Product Marty Cagan

Product Sense Demystified

Even though I have been writing consistently about product now for more than two decades, including a few books, I have thus far managed to avoid using the term “product sense.” 

That was not an accident.  I have always disliked the term, and I especially dislike the implications.

But for whatever reason, a lot more people are using the term now, and I’m hearing it come up too often as the excuse I was worried about.  Either, “Trust me because I have great product sense,” or “I could never be a successful product person because my manager says I don’t have good product sense.”

To be fair, several serious product thinkers have been trying to clarify that despite the term, “product sense” is not something you are born with, it is a skill that you develop.  

But from what I can tell, these people are getting drowned out by the countless people that take the term too literally.

For most people, the word “sense” implies that it is innate.  As in, some people have a strong sense of smell, and others have strong product sense.

But what’s really going on is something very different.

I argue that strong product sense is better described as deep product knowledge, and is the result of truly immersing yourself into a specific product space.

You build strong product sense by spending serious quality time with customers, analyzing the competitive landscape, immersing yourself in the product data, and consuming everything you can about the industry, and the enabling technologies.

Your mind assimilates the learnings from all of these sources, and eventually, if you’ve been putting in the effort and paying attention, you have a very solid foundation in your product space, and you are able to not only understand the behaviors you are seeing, but you can also predict what’s likely to happen going forward.

Now you may think that someone with years of experience in the specific domain might have a real advantage in developing this product sense, but in most cases this turns out not to be true. A disproportionate amount of innovation comes from people that don’t bring the baggage of the domain – they bring fresh perspective and the willingness to question dogma.

I have “gone deep” into several different product spaces over my career.  But the space I went deepest on, and a space I still love, is the software tools space.  I’ve built several software tool products, and also was CTO of a software tool startup, and during these years, I was truly immersed in the space.

I personally visited with literally hundreds of product teams to understand the challenges they faced and the tools they used.  I spent countless hours pouring through data.  I personally tested out every software tool I could find.  I established relationships with many of the key thought leaders in the space.  I followed the software tool industry and trends.  I met regularly with the industry analysts.  I spoke at the industry conferences.

I did all this first as an engineer, then as a product manager, and later as a product leader.  

But the result was that I was able to see 5-10 years down the road with considerable accuracy, not because of any innate sense, but because of all the time and effort I had put in.

And everyone I know that has clearly demonstrated this strong product sense has likewise put in the effort – even if they don’t realize it was that effort that’s responsible for their strong product sense.

But the good news here is that you can absolutely develop your product sense.  While I avoid the product sense term, I do say very often to people I coach that “there is no substitute for doing the homework.”

If you’re a product leader or a company founder, this is simply non-negotiable.  

If you’re a product manager, this is often one of the most meaningful differences between an entry level product manager, and the more senior levels (e.g. senior product manager, group product manager, principal product manager).

One important caveat when it comes to product sense:

Some people think that because they have gone deep in one space, and had some level of success there, then their product sense will also be accurate for other spaces.  This happens when the person doesn’t realize the true source of product sense, and instead they think they have some sort of mental gift, but this is just arrogance, not product sense.

And hopefully nobody thinks good product sense is a substitute for testing your product ideas. Product sense can definitely accelerate product discovery, but it’s more like having a compass as you navigate the product risks.

While I might wish people would just stop using the term “product sense,” and instead talk about gaining deep product knowledge, I’ve been around long enough to know that’s unlikely to happen.

But hopefully more people will realize product sense is absolutely something they can and should develop, and ultimately we’ll see more product teams building products based on this deeper understanding.

UPDATE: If you’d like to learn more about this topic, check out the Product Therapy podcast discussing how to coach product sense.