One of the most valuable things I’ve learned through working in consulting, taking various online courses, and hosting podcasts, is how to ask better questions.
Whether you’re interviewing users, want to learn what it’s like to work for another employer, or have an interesting conversation at a bar, more effective questions make your interactions more productive, engaging, and entertaining.
A great question causes someone to think in a new way and is a fun intellectual problem to solve (especially for smart people), but the cost of bad questions are obvious – people think you’re a moron, they get frustrated, you lose rapport, and the result (eg: a conversation, interview etc) sucks.
Here are some bad questions I hear often in podcasts and other product management content, better alternatives, and a way to apply this framework to various life situations (like user interviews, writing a great question on Quora, or having a fun convo at a bar).
Bad Question: What are the most important skills for a product manager in 2017?
What’s the likely answer here? Probably some combination of “technical skills, the ability to manage stakeholders, being data driven” and so forth. Is this a useful answer? For me, the answer is no. I’m not sure whether I’m being data-driven enough (or in the right way), I know I’ve got technical skills (but am I technical enough on the right technologies?) and so on. Here are some better questions:
- What’s your framework to identify vanity metrics for your product?
- What are the most useful ways you’ve found to understand what your engineering/marketing/sales/design team(s) are struggling with?
- What are the most common sources of conflict with engineering/sales/marketing/design, and what are the most effective ways you’ve found to address this?
- For PMs with a non-technical background, what’s one technology you think they’re wasting their time learning?
- What’s the worst advice you see given out to PMs?
Bad Question: How’d you launch/scale/grow [product]?
If the intent is to create an entertaining story, this is a great question. If, however, the intent is to glean insights that others could apply, this is a terrible question. It *may* have some nuggets inserted in it if the interviewee is insightful enough to realize the intent of the question, but a lot is left up to chance. Here are some alternatives:
- What did you do that your competitors didn’t that made you successful?
- If you could go back and do it all over again, what would you definitely do the same and what would you change?
- Is there anything you tried that wasn’t effective?
- What surprised you about the launch?
How you can apply this framework to user interviews (or anything else)
Here’s what I’ve learned to do – first, guess the likely answer to a question (eg: here’s a quiz – if you ask a stranger how they are, what will they say? Most likely “good, how are you?“, right?)
If you guess the answer and you expect an answer that isn’t useful to you, here are some ways to improve the question:
- Negate – the ways in which we’re the same are predictable, but what makes us different or opposed to the norm is normally rarely talked about
- “what do you think is the worst feature of this product?”
- “what made you decide to use our product rather than the competitor’s?”
- “what does Google offer PMs for benefits that other tech companies don’t?”
- Ask for examples
- “how do I know if I’m data-driven/technical enough?”
- Minimize the scope and get more specific – it’s hard to answer a question with infinite answers (“what do you think of these features?”). It’s much easier for your brain to come up with one option.
- “if you had to get rid of one of these proposed features, which would you eliminate?”
- “if you could only keep one feature, which would you keep?”
- “of these two logos, which do you prefer?”
- “what was your biggest hesitation before signing up?”
- Surprise – before a decision, smart people do a lot of research, but we all miss things. Chances are the things they missed are the same things you’re missing. You don’t need to hear about the things you already know, but the surprising things for them will likely be surprising for you too.
- “what surprised you most about working for Twitter?”
Here’s a question for you — what was your biggest takeaway from reading this?
PS – here’s a downloadable list of my Product Radio sample questions. You’re free to use & adapt as you like (Free as in Speech)
PPS – here are some fun non-cliché questions you can use as conversation starters the next time you’re at the bar:
- If you didn’t study X, what would you have done?
- What’s your third most-favorite band?
- What’s the most underrated place you’ve traveled to?
- What are 3 attractive things about you that have nothing to do with your looks?
- What’s something you wish you got more compliments on?