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How to Approach A Case Study For A Product Management Interviewby@wilsonvetdev
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How to Approach A Case Study For A Product Management Interview

by Wilson NgDecember 23rd, 2021
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Digital Product Management is a vast, diverse, and exciting field. It pays to have an outstanding product management team in a world where consumers can easily compare different products using the Internet. Modern product management descended from the 'brand men' role created by Procter & Gamble in the 1930s. A Product Manager role is #3 on Glassdoor's "Best Jobs in America for 2021" with a median base salary of $121,107. There are many different career paths one can follow to become a PM.

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Introduction

Digital Product Management is a vast, diverse, and exciting field. It pays to have an outstanding product management team in a world where consumers can easily compare different products using the Internet. Digital Product Management means focusing on products that are on laptops, phones, tablets, and other devices.

Take an app; for example, it could be a company's primary focus and cash count. A website is another example of a digital product. Expedia, Amex Travel Portal, Priceline, and Kayak are all examples of websites that are digital products. These travel search engines identified their need and built a product they believed could solve the customers.

Of course, monetizing a product takes a little more finesse and creativity. A great product alone will not convince everyone equally to pay for a product in one single format. An exceptional product management team can manage the lifecycle of an existing product, scope new product ideas, validate those ideas through testing, and identify dependencies while building a product. We will cover many areas, including the role of a product manager, the other disciplines they might work closely with, their knowledge areas, what makes a great product and the tools product managers use.

Lastly, this article will present a mock response to an RFP (Request for Proposal). The made-up RFP will outline what the company wants to build or enhance, budget, current technology feasibility/infrastructure, and timeline. The mock response will include a product roadmap, work breakdown structure, a priority guide, and suggestions of technology implementations. The mock response to the RFP will incorporate many knowledge areas and justification using knowledge obtained from previous academic courses to explain the approach.

Digital Product Management

The Product Manager role is more well-known nowadays, and it shows an increasing amount of upskilling schools/courses centered around the product manager role. ProductSchool.com and Brainstation.io are two providers out of the many that offer certifications to complete their Product Management coursework. ProductSchool also provides their version of a constructive definition, yet simple, for a Product Manager. On page 10 of The Product Book, "Put simply, a product manager (PM) represents the customer" (Anon, Villaumbrosia, & Carlos, 2017). Although that definition might sound like they are oversimplifying the role of a Product Manager, the description does provide an excellent bottom-line understanding for those that would like to look into the ever-increasing in-demand role. A quick search on Glassdoor would reveal that a Product Manager role is #3 on the "Best Jobs in America for 2021" with a median base salary of $121,107. Glassdoor's grading criteria involve weighing earning potential, overall job satisfaction, and the number of job openings. The job satisfaction reported on Glassdoor isn't the highest at 3.9/5. Still, the other two factors, median base salary and 14,515 job openings, definitely contributed significantly to the PM role taking the #3 spot (Glassdoor, 2021).

According to the Product Book and the LucidChart article, modern product management descended from the 'brand men' role created by Neil H. McElroy, the then president of Procter & Gamble in the 1930s. The 'brand men' role was mentioned in a memo by McElroy to be "uniquely responsible for a brand, from sales and marketing to client relationships" (McElroy & Rogan, 1931). Reading the original document by McElroy, one can get the sense that the main responsibility of a "Brand Man" is ensuring the good quality of their product. Then moving on to the third item of the responsibilities of the "Brand Man," McElroy also mentions identifying opportunities, doing a SWOT analysis, keep documentations, albeit not word for word. Still, these are vocabularies closely related to the modern Digital Product Manager.

There are many different career paths one can follow to become a PM. The most obvious route is software engineer/developer turned product manager, or project manager turned product manager. Many product managers would also say they "happened upon" the role and didn't exclusively seek it out during a job search. Most start in a different position in an adjacent department like customer service, business, marketing, operations, or engineering. Figure one is an informative graph of a possible career path for a product manager.

Figure 1- The Product Manager Career Path from LucidChart

According to an article by 80,000.org, the modern Digital Product manager is considered "one of the best non-programming roles in the tech industry, and tech is one of the most attractive industries to work in" (Batty, 2016). Having development skills is a plus for the Digital Product manager, but we can go into more detail in the upcoming sections about knowledge areas. Ultimately, a digital product manager is responsible for building or developing a successful digital product. Digital Products include software tools, web/mobile applications, etc.

One big difference between product managers and other tech professionals is that product managers aren't specialists in any given field. They are more of the quarterback involved with planning, strategizing, and communicating with everybody on a cross-functional team. The many interfaces could include engineering, design, customer success, sales, marketing, operations, finance, legal, and more. They don't necessarily decide what gets built because some organizations might have a Product Owner role for that type of responsibility. However, taking on a structured approach to innovating and ensuring product success is the critical responsibility of the product manager.

