In many design, product management, engineering, or even venture capital interviews and pitches, you’ll be assessed on a dimension called “product thinking,” sometimes also called “product sense.” If you’re a builder aspiring to create something new and valuable (or someone who invests in such builders), having well-honed product thinking will help you — and the products you work on — stand out from the crowd.

But how exactly do you define product thinking? There’s so much noise out there on this very question that it can be hard to find the signal, so I thought I’d share what it is, what it isn’t … and how one gets good at it. Because product thinking alone isn’t enough; you also have to be able to apply product thinking to design and build toward better outcomes. And while well-honed product thinking is often at the start of many company, analyst, and investment theses, product thinking influences all stages of technology development beyond that too, from adding new product lines to helping an established product adapt to new market trends. 

Nurturing and developing product thinking is therefore relevant to anyone in the business of covering trends or building great products. And in a time where technology companies focus more on product-led innovation than, say, financial engineering, it’s not just an academic or technologist exercise — it’s one that actively contributes to market value, too.

What product thinking is (and isn’t)

The simplest way to define product thinking is that it is the skill of knowing what makes a product useful — and loved — by people. As with all skills, it can be nurtured and developed; it’s not just an instinct one does or doesn’t have (and even instincts are trained, after all). 

Product thinkers love to discuss their favorite products, of course, but not just what they personally liked or disliked; rather, they seek to understand the broader question of why a product might or might not work for a broader set of people. The very best product thinkers are voracious about understanding why things work. A product thinking mindset might lead one to study what makes TikTok so popular, or what leads to Figma’s growth within an organization, or what the characteristics of popular marketplaces are.

They view it as a puzzle: Why has App X skyrocketed in popularity? What specific product decisions led some of my colleagues to like productivity Product W, while others resist it? What is Service Y doing that keeps Aunt Laura using it for years; was it feature Z or W that let it grow beyond early adopters like her? What attracted cousin Elias and his friends to try out this new app? Were those push notifications compelling, or annoying? And from those insights, how can we learn to build better products, or help others on our team to do so?  

Product thinking is a habit, an eye, a mindset. 

If you’re trying to understand whether you already have some product thinking instincts, or are assessing someone else on this dimension, these types of questions get at the product thinking mindset: 

  • Critique Product X — which decisions seem the most responsible for its success? Why? 
  • How would you help Product X win over Audience Y if you were its leader?
  • Take Problem Z … What would you design to solve it?

And since there can be confusion about product thinking — after all, doesn’t some of this apply to just about anything? — these are not product thinking mindset questions:

  • What’s your favorite product?
  • How should Product X decide how much money to charge for Service Y?
  • How would you explain Product Z to a five-year-old?

Another common misconception is the confusion around product thinking vs. design thinking vs. product vision. In general, product thinking tends to precede and guide how design thinking is used or how a product vision evolves.

Design thinking is a methodology — the process of conceptualizing solutions that involves research, prototyping, and testing — while product thinking is the skill of understanding and being good at predicting what people want. Design thinking tends to be an outwards-in and iterative approach to solving a specific problem, while product thinking is more holistic and intuitive about the relationship between people and products. Of course, researching (through various methodologies) to deeply understand a problem and testing early assumptions via prototypes are valuable tools in any builder’s toolkit; at the same time, they’re not pragmatic for the thousands of product decisions, big and small, that go into building something. At some point, you rely on your instincts for what you believe will work the best for your audience. 

A product vision, furthermore, describes an idealized end state for how a product will create value in the world, but it doesn’t necessarily describe why or how. It might be a story to latch onto, or a vivid image of a possible future that paints what success looks like, but it isn’t sufficient for building a resilient and detailed product roadmap that can drive product design and business decisions through the phases of a product’s life cycle.

While many designers, product managers, and startup CEOs have developed product thinking over time through training and practice, it’s not an exclusive skill that can only be honed within the confines of a tech company. In fact, it doesn’t require insider knowledge at all. So, how do you develop your product thinking skills? The two most important habits are observation and inquiry.

Developing observation

Observation is about paying attention to people’s reactions when they encounter products or services in their day-to-day lives. It’s easiest to start by observing yourself. When do you feel delighted by a product? When do you feel annoyed? 

One example for me was my experience with the Jabra 75t Elite headset. With three young kids at home and an open office, I was struggling to block out the noise when meeting over Zoom, and people would tell me they’re picking up background noise. A friend recommended the Jabra to me as “the headset you could wear with a toddler tantruming next to you, and your colleagues on the line would be none the wiser.” She was right. And I’ve sung its praises and recommended it to many others. But it’s not perfect. Alas, it clings a bit too tightly to the ears, pushing hoop earrings against my neck. (I wonder: was this tested with users who wear earrings?) And the black mouthpiece stands out on video calls. I imagine there are others who’d also wish for a larger over-ear design and a subtler mic color.  

