How to do a Product Critique

Watch and learn

Julie Zhuo
Jun 17, 2014 · 6 min read

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?

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?

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?

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.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building…

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

Julie Zhuo

Written by

Currently: Inspirit. Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.