As a product manager, I sometimes imagine a dream world where I have infinite access to perfectly instrumented data, vast amounts of user research from a diverse range of users, and a clearly validated vision that maps to a market opportunity with no competitors. All the information points in the same direction, and there are no outliers or conflicting conclusions or opinions. Also, in this world, it’s always 72 degrees, and wine has no calories.
Reality usually feels pretty different. Data is messy, incomplete, or unavailable. Users tell you one thing but also the opposite. The market is fragmented, risky, and full of competitors that step into your space. Visions are inspiring but full of holes. With so many inputs, each with their caveats, what’s a PM to do? Oftentimes, I see people default to the mode they’re most comfortable with, when in reality, a great PM needs to balance all three.
The data-driven PM
Let’s take the data-driven PM who has a dashboard for every possible metric. They can rattle off conversion rates of different parts of the funnels segmented by user type and cohort. They quickly spot anomalies and can dig in for more granular assessments. These PMs are likely to make some improvements to the product based on the data, and they may even be able to move the needle.
But data-driven PMs often get stuck in optimization mode without digging into the why behind the data and without having a clear vision for what’s next. Data is a very important input to a product strategy, but it only looks at what is measured. And it doesn’t provide you with additional context.
The user-centric PM
Let’s also look at the user-centric PM whose empathy for their users is off the charts and has built meaningful relationships with beta user groups. They build personas to help others in the org better understand who their users are, and they rally the team to keep the user at the center of their decisions.
They are motivated by giving users what they want, which is noble in theory, but it can also lead to product teams building faster horses. They want to do right by the users, but are all those user requests building toward something bigger? Are they pulling the product in too many directions?
The intuitive PM
And then there are the visionary PMs with great product intuition. They have an inherent sense of what is a good product and what is a bad product. They understand technology trends and patterns and have strong opinions about what and how to build products.
These PMs tend to be laser-focused on a specific solution and might be fuzzier on the target user and the problem they’re solving for those users. Sometimes they get things very, very right (hello, Steve Jobs!). But sometimes their dreams are crushed by reality when no one wants their product.
Be all three
The truth is that data, user research, and good product intuition are all important when building a product. Great PMs are comfortable using all three and know when to go into each mode.
For example, if you spot an anomaly in the data, tap your user-centric PM within to dig into user research and evaluate the anomaly against the broader vision. If you’re the intuitive type, vet your vision with user research, prototype it, test it, and evaluate it with data. Sometimes data-driven PMs should prioritize unconstrained user research to get to insights that wouldn’t shake out from a validation session walking through a design prototype. And other times, user-centric PMs need to size the market opportunity with data before reacting to feedback from a handful of users. And, when you find yourself spinning your wheels on a low-risk decision that doesn’t have data or research to support it, it’s okay to tap into your product intuition and just make a call.
Great PMs know when to take a big swing (and how to de-risk that swing with the data, research, and intuition), and they know when to iterate based on the trends they see. They have a clear vision of where they are taking the product built on a foundation of research and data. If it’s a new product or idea, that foundation might be thin and include lots of assumptions, but it exists. If it’s an established product, the foundation is stable and secure but still allows for the PM to explore new or adjacent opportunities.
It’s normal to feel more comfortable in one of these modes than the other, but it’s important to recognize when you’re defaulting to a single mode. Seek out other PMs who operate in your non-default mode, and ask them how they would approach a decision. Take classes and workshops to get more comfortable with data analysis or user research methodology. And to improve your product intuition, sign up to observe as many different types of digital products as you can and talk about them with other people. Or tap a friend or family member (especially those who work outside of tech) on the shoulder and ask them what apps they use and why they like or don’t like them. Soon, you’ll start spotting patterns on your own.
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