The Product Manager and their teammates

The many interfaces of a modern digital product manager could include the design team, engineering/development, data science/analytics, sales and marketing, finance, management, and even legal. The number of interfaces a product manager interacts with will depend on the scope of the product. An outstanding product manager will take advantage of everyone in the cross-functional team and even leverage resources outside of the team to help form better decisions.

The product manager and the design team should work closely because UX/UI is a vast portion of a product. Great UX/UI affects desirability a considerable percentage of the time. It's important to understand that the design team's sole purpose is not to make designs pretty but also to build the best possible experience for users. This is where coming up with user personas, understanding user pain points, and identifying use cases are especially important. The product manager and design team have to ask difficult questions to make sure they fully understand the motivation behind the users.

If the product manager and the design team must understand what the user wants, then a majority of figuring how to get there is the engineering team's job. Here, the product manager's job is to provide valuable information about the users, their motivation, and use cases to the engineering team. The engineering team will take this information and develop optimal implementation to build the necessary solution and simultaneously communicate tradeoffs. An important thing to note here is that product managers don't necessarily have to worry about the timelines of deliverables. However, they still have to communicate with all stakeholders to manage expectations. The timeframe of deliverables is usually a project manager's responsibility.

The sales & marketing team's primary responsibility is taking a tested product with identified product-market fit to either bring to market or amplify growth. The product manager will provide the marketing team with user personas, behavior, and value propositions. An essential factor to a successful and robust interface is constant touchpoints with all your team members.

Depending on resource allocation, your product team might afford a project manager and a data science professional. A project manager is a great resource to lean on when communicating dependencies for the product. They are also great to have on your side when managing the timeline and scope of the product development process. Data science professionals such as an analyst could be a robust interface when you can provide sufficient information for them to form a strong hypothesis. You could then determine how and what data to collect and hopefully iterate and act upon the data collected to improve the product.

The Prompt

Company: StayWithUs

Background: StayWithUs is a 20-year-old travel accommodation reservation company. We are one of the first companies to be on the market with a digital booking portal allowing our customers to find various accommodations for their vacations. Our strategy is to offer vast selections of travel accommodations, including hotels, beds and breakfasts, hostels, and individual hosts with unique stays. We currently operate solely in Canada and the U.S, with future operations on the horizon. StayWithUs now has 500k+ listings and 8 million registered users from Canada and the U.S.

The purpose of this RFP is to highlight and anticipate our company's need to have a mobile application on mobile devices for our users. We are currently experiencing rapid growth, and many investors have poured in money to help us scale and amplify growth. A mobile application is slowly trending up as a user-requested software obtained from surveys and through other forms of feedbacks.

Current Architecture:

We currently have a leading booking platform website that all our users use to book travel accommodations. The front-end is built with JavaScript/React, and the backend is built with

Ruby and the Rails framework. We use MySQL for our database solution, and that's a relational database. These are the main technologies for our website to be functional. We don't foresee any drastic changes soon (3+/- years) that would call for a framework change or switching to a different front-end library. Our third-party vendors, not conclusive, include Google(for analytics), Amazon cloud services, Twilio, Mixpanel, GitHub, and many others.

What we would like to see:

We would like to see a proposal that includes, at a minimum, a product roadmap, work breakdown structure/package index, and a priority guide or wireframe. The mobile application should consist of all the functionalities our website can do. There is flexibility around what features should be on the mobile application, but please provide insights along with your recommendations.

My Proposal to the Prompt

I don't think it's best to work on a proposal in response to an RFP by yourself, but this is an excellent opportunity to practice and prepare for future case studies, whether for academia or professionally. First, one would read through an RFP thoroughly and filter some of the fluffs or unnecessary information that might not be pertinent to the work required. The client's useful information is their current software architecture and technology stack, where they operate, and a little bit of what they want us to build. We could use this information to produce more questions and request more requirements gathering sessions.

The client sometimes approaches a digital product agency with a vague idea of what they want. They might have a list of business requirements that might not make much sense to a designer or engineer. However, we can view these business requirements from a customer/user's angle and help other team members understand better through use cases or user stories.

Below are the four goals we identified to be important to the client:

  1. We need to allow users to search and make bookings with ease.
  2. We want our rewards program to provide value to our customers.
  3. We want or rewards program to encourage loyalty, retain customers, and increase usage of our mobile app.
  4. We want to provide added convenience to our customers through a mobile app without compromising on functionalities.

