Master the Product Sense Interview
PM’s most intimidating interview
Product Sense interviews are no cakewalk:
How would you design a 10x better airplane boarding experience?
What’s your favorite product? And how would you improve it?
What would you build to differentiate Reels from TikTok?
How would you improve ChatGPT?
These aren’t easy questions. They test your ability to structure a response, brainstorm and be creative, all the while considering what’s best for users and the business.
It’s the perfect encapsulation of the PM job - and why this interview is so popular. Which means the internet is awash with "standard" guides on the interview.
But to succeed in today’s tough market requires a blend of tried-and-true strategies and unconventional insights.
That’s what today’s piece is for.
Tried and Tested Strategies
I’ve done hundreds of Product Sense interviews in my career - as a candidate and interviewer. So I had a good idea of what to do in this post.
But to really firm up my advice, over the last 3 months, I took on the added challenge of coaching and mentoring 5 successful candidates who were struggling the Product Sense interview. All of them have now gotten jobs.
So, today, I’m ready to crack open the advice column for you. This will include unconventional “earned” advice you’ll only get from someone still hiring PMs.
Here’s the outline for our journey over the next 8,000 words.
Part 1: The Basics
History of the Product Sense Interview
Common Users of the Product Sense Interview
What does a Product Sense Interview actually test?
Part 2: The Techniques
Principles + Frameworks
Unconventional Techniques to Stand Out
How to Avoid the Most Common Mistakes Candidates Make
Part 3: 18 Question Response Examples
Real Case Interview Examples
It’s the value of a $500 course - as part of one of the 100 articles you receive a year for just $150.
Part 1: The Basics
1.1 History of the Product Sense Interview
The Product Sense interview format is relatively new.
In the late '90s and early 2000s, Silicon Valley's companies primarily focused on feature-driven products. The role of a PM was just developing.
The shift began around 2008-2009. Meta, then still Facebook, started formalizing the Product Sense Interview in their hiring process.
Zuck and his team were no longer just in the business of connecting friends. They were transforming how societies interacted globally. The role of a product manager had to evolve. It wasn't enough to just know how a feature would work; one had to understand the broader ecosystem in which the product existed.
This led to the creation of the Product Sense interview.
As the 2010s rolled in, other tech giants and startups began to realize the importance of Product Sense. They were looking at what worked to evaluate candidates - and work sample tests and structured interviews were atop the list:
As a result, companies like Airbnb, Uber, and Spotify, whose successes were heavily tied to good product management, integrated Product Sense elements into their interview processes.
The nuances of these interviews reflected the challenges and opportunities these companies faced:
Airbnb: With its fierce competition against hotels, had to win on strong design and first principles user needs understanding.
Spotify: With its freemium model, delved into enhancing user experience while balancing ad revenues.
Uber: With its unique challenges in every city it operated in, tailored its product interviews to consider hyperlocal factors.
But it worked for them. And all these companies pay well and are name brands. They also grew many of the PMs that ended up at other companies. As a result, everyone started picking it up.
By the time the 2020s arrived, the Product Sense Interview was a staple in PM hiring.
These days, you’re bound to encounter it in your job search.
1.2 Most Common Users of the Product Sense Interview
Who specifically do we know uses the product sense interview?
All these are known to:
FAANG: The obvious ones – Google, Apple, Netflix… all utilize the Product Sense interview. These companies pride themselves on setting hiring benchmarks, and the Product Sense interview is a key part of that.
Companies with Structured Interviews: If you’re at a company that has structured interview rounds and a fairly established PM function, they are likely to have a Product Sense interview. All these companies are known to use the Product Sense interview:
SaaS: Airtable, Atlassian, Zoom
E-Commerce: Amazon, Stitchfix, Zulily
Fintech: Stripe, Robinhood
HealthTech: 23andMe, Carbon
Gaming: EA, Ubisoft
Companies with PM founders: PMs tend to want to see your PM skills in action, versus just on a resume.
The places where you won’t see the product sense interview are small, don’t have structured interviews, or have much of a fairly nascent PM function.
1.3 What does a Product Sense Interview test?
Product sense is not about knowing which color a button should be. This interview evaluates:
Your creativity: Can you come up with features that are outside the box? Or do you just copy competitors and the latest trends?
Your data acumen: Do you use data to help drive feature development, and can you understand how to measure features?
Your user understanding: Do you put the user first? Can you identify user needs and problems that will drive a feature to success?
And your ability to prioritize features: When it comes to multiple good options, do you have a solid process for driving forth what should be done first? Can you think 10x - and not iteratively?
Here’s the Scorecard Meta - the originators - use:
As you can see, at its core, a Product Sense interview isn't just about products or features. It’s being able to demonstrate a deep understanding of human behavior, business logic, and technological implementation details.
That’s what makes it so powerful - and so scary.
The Types of Interviewers
You tend to see two main types of Product Sense interviewers out there in the wild:
The Case Masters: These people pride themselves on running a cleanly structured interview process, and they are devoted to an impartial assessment of the performance in the case.
The Laissez Faire: These people don’t love cases. They tend to toss in product sense questions into topics like, “What’s your favorite product? How would you improve it?”
One isn’t better than the other, and in your interview journey, you’re like to encounter both.
The Types of Cases
Within the case type of Product Sense interviews, there are 5 main types:
Product Improvement: These test your ability to improve a pre-existing product.
How would you improve X product for Y segment? What would you do to improve your favorite product?
Product Growth: These test your ability to understand product data.
How would you improve retention for X? How would you solve a problem in Y metric for A company?
Product Launch: These test your ability to launch new products.
How would you build A feature for B segment? How would you launch X product for us?
Product Design: These test your ability to design elegant solutions.
How would you design X everyday object for Y segment? How would you design A feature?
Product Pricing: These test your ability to price products in the market.
How would you improve our pricing & packaging? How would you price X new product?
Clearly, each is slightly different. So we’ll include an entire example of one of each at the end of this piece. But before that, let’s go through the common principles.
Part 2: The Principles
So now that we know all the basics, let’s get into the meat: how do you actually rock this interview?
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