Once you’re in the habit of continually observing your own reactions, observe also the reactions of those around you. When do your friends gush about a new discovery? When do they complain? What’s their feedback about the products you recommend?

Finally, observe the world’s reactions. What are the reviews saying? What are the opinions on the Internet that people are picking up and repeating? What differentiates this product from those of its competitors? Most importantly, why are people saying the things they’re saying?

As you develop the habit of observing your own relationship with products and then generalizing this to your friends and the broader world, it will lead to more questions that will help you gain an even deeper understanding.

Developing inquiry

Asking the “why” behind your observations leads to the other practice necessary for developing a product thinking mindset (and for being able to apply observations): inquiry. 

Inquiry comes from genuine curiosity about people and their behaviors, and can take different forms depending on how you learn best. The key is understanding the “why” behind the reactions. Some ways of doing this include:

  • Reading books about human thinking/behavior 
  • Dissecting cultural phenomena through articles, discussions, blogs
  • Soliciting customer feedback in the process of building products
  • Asking others why they have the reactions they do

 Of course, to arrive at a true understanding, you’ll need to dig deeper than simply taking people at their word when they tell you what they like and what they want. This is where data (from user research and customer discovery to market data, clicks, views, etc.) becomes valuable. 

The job of data is to help you understand the ground truth of what is going on with products, user behavior, and the market. Let’s take an example of how Facebook built Reactions to tie all these concepts together. Prior to that, the only things you could do on a post were to like it, comment on it, or share it. Many people were not satisfied with these options. “Please give us a ‘dislike’ button!” was one of the top feature requests for years. And the reasons why made sense: not everything on Facebook was “like”-able. People regularly shared sad updates, tragic news, or simply talked about the bad day they were having.

But having worked on social products for years, the team and I resisted simply launching a “dislike” button. The problem was that “dislike” was too ambiguous. If you post a photo of my local sports team with the caption “Boo!” and I dislike it, how would you interpret my action? Do I dislike the sports team? Dislike your sentiment? Or maybe you think I dislike you? Our product instincts told us that a “dislike” button was ripe for increasing negativity and misunderstanding on the platform.

At the same time, our goal was for people to feel like they had an expressive set of options to respond to the stories they saw. We took an approach of expanding beyond “like” to a wider range of emotions, from love to anger to sadness. Our product instincts led us to two key decisions: using animated faces to convey the sentiment, which we felt would feel more emotive, and launching with seven initial emotions. Thus, Facebook Reactions were born. We built and launched the feature to a few markets initially to validate that it was something people found delightful and used frequently. The data from those initial tests helped us pare down the final set of reactions to the five most distinct and popular ones, which were then launched widely.

However, you don’t need to build a particular kind of product for years to hone these kinds of instincts. If you’re looking for a quick rule of thumb to proactively develop your product thinking, try the below:

  1. Every week, try at least one new product, feature, or service. 
  2. Every week, have at least one conversation or reflection about how a specific product decision impacts its intended audience. 

Over time, you’ll start to see more non-obvious answers to why some products tend to take off and others don’t. If you build products yourself, you’ll observe a richer palette of inspiration for how you might achieve an intended outcome based on your learnings. The simplest test is one of prediction: are you getting better at identifying which products or features will succeed? Are you improving in your ability to create such products?

Excelling at product thinking is not innate; growth comes from practice. Designers are relatively strong in this dimension because of the hours they spend every week in design critique or listening to customer feedback. Everyone has an opinion on design (for better or worse), which means designers are constantly getting exposure to product reactions.

Researchers, data analysts, and venture capitalists typically gain product thinking through pattern-matching from large sets of data. If you look at enough examples of successful social media companies, for example, you start to draw conclusions about the importance of engagement notifications or getting new users connected with great content during onboarding.  

Product managers, engineers, and marketers also develop product thinking in the trenches of repeated shipping and iteration. Informed by past successes and failures, they are more likely to come up with compelling pitches or innovative ideas. A classic example is Steve Jobs betting that the world wanted an iPhone — a full-screen phone without a physical keyboard. 

In the world of startups, confident product thinking provides the tinder for zero-to-one product development.

***

Of course, practiced product thinking alone does not guarantee that we will build successful products — our intuitions often fail because we draw the wrong conclusions when teasing apart inputs from outcomes. It can be impossible to know for sure which product decisions mattered the most in making something useful and beloved. 

The best we can do is hypothesize. But with a mindset of observation and inquiry, builders do not have to rely purely on guesses. They can gather feedback — both qualitative and quantitative — to help them understand how customers feel. It’s the repeated process of learning, feedback, and iteration that both improves the product and the builder’s sense of what makes for an improved product.

If you build or work with builders, it pays to develop your product thinking.

  • Julie Zhuo

    Julie Zhuo is the co-founder of Sundial. Previously, she was the VP, Product Design for the Facebook app for 14 years. She also wrote a best-selling book, "The Making of a Manager", a field guide to management.

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