After identifying the goals of the client's project, requirements are also equally important. Needs could come from the business/client, users, or technical standpoint. Another helpful way of thinking about requirements is that they could also be conditions in which the project must meet or work within.

Below are the initial requirements we identified for this project:

  1. The client determines third-party vendors.
  2. The technology stack has to integrate well with the existing framework. Security measures have to meet or exceed current standards.
  3. The mobile app has to meet or exceed accessibility guidelines from A11Y. https://www.a11yproject.com/checklist/
  4. The client determines collaboration software and will facilitate meetings between all vendors and our project team.

Now that we finished identifying the goals and requirements of this project, we would usually move on to finalize the scope of an MVP. The MVP (minimum viable product) will be considered a Phase I release, and all additional enhancements/features will be added to future releases or later phases. Identifying an MVP helps us build a product that can immediately provide value to users, thus increasing the product's desirability. The product also has to be viable so the client can justify their spending. Below are other deliverables/outputs we would use to communicate with the client to help them visualize our vision.

Other deliverables that could result from collaboration sessions with your team:

Figure 2 — Priority Guide for StayWithUs Mobile App

Figure 2 shows a priority guide for the StayWithUs Mobile App. A priority guide is similar to a wireframe in which it will communicate what components will need to be included on a specific screen. A wireframe will usually look very similar to a finished working product. Still, a significant benefit of using a priority guide instead is that it allows all collaborators to focus on the goal of each screen and experience. Often, when looking at wireframes, we might focus too much on the minute details of font type, sizes, shapes, and other texts that might change later. A priority guide will allow us to focus on user experience and ensure the screen we are working on helps us accomplish our goals.

Figure 3 — Collaboration Output for StayWithUs Mobile App

Figure 3 is a collection of sticky notes with ideas, questions, and assumptions. Some assumptions will need to be included in future fact-finding or requirements gathering sessions with the client to find out more information, and other assumptions might need to receive approval from the client. For example, our team assumes that the IOS version of the mobile app should be released first in Phase I due to the higher market share in North America, and that's also taking into account that our client's HQ and operations are located in North America. However, the client might have other ideas in mind which they might not have communicated during our first meeting (O'Dea, 2021).

Figure 4 — Collaboration Session Output for StayWithUs Mobile App

Figure 4 is output from feature prioritization. The client came to us with an RFP with a list of features they want, and we have to prioritize the features into different baskets. The Must-haves will make it into the MVP for Phase I release, and there's usually more wiggle room for the other two baskets. Sometimes it is also a good idea to suggest new features/enhancements that might increase the appeal or usage of the mobile app. Many people would consider push notifications as a standard enhancement, but it isn't a primary feature that the client needs. So push notifications might end up in Should-Haves after a few more requirements gathering sessions with the client/end-users.

Authentication and authorization are essential to a business because they have to safeguard valuable data, and their customers also have privacy concerns. One could argue that users don't need to log in or register to make or view current bookings as long as they have a confirmation number. This would mean that anyone can view your booking information if they happen to come across your confirmation number. Another important reason to include authentication and authorization into Phase I is that the rewards program will depend on proper authentication and authorization. A mobile app user needs to register to enroll in the rewards program, and a user needs to log in to access their account information, which will include their loyalty tier. This also meets the client's business requirement of having their rewards program into the MVP.

Other features like editing account information, preferred payment methods, and editing bookings could wait until later phases, as indicated in Figure 4. This is because the client's website offers these solutions, and we could allocate resources to build a great MVP without scattering our focus. It will undoubtedly cause minor inconvenience to our mobile app users, but sometimes the budget doesn't allow us to tackle too many items at once.

Works Cited:

Anon, J., Villaumbrosia, G. D., & Carlos. (2017). The Product Book: How to Become a Great Product Manager. Product School.

Batty, R. (2016, 12). 80,000Hours, Product manager in tech. Retrieved 11 21, 2021

Glassdoor. (2021). Glassdoor, 50 Best Jobs in America for 2021. Retrieved November 21, 2021

McElroy, N., & Rogan, R. (1931, May 13). Marketing, Brand Teams.

Nash, D. (2020, May 12). 280Group, What is Digital Product Management? Retrieved 11 21, 2021

O'Dea, S. (2021, 08). Subscriber share held by smartphone operating systems in the United States from 2012 to 2021. Retrieved from Statista: https://www.statista.com/statistics/266572/market-share-held-by-smartphone-platforms-in-the-united-states/

Team, L. C. (n.d.). LucidChart, The Product Manager Career Path. Retrieved 11 21, 2021

van Nues, H., & Overkamp, L. (2018, 5 3). A List Apart, Priority Guides: A Content-First Alternative to Wireframes. Retrieved 11 21, 2021