How to Develop Your Product Intuition

Anna Marie Clifton
Jul 12, 2016 · 5 min read

This post is primarily directed to people trying to get into product management, but the broader suggestions apply to all product team members looking to build up their product intuition.


When you ask any hiring manager what they’re looking for in Product Managers, they’ll always include these three qualities:

  • Technical comprehension
  • User Empathy
  • Product Intuition

Lulu Cheng has already written the best piece on ”, so I won’t belabor that. And just about every PM author has written about the Empathy piece.

But I haven’t seen much about developing good product intuition.

Let’s discuss.

Why Product Intuition matters

In the course of Yammer product interviews, we test candidates on product intuition no fewer than 4 times—in the homework, in the phone screen, and in at least two onsite interviews.

Is that overkill? Not in the slightest.

Product management is the skill of getting the right things to users, and there are dozens of times in product development where your product intuition will sway the day:

  • We humans are so easily primed—without realizing it, your early thoughts or suggestions can set boundaries for all future design thinking on a feature.
  • You won’t be the authority on your team, but you are often the leader and your designers may put undue weight on your ideas.
  • Because we’re tasked with moving work forward, product managers tend toward the assertive/aggressive/dominant side of the spectrum & .
  • Lots of design decisions go through product review, but many don’t. You’re often the final gate between an interaction and a user.
  • PMs need to push design for more exploration when they can tell something’s “not all the way there yet.”
  • Etc…

Poor intuition can lead to wasting designers’ time, launching sub-par or half-baked features, and hurting your credibility in the org. Your company can’t afford the lost productivity and bad product that builds up under poor intuition. PMs have got to get this part right.

Where Does Good Product Intuition Come From?

Intuition is simply a shortcut to rational thinking that we’ve mapped out from past experience.

Try thinking back to the very first time you burned yourself on a heating element. You didn’t know that would happen, it was pretty shocking to you. You learned through experience that this spiraling metal shape 🔘 + red glow 🔴 = pain & danger 🚫

Now you don’t really think about it. If someone gets too close to a similar heating element you wouldn’t think twice—you wouldn’t even “think” once!—you’d spring into action to protect them from danger.

That’s intuition. It’s all the past inputs that guide you to better shortcuts.

So, it’s “experience”… how do you get experience in product—especially if you’re not working in product already? I’ve found 4 main avenues to gaining that experience:

  1. Watching
  2. Reading
  3. Listening
  4. Doing

1. Watching

You are a user of everything you use. Pull out your phone and look at every app on there. Go screen-by-screen and look at the navigation icons; grab pen & paper and write down all the text stings; pull out a straight edge and look for the grid.

No, you won’t learn about how many pixels should be between labels and text fields, that’s not what this kind of looking is for. This kind of looking makes you slow down enough to see what the app is made of instead of what you’re doing with it.

It’s not easy, especially at the beginning. It’s exhausting mental work to concentrate your eyes like this. But it will pay dividends for ages.

Protip: Take a lot of screenshots whenever you’re signing up for a new app/service—onboarding is the easiest thing to forget and the hardest thing to go back and re-create.

Useful resources:

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2. Reading

By watching with a dissector’s eye, you build your own structured thoughts on product. But through reading you can access the trove of thoughts that have come before.

For this, you don’t want to read about “product.” Most posts and books on product fall into two areas:

  1. Product Management Tactics. (Internal and fiddly—how to make decisions, run good meetings, deal with conflict, construct hypotheses, analyze experiments, etc.)
  2. Product Strategy. (External and broad—how to position in your space, understanding how the industry is innovating, identifying major shifts in culture & technology, and figuring out how to keep ahead of the game.)

What you should look for here is works on design.

Avoid “design thinking” and “design process” posts—those are great, but won’t help you in this experience building journey. What you need are pieces that give you raw, vicarious access to other people’s design decisions, ideally with multiple options presented and the rational for the final direction.

Useful resources:

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📙
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✍️ All of Luke W’s //
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3. Listening

Get yourself in the company of product designers! Find a way to listen to their conversations!

If you have collogues who build product, try to work near them, sit with them at lunch, stalk their conversations on whatever workplace collaboration tools they use.

If you don’t have access to that in your current company, get creative here. Find a way through side projects. Or if you’re in school, do homework in the same lab that makers/designers use. Anything it takes, but get into a place where you can listen to these conversations. Pay attention to what ideas get raised; which get shot down; why; what rises in their place; what eventually sees light of day; why.

Rinse. Repeat.

Useful resources:

4. Doing

This one is the most laborious and least leveraged. While it’s important to flex this way, it’s not nearly as efficient a way to build up your shortcuts.

Execution is a b*tch.

It takes forever to get things done, especially if you’re working on them in a side-project-way. Yes, you should DEFINITELY , but the feedback cycle is so long, it’s simply not a practical way to build up good product intuition.

Useful resources:

Ellen Chisa’s blog has a lot on running side projects.

Conclusion

Product intuition isn’t a Soft Skill like management, or a Hard Skill like engineering, it’s more of a Squishy Skill—difficult to figure out how to build it, and more difficult still to pin down when you’ve got it.

But don’t lose hope… it’s completely achievable! Last year I had a really painful product interview at asana where I was making UI decisions my interviewer clearly thought were poor—it was all over her face and body language. But in the end, I did get that role, and the memory of that negative interview has motivated me to put intense energy into bulking up my product intuition. I can confidently tell you these tactics work.

Eye on the prize… keep working on it! ❤️


Other useful resources or tactics? Respond below and let me know! 👌💯😄


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Anna Marie Clifton

Written by

Listening & Learning. Product @ Coinbase. Ex-Yammer. I write a lot—here’s a table of contents: https://medium.com/@TweetAnnaMarie/table-of-contents-23edf5eef902