For product managers, the most important part of the job is truly understand what the user's problem is. It sounds easy, but in reality, understanding and defining a problem clearly is a huge challenge.

Product managers need to identify problems and prioritize those problems. This enables a product manager, in conjunction with a design and engineering team to build a solution to that problem. Unfortunately, what I see and what I hear most of the time is that product managers are instead focused on two things:

  1. the product manager's problems
  2. a cool solution

The product manager's problems

Because product managers are trying to build products that users love and, most importantly, are willing to pay for (be it by engaging with advertisements, or, better yet, paying for value delivered), it is critical that product managers are focused on what their users need and what problems they have. This requires empathy on behalf of the product managers for their users problems.

In an idealized world a product manager would be solving for a group of users just like her; in which she is the user and understands everything. This is very rare. It sometimes happens for entrepreneurs, who have the luxury of hiring themselves to solve their of problems. My previous company, Wallaby, was an example of this. However, in the real world, most product managers are doing a job and are not specifically solving a problem that applies directly to herself.

What I see is product managers attempting to mangle the problem into a problem that matters to himself and that he can solve. For example, at Wallaby we were primarily focused on helping a type of user that is focused on credit card reward maximization. These users typically did not carry credit card balances and did not care about that problem.

That said, more people in the country carry a credit card balance and solving for this is a tempting idea. It serves a lot of users and a lot of product managers, including some who worked for me at Wallaby, wanted to go after this. It wasn't out goal, nor was it our user, however. If we tried to solve that problem we would have been ignoring our users problems, and instead be focusing on our (the product manager's) own problems.

A cool solution

The second common error that product managers make is to focus on a solution, without regard for whether a problem exists at all. This is backwards product management, but sometimes it just works out OK.

For example, you might conceive of a really cool product, like an automated drone for rotating the pebbles in your rock garden. I suppose out there someone is probably frustrated about rock garden pebble rotation, but in this silly example, it seems more like a solution in search of a real problem.

Finding problems, comparing problems

We're not looking for solutions (yet) and we're hoping to solve problems for an identified user group. This is where things really become challenging. What is a good problem? Do enough people have this problem?

The most famous version of this question that I hear (which I don't like) is: "is it a vitamin or a painkiller?" (Implying that vitamins are only nice to have.)

I would argue that severity of the problem might factor into usage frequency, value provided, and pricing, but it doesn't factor into whether or not a problem is real (or not).

For example, many of the most popular products don't solve a real pain (at least not in my opinion). Take Spotify. This is a hugely successful product and company that solves the problem of users not being able to access virtually any song they want to at any time. This is a valid problem. It isn't life-threatening. There was music before Spotify (and there will be music after). This might make this a vitamin, not a painkiller, but for some people it might be a real pain. Either way, it is a real problem; therefore you can build a real product to solve it.

The related part of this question is: can you be a product manager at Spotify if you don't care about music? Perhaps Spotify wouldn't want you to be, but if you were good at being a product manager, then yes, you absolutely could.

In technology companies, especially in startups, all hiring managers, especially founders/CEOs, are seeking people for whom the problem is personal. This is a shortcut to solve the first issue noted above more than anything else. I agree that product managers who are solving problems where they are user have an easier time and, perhaps, can come up with new problem statements more rapidly.

However, it is absolutely not a requirement and I believe hiring managers may be missing some great opportunities by making this a requirement. In one last example, when I worked at Green Dot, we made reloadable prepaid debit cards for the unbanked. Not surprisingly, most of the company, including the product team, was banked. We had to work harder to understand our users, understand their motivations, and have empathy for their problems. This is all achievable; we probably were not going to find unbanked technical product managers.

If you want to build a great product, you need to spend time with your users, you need to understand their real problems, and you need to focus on articulating that clearly and in a prioritized way. Only then can you focus on how to solve the problem.