Master the PM Product Design Interview
The Ubiquitous Design Round
These days, the product design question is unavoidable in PM interview processes:
What's a product you consider well-designed? How would you enhance its user experience?
How would you enhance ChatGPT for the elderly?
Design a Fitness app for Google.
These questions have become standard practice in PM interviews at the best paying companies in the world, like Google and Meta.
Whether you’re an aspiring APM or a VP of Product, you have to prepare for this interview.
As a result, the internet is brimming with advice.
The Information Not on The Internet
But I found myself asking several questions the internet simply didn’t have answers to:
What are the Product Design fundamentals you need to showcase to succeed?
When did the Product Design interview actually come to be used for PMs?
What is the range of different ways companies use it?
These don’t appear in the typical guides.
So I’ve gone out and researched them - the history, the market, and the tactics that work.
In today’s piece, we’ll cover all of the things you can’t find anywhere else on the internet.
A Surprisingly Common Disqualifier
Product Design interviews were a surprisingly common disqualifier for PMs I interviewed at Google.
It’s easy to get caught up in your regular PM interviews and miss this round.
I thought that experience was restricted to Google - but I’ve recently been coaching several candidates, and I’ve found it so be really common. We’ve had to overcome product design skill deficiencies with several candidates.
But, over time, I figured out the right strategies to coach candidates to success. So I’m very excited to present today’s piece. We’re opening up the entire playbook.
This is the only piece you’ll need on the Product Design interview. Over 6,000 words we’ll cover:
1. The Basics
Fundamentals of Product Design
History of the Product Design Interview
Companies that Use the Product Design Interview
2. The Techniques
Principles + Frameworks
Questions to Ask Your Interviewers
Unconventional Techniques to Stand Out
How to Avoid the Most Common Mistakes Candidates Make
3. How to Answer the 30 Most Common Questions
It’s the value of a several hundred dollar course - as part of one of the 100 articles you receive a year for just $150.
1. The Basics
1.1 Fundamentals of Product Design
Have you seen a door like this?
This is a Norman Door, and it’s a fundamental concept of UX design. If something needs to be labelled it’s probably not designed that well.
And this door has a crucial lesson about product design: Product design is not about how things look. It’s about how they work.
To build things that work for people, you have to really understand the people who are using them. As Design legend Don Norman says:
Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.
Product design is a user-centered process. You have to go learn about with whom you’re communicating with and what they care about.
The classic product design story to move metrics is Airbnb’s. They increased revenue 2x’d by starting professional photos instead of regular one’s:
As you can see with this change, the definition of product is quite holistic. It can be any part of what you communicate with your users. In this case, it was the physical act of who took the photos.
The best product designs think holistically. They don’t limit themselves to pixels and bits.
To get to this state, there are a myriad of processes product designers use. By far the most popular one - and my favorite - is the double diamond (which we recently talked about in the context of PRDs):
The basic point is that you think divergently in two phases: first about what the problem you really are going to solve is, and second about what your solution will be.
To do this, product designers tend to live in the worlds of user research (for problem exploration) and Figma design files (for solution design).
Product designers love when PMs treat them as equals in the entire process - from deciding the roadmap through to implementation decisions and making a call o whether to gather a feature.
And that’s what you need to know about the fundamentals of Product Design for PM interviews. You don’t need to be an expert in how to draw complex table designs or organize design systems. You just need to understand them from the PM side.
1.2 History of the Product Design Interview in Product Management Processes
Why does a PM interview even test for product design? You can thank Google for that.
In the mid 2000s, Google Started asking candidates PM candidates questions like, “Design a phone for elderly people.” Alon Amit famously told the story of a particularly captivating candidate from Microsoft:
Mind you, this was early 2007. Before the iPhone, before any sort of smart devices, before Siri and Alexa and voice commands, back when “phone” meant “home telephone” (and we clarified that this is what the question is about)….
I remember the interview with NK very well, although it was almost 12 years ago. I remember he was at Microsoft. I remember that the guy who left the room just as I was walking in, his previous interviewer, was Orkut Büyükkökten. But what I remember most of all was the way he thought about the phone question.
His process was as top-down as any I’ve ever seen. He started with the most abstract meaning of a telephone, and then surveyed the use cases. Making calls, receiving calls, emergencies. Every step was thoughtful, general, and naturally led to the next level down.
It’s that type of captivating performance I’ll teach you to put on in this piece. Needless to say, the interview question had really good signal, so Google really began to rely on it.
As Google served as a training ground for big tech PMs across the valley in the late 2000s and early 2010s, this line of questioning quickly made its way into the overall industry.
But it didn’t happen overnight. Up until 2012,if you google product design interview product managers for 2012, you see almost no responses. But 2013, wala - here they come.
That’s because, in 2013, Cracking the PM Interview was published. In it, Gayle and Jackie specify ‘Designing a Product’ as one of the three types of ‘Product Questions.’
As the book became the de-facto text for PM interview preparation, it also trained a future generation of PM leaders about the Designing a Product interview question.
Until the book, Product Design questions were primarily used in Silicon Valley. After the book, they became a global phenomenon.
I personally started encountering them much more frequently, right at this time as well, and over the years, has adoption has gone from something like 5% of US PM jobs to something like 50% of global PM jobs having a product design question in their interview process.
1.3 Companies that Use the Product Design Interview
Who are these 50% of companies?
There are 5 main types of companies that you’ll encounter the Product Design interview in:
Mega-Caps: Google, Meta, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple
Large-Caps: Uber, LinkedIn, TikTok, Coinbase, Airbnb, Doordash
Mid-Caps: Lyft, Amplitude, Asana, Twilio
Growth Stage Privates with Strong Product Cultures: Stripe, Instacart, Rippling
Startups with Strong PM Cultures: If the founder is involved in PM is usually your best sign
Several of my mentees this round were actually in India, Australia, and the UK. All of them encountered Product Design questions as well. The large tech companies, or product forward startups, have all begun to incorporate this round.
At many companies, the recruiter will call this round a “Product Sense” round. But the question you actually get is about Product Design.
The Mega-Caps are the most likely to set you up with a 45 minute slot to design a product. The startups are most likely to casually ask you the question to respond in 5 minutes. Otherwise, what they expect from the interview is actually relatively the same.
So who doesn’t use the Product Design interview?
The places that tend to skip this round don’t have empowered PMs - banks, old-school companies, hardware focused companies, or sales focused companies.
It’s actually a red flag, in 2023, if the company you interview with doesn’t have a Product Design question. It means either their interviewed process is unstructured (statistically worse at screening candidates) or they don’t empower PM to make these types of decisions.
2. The Techniques
So now that we know where the interview came from and who uses it, it’s time for the main course: how do you actually rock this interview?
Let’s break down the frameworks and examples you need to know.
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