Avoid these 5 Common Interview Mistakes made by Product Managers


candidates waiting for interviews

I was at another excellent meeting last week of the Cambridge Product Management Network which as the name implies is a special interest group for product managers working in the area.

The speaker was Elizabeth Ayer, a Product Manager at Red Gate Software, who was doing a rehearsal for an upcoming talk in Boston (the place with the other Cambridge). It’s shaping up well based on what I heard.

Elizabeth’s focus was on finding the pain of your present and future customers. Every start-up knows the drill: “what is the pain point you are addressing?" And “is your product a vitamin or painkiller?

It’s a curious analogy when you think about it. Especially when in the real pharmaceutical world people seem happy to spend on both, or even on (ahem) “performance enhancers”. What it comes down to is that if a product or thing literally does cure a pain, then the degree of brand loyalty to it will be unsurpassed. People will literally tell their friends. And that’s what you are after no matter what gizmo or gadget you are pushing.

Elizabeth pondered the dilemma whereby most of us can’t explain our body pains to a doctor, let alone describe the shortcomings of e.g. our knowledge worker tools to a passing product manager looking for feature enhancements.

Most of the talk was about breaking the barrier and getting into the zone where people could talk about requirements. To switch metaphors to fishing, it may be ok to use a cast net for mass-consumer products but you need a rod and line to catch the niche user.

Much of it comes down to the skills of talking and listening. And knowing when you are hearing about the problem and not the pain. And not getting hooked on acceptance or resignation, nor getting sucked into the rational.

But those are Elizabeth’s points and I look forward to when she can share them on-line with us.

For my part, I started to recall a ton of Psychology research into the (alleged) fallibility of human reasoning and communication.

If a trained counsellor can’t have an unbiased conversation with a client, what chance the untrained product manager? To use yet another metaphor, what’s the chance of asking a question without adding “cognitive contamination” to the answer?

There’s no silver bullet, but for a quick fix the least we can do is read up about some of the ways that we fool ourselves with language and thought. We could do a lot worse than start with the useful list of cognitive biases on Wikipedia.

My top five are:

1. Framing (or, the failure of invariance):  We should be able to make the same call even under a transformation from one reference frame to another. But people give different answers about the probable outcome of cancer treatments depending on whether you ask them about morbidity or survival rates

2. Base Rate Fallacy: People can happily ignore the probability of something occurring, in favour of irrelevant data. If I tell you that I adore classical music and ask you if the next piece of random music will be Mozart, you know it won’t affect the chances that it is by Bach or Mozart or whoever

3. Dunning-Kruger Effect (or, illusory superiority): I love this one. Unskilled people rate themselves higher than more competent people. Skilled people do the opposite: they assume everyone is smart like them

4. Certainty Effect: Which do you prefer: a 25% chance to win  £100 or a 20% chance to win £200? Even though the probability of winning  is reduced, we have "our eyes on the prize" and more often go for the second option

5. Categorization: I don’t actually have a top 5 list. It’s just that people love categorisation and lists always sound useful. That’s why news sites are full of “Listicles”. It’s a bias I was happy to exploit just to get your attention. Sorry :-)

Recommended reading and sources (both open as PDF):

Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1986) Rational Choice and the Framing of Decisions

Wilson, T. & Brekke, N. (1994) Mental Contamination and Mental Correction: Unwanted Influences on Judgments and Evaluations

Tags: Product Management

Paul Walsh

Written by Paul Walsh

Paul Walsh was one of the founders of Cognidox. After a period as an academic working in user experience (UX) research, Paul started a 25-year career in software development. He's worked for multinational telecom companies (Nortel), two $1B Cambridge companies (Ionica, Virata), and co-founded a couple of startup companies. His experience includes network management software, embedded software on silicon, enterprise software, and cloud computing.

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