started, here are a few examples of what interviewers might be looking for:
- knowledge of the space their company is in, including recent developments, market dynamics, and key challenges
- ability to think strategically
- ability to build new products
- ability to optimize existing products
- design thinking / working together with designers
- technical knowledge or comfort level / working together with engineers
If you’re not sure which ones to focus on in the interview, ask! And once you know the signal the interviewer is looking for, give it to her. If she said design chops are important but half of the time has gone by discussing product strategy, do a time check: “we’ve got 15 minutes left and I know you wanted to look at mobile screen designs. Should I pick one of these solutions and start sketching?”
4b/ Check in at least every few minutes. Every company does it differently, but typically the Product Sense interview is led by the candidate. This means you’ll do most of the talking, but make sure the interviewer is engaged and onboard with the direction you’re going in. Some people worry that checking in might be conflated with needing help, but when done right it is a positive action that demonstrates self-awareness and a desire to use time efficiently. Just make sure you are offering choices and seeking input rather than asking, “what should I do now?” A good way to do this is to lay out your thought process and next steps, then pause and give the interviewer a chance to weigh in and redirect if needed. For example, “I’d like to spend a couple of minutes brainstorming about possible user needs, then I’ll identify themes, categorize them, and pick one to focus on. Sound good?”
4c/ Listen to your interviewer. This one seems obvious, but a surprising number of people don’t take hints — or even direct requests — to shift gears. If your interviewer says, “let’s talk about X,” just do it. Recall: the goal of the interview is for the interviewer to get the signal she needs. At a minimum, be flexible and say something like, “I was going to cover that next. Should I switch to that now, or finish talking about Y first?” Real world example: there was a candidate I interviewed a few years ago who did this particularly well. At one point, he went down a dead-end path and I redirected. Rather than getting flustered, he thanked me for the suggestion, calmly wiped the whiteboard clean, and started over. He nailed the rest of the interview and got the job.
4d/ Ask clarifying questions. Here are some examples:
- If building on top of an existing product, make sure you understand what it is. For example, if you are asked to build a groups product for Twitter and you happen to not be an active user, it’s ok to say, “I am not too familiar with the product. My understanding is it’s a public social network where people can post short messages and then comment and reshare them. Is there anything else I should know?”
- Ask about motivations and resources. For example, in the same example of Twitter groups, you can ask whether your job is to build the product or first ascertain whether it’s a good idea to build it. You can also ask whether the interviewer would like you to evaluate this primarily from a consumer perspective or from a business/monetization angle. Finally, ask about resources. Is the goal to design a quick-and-dirty MVP to figure out whether Twitter groups is a product people will use? Or is the aim to set the long-term, resource-intensive strategy for positioning Twitter as a leader in the communities space?
5. Enjoy the process!
Interviews are not typically thought of as “enjoyable” experiences, but the Product Sense interview can be just that depending on mindset. Remember that product discussions are fun, and likely one of the reasons you decided to become a PM. Imagine the interviewer is a cofounder, eng/design partner, or even just a friend. Imagine you’re sharing some product ideas with her and are excited to get her input. If she poses an interesting question, don’t be threatened; be curious. If she asks you to go in a different direction, see where it leads.
Good luck, and happy interviewing!
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