What Everybody Ought To Know About The Product Manager Case Interview

What Everybody Ought To Know About The Product Manager Case Interview

This post is part of The Ultimate Guide to Product Manager Interview Questions series.

What does it take to be the best?

The best product strategist? The best product designer? The best technical innovator? The best product manager?

Malcolm Gladwell would tell you it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

Problem is, no one tells you their “hours” in an interview. You have to figure out a candidate’s skills for yourself.

In product management, that’s far from easy. There’s no github code archive or design portfolio to look at. And how much of the candidate’s last product success was skill?

You need to see the candidate in action—solving real product problems. Here is a product manager case interview framework that can save you time and effort.

The Product Manager Case Interview

The purpose of this interview is to evaluate competency by looking at a candidate’s skill and depth in the following functional areas:

Beyond these functional areas, what you’re looking for in a candidate is:

  • How he or she thinks about and listens to customers
  • Vision and creativity
  • Energy
  • Focus
  • Ability to learn
  • Technical product skills
  • Thought leadership

Of all of these attributes, the way a candidate thinks about and listens to customers is by far the most important. Kathy Sierra says it best:

  • “Don’t make a better [X], make a better [user of X].”
  • “Reverse engineer user awesomeness”
  • “Don’t sell me, teach me and I’ll do the rest.”

Here is a 6 minute video of Kathy talking about “don’t make a killer app, make a killer user”:

If you like this video, there is an even better one hour version here.

As you go through each section of the case interview, ask yourself whether the candidate is really focused on customers in the right way.

Is the candidate focused on killer users? Or killer apps? All the technical product skills in the world won’t make up for the wrong approach to customers.

This case interview should take 45-60 minutes to complete. The key sections are:

  • Design of Everyday Things: 15-20 minutes
  • Product Analysis – Existing Products: 15-20 minutes
  • Product Practical – Creating a New Product: 15-20 minutes

2.1 Design of Everyday Things

Great product managers understand the basic principles of design and know how to deliver a winning product in any category (not just one vertical).

Start by asking a candidate to walk you through how they would design an everyday product or service. Here are some case ideas (ask only one):

How would you design sunglasses for babies?
How would you design a grocery store for senior citizens?
How would you redesign your shower?

After the candidate’s initial answer, begin adding constraints. One at a time.

What you want to hear from the candidate is how to identify and verify actual customer problems and potential solutions.

The candidate will ideally utilize design thinking in their approach (especially prototyping), and should touch on mental models, mappings, affordances and feedback.

Here is a 4 minute video snippet on thoughtful design from Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things and one of the best thinkers on user-centered design:

2.2 Product Analysis – Existing Products

The interview questions in this section focus on the candidate’s ability to analyze the strategy, positioning and features of existing products.

Ask the candidate a series of questions about a product they like and use often:

Tell me about a product you like and use frequently. Why do you like it?
What don’t you like about it? How would you improve it?
Are there features you would remove? Why?
If you were the product manager, what would be the top 5 features for the next release?

Expand the conversation to target market, competition, marketing and pricing:

Who is the target customer? Why?
What future competitive threats might this product face?
How is the product marketed? Is the company doing a good job?
Would you change the pricing? Why?

End the section by testing a candidate’s divergent thinking and awareness of what it takes to deliver a successful product:

How many ideas can you think of to grow the number of users and revenue for this product?
What makes for a successful product?

2.3 Product Practical – Creating a New Product

In this section, the candidate should use a whiteboard to create an application on-the-fly.

Start by finding something the candidate is passionate about:

We’re going to spend some time creating a new product on the whiteboard.
In an area you’re passionate about, step me through how you would come up with a new product to build.

The candidate should be focused on identifying and validating the problem set and how he or she would engage with customers about the problem and proposed solution.

Once the candidate has identified the product he or she would like to build, ask them to develop requirements for a minimum viable product and talk about their process for getting it built:

Imagine you are the sole owner of this product. You are responsible for getting it launched and successful as soon as possible.
Can you document the requirements, provide basic wireframes and talk about your overall process?
What metrics would you track? Why?

The candidate should provide a basic process framework. If the candidate doesn’t mention prioritizing specifically, ask them how they would decide what not to build.

How did you decide what not to build?

Knowing what not to build is critical. A good candidate does this implicitly by focusing on the minimum viable product.

Ask the candidate about product development process:

What product development process would you use?
What development methodology do you prefer?
When is it appropriate to use agile? Waterfall?

Ask about how the candidate would interact with engineering and how he or she would ensure quality:

How would you assess the technical design proposed by engineering?
What would your process be for ensuring product quality?

Ask the candidate about business model:

What business model would you propose for this product?
How would you position it?

Finally, ask them to walk you through a go-to-market strategy:

What would be your go-to-market strategy?
How would you generate interest/demand?

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This post is part of The Ultimate Guide to Product Manager Interview Questions series.

P.S. A lot of people have asked for book recommendations to further prepare for a product manager interview. Here are some great ones:


Photo by Jordanhill School D&T Dept