How to do a Product Critique

Watch and learn

Julie Zhuo
The Year of the Looking Glass


All right, you caught me. The title of this article is a bit too fancy-pants. Product Critique is some dressed-up corporate lingo. It brings to mind whiteboards scrawled over with strong-smelling blue marker depicting arrows connecting abstract concepts like product-market fit and value proposition. It oozes I am an interview question, and while admittedly, it is my favorite thing to chat with candidates about, the language turns the whole thing into something much more formal than it ought to be.

Which is—in its simplest form—exploring the curiosity of why some products and experiences work for people, and why others don’t.

Listen, product design isn’t some innate skill one is born with, like having a good ear for distinguishing notes or possessing exceptionally powerful twitch muscles for sprinting across an Olympic stage. Developing good product intuition—by which I mean developing a good sixth sense about what features or experiences will resonate with people and become successful—is about two core tenets: 1) understanding people’s desires, and 2) understanding how people react to things.

Thankfully, all of us are people (except for those of us on the Internet who are dogs), and all of us react to things. So if you’re looking around for how to starting honing your product intuition, start with yourself and how you personally experience anything new.

As an example, let’s say you’re looking to try out a new app. You download it from the store and fire it up, ready to begin your product critique.

Hold up—before the loading screen even blinks into view for the first time, there’s a lot to consider:

  1. How did this app come to your attention? Was it word of mouth from a friend? Interesting. Why’d she tell you about it? Or did you read about this app in an article? If so, what compelled you to actually go find it and download it? Was it recommended? Did it have a catchy icon and an intriguing name? Had you heard it about it before, and if so, how many times before? Why didn’t you download it then, and what eventually tipped you over towards trying it out now?
  2. What’s your one-line summary of what this app does at this stage? It’s interesting to compare the answer to this question before using the app and after.
  3. What’s the buzz so far? Do you have a sense of whether it’s popular? Whether it’s useful? Slick? Next-level? Did you happen to glance at the ratings, reviews, and description as you were downloading the app?

Thinking about the ways in which your first impressions of a new app are formed helps you better understand an app’s value proposition and marketing, and what the team behind it is doing—either implicitly or explicitly—to create that kind of impression.

Now it’s time to open the app and play with it. Spend as much time as you would normally (which is probably more like a few minutes rather than half an hour), and ask yourself the following:

  1. What’s the experience of getting started or signing up? Was it easy, with just a few button taps, or was it challenging with a bunch of verification steps?
  2. How does this app explain itself in the first minute? Was it clear about what it did and how it works? Did the messaging feel friendly? Confusing? Did you read and retain the information, or did you skip it because it felt long-winded and boring?
  3. How easy to use was the app? Did you understand immediately what the app was about, or did you need to tap around to try things and figure it out? Are there a lot of navigational items and buttons and gizmos to process, or did the entire thing feel familiar, contained and simple?
  4. How did you feel while exploring the app? Did a cute illustration, funny quip, or piece of really interesting content make you smile? Did the navigation frustrate you because you couldn’t figure out how to get back to a previous screen? Did you feel smarter and more efficient for using this app? Did you take note of a particular detail and think Wow, I’ve never seen that before?
  5. Did the app deliver on your expectations? Looking back to what you thought the app would do, did it match your experience of actually using it? If it’s a content app, was the content engaging? If it’s a utility app, did it solve the identified problem in a meaningful manner?
  6. How long did you spend using the app? Time generally correlates with interest. If you spent a long time on the app, what about it kept you using it?

Just like with people, most opinions of a product are formed within the first few minutes. A quick run-through gives you a sense of whether the app actually provides value, is easy to use, and feels well-crafted.

After your first use of an app, the days and weeks following are just as important to consider broader questions of stickiness and growth:

  1. How often have you used the app? When do you tend to use it? What compels you to open it? Is it because of enticing push notifications? Or because all your friends are still talking about and using it? Is it because you’ve found yourself relying on it again and again? Has this app transcended all obstacles to achieve the esteemed goal of becoming a regular habit in your life? Why or why not?
  2. How does this app compare to other similar apps? Which things does it do better or worse? What would make you choose to use this app versus something similar?
  3. What do other people think of this app? Getting additional perspectives is one of the quickest ways to learn about what works and what doesn’t in the broader market. Read reviews. Read comments in blogs. Read tweets about this app. Ask your friends what they think. Ask your cousins who live in a different town from you. Does their impression match yours? In what ways is it different, and why do you think it’s different?
  4. Based on all that you know, how successful do you think the app will be a year from now? Take a real stance. Write it down in a digital sticky note somewhere. It can be private. You don’t have to shout it out to the world. But capturing a clear and honest bet so that you can go back and look to see if you were right or wrong is one of the most objective ways to combat hindsight bias.
  5. (And eventually, after enough time has passed), were you right in your prediction of how this app was going to do? If not, why not? How were your own personal preferences and tastes similar or different from people in the broader market? You must understand this in order to better calibrate your opinions in the future.

There is no shortcut to developing better product instincts besides keen and close observation. By going through the above questions for everything you experienceusing a new app, booking travel, standing in line at Disneyland, returning a package—you start to pick up on what details lead to what reactions.

Great experiences doesn’t just happen by happenstance. The best designers and product thinkers know people. They understand what motivates and what delights and what intrigues. They have strong theories about why any successful product or service is successful, and why any failed product or service has failed. They know this because they have been watching and studying people—including themselves—for a long, long time.

This process doesn’t have to be labeled a product critique. It doesn’t have to be a test or an interview question. It doesn’t have to happen because of any other person or obligatory cause.

It just has to happen because you’re curious, over and over and over again. Because you want to learn how to build good things.

Watch and learn. That’s all there is to it.



Julie Zhuo
The Year of the Looking Glass

Building Sundial ( Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager. Find me @joulee. I love people, nuance, and systems.