3c. Product interview example 1

What are your three favorite products? Pick one – why?

Introduction

This is one of the most common early product interview questions. It’s generally very approachable – who doesn’t have some favorite products? – and helps get the candidate talking. While this question isn’t the end-all-be-all during the interview, it’s an opportunity for the candidate to provide some really positive signals early on, if the answer is strong. Let’s dissect this question a bit.

Three favorite products

Generally, the ask for three products is just so the interviewer can pick the most appropriate or interesting one of the three to ask you further questions about.  The interviewer may give you some guiderails for you to choose the three products. For example, if you’re interviewing with a large tech firm, the interviewer may ask you to explicitly not choose one of that company’s products. Generally it’s appropriate to choose three web- or app-based products, though if the interviewer doesn’t specify and you wanted to be a bit creative, you could name a non-software product as one of the three.

Here are some additional tips for choosing your three products:

  • Make sure you choose products you actually like and which you’ve actually used (otherwise this question becomes much harder to answer well)
  • You really don’t have to choose three products that are all incredibly creative or three startups; picking a couple “boring” products is fine
  • But, try not to make all three products from large tech firms; use at least one slot to pick something a bit more interesting (though be ready for the interviewer to pick this one!)
  • Try to avoid the product that the interviewer works for (if you know it) – the interviewer has too much history with it
  • Make sure all the products you pick are ones you’re ready to speak about

The follow-ups

The ask for three products is generally a setup for the interviewer to pick one of the three and then ask you further questions about it. The most common question you’ll get to start is “Why do you like this product?”. Some other follow-ups include:

  • What would you do to improve it?
  • If you were the CEO of that product, what would you focus on?
  • If you had to market this product to <new audience>, how would you do it?
  • How does it fit within its competitive landscape?
  • Where do you think this product could go in 5-10 years?

These questions, and many more, are all fair game, and are all opportunities for you to demonstrate your product thinking a bit.

How to apply the framework

The general framework for product interview questions applies here: Bring everything back to the user.

To start off with, you should try to roughly identify either the user need or the target user groups first. Either order is generally fine, depending on the product. Identifying the core user need being addressed is often easier, and then you can give examples of a few user groups that experience that need. Or, you can start off mentioning some key user groups that the product tries to address, and what shared user need they have. With either ordering, it’s generally good to acknowledge any differences between the different examples you’ve offered (e.g. how different user groups have slightly different riffs on the user need), but it’s fine to declare that the fundamental user need the product is trying to solve is X.

After articulating the user need, you should then talk about how the product addresses that user need. Feel free to state the obvious here (but no need to belabor the point). Hopefully, the product you chose does elegantly address the user need (and if it doesn’t, maybe you should pick a different product!).

One piece of advice here – don’t focus everything around yourself. It’s fine to acknowledge when you’re making an assumption based off of your own behavior or preferences, but try not to make too many of these – you are a user, but not necessarily a prototypical user! You should demonstrate that you can think more generally about an entire user group; don’t be too self-centered.

After explaining how the product addresses the need, that’s when you can begin to riff a bit on related topics. For example, you might want to commend the product on its intuitive UI (and explain what about it makes it intuitive). Or, maybe you want to talk about how they had a clever strategy for growing their userbase (“virality” is a common, but fine, answer). Or, you can talk about their business model and how well it supports their product (perhaps the company doesn’t have a solid business model yet; that’s fine to acknowledge). As you riff, make sure to mention the user: do their current users benefit from some of these other topics you’re bringing up, thus reinforcing their relative strength in the market? Or, are they straying from their core usergroup, which is a cause for your concern?

It could also be interesting to touch briefly upon what you see as the future potential of the product, or where you see it going. You could brainstorm briefly on cool new ideas you think the company could pursue, or talk about potential business opportunities or partnerships to explore.

With this particular question, it is worth taking the time before the interview to prep a bit by doing research on each of your three products. Try to find some news or analysis about the company that reveals something unexpected or interesting about the company. This can help inform your overview and musings about it – remember to be truthful about the fact that you learned something through a third party source, because you’re not going to lose points on that!

An example

Let’s say the product the interviewer chose to have you explore is Venmo. Here’s a sample answer that hits on some of the advice given above:

I really like Venmo as a product because it solves a common but previously unaddressed user need very well: it makes it really easy for users to transfer money, cashlessly, amongst one another. This is a user need that a younger audience probably experiences more commonly.  Users in high school through young adulthood are likely socializing with people their age quite frequently, and moreover they are used to relying on apps, which already carry potentially sensitive financial information like their bank account balances or credit card spending. They are likely used to cashless transactions, and thus are less likely to carry cash on them, which was the previous medium for easily transferring money to their friends. When these users split transactions with their friends, whether it be a meal or rent, they want an easy way to split the cost. Cash isn’t as convenient because the recipient then has to carry around more cash, which is less convenient to use. And checks are definitely not as convenient because they have to be cashed. The ability to transfer money digitally is really convenient for this core user group.

Of course, the high school through young adulthood age range is a fairly wide one, and there might be some differences in user needs. For example, high school students are probably relying on their parents for money, so perhaps their parents are interested in monitoring their children’s spending, which might be an interesting feature area to explore. Young adults, on the other hand, might have the occasional large transaction they want to make, such as rent, so we might want to keep these in mind in case they need special handling of some sort. But for all these user groups, the core problem is transferring money from peer to peer, which Venmo solves pretty well.

I like Venmo not only because it solves this user need really well (and I experience this user need fairly frequently with my friends), but also because it does so with a very simple UI. All you have to do is find your friend on Venmo, either through screen name or phone number, which is a great unique identifier when everyone you’re interacting with has their own cell phone, and then you decide to pay or request a certain amount of money, and that’s it. Almost all of my Venmo requests from friends have cleared pretty quickly because the app pings the recipient with a notification on a transaction.

Despite how well Venmo solves these problems, there are two areas that are a bit confusing to me. One is the social feed. While many users seem to use the social feed to write a funny little message for the transaction, I’m not sure it actually promotes usage. For one, exposing one’s financial transactions still seems to be something that most people aren’t fully comfortable with. Second, the feeds are only between and visible to people who already use Venmo, so it doesn’t seem like a great way to attract new users, since most users keep their feeds at least semi-private. Perhaps I’m missing something here, but the social aspect does not make as much sense to me for a money-transferring app.

A second area is the general business model. I think Venmo was originally trying to monetize by working with businesses to accept Venmo as a form of payment, and then Venmo would take a small percentage from each transaction. It would essentially be like this generation’s credit card. However, this never seemed to take off. One guess why is that most users of Venmo have credit cards already, which might charge around the same amount of Venmo. So, businesses never felt a compelling reason to accept Venmo as a form of payment. I wonder if Venmo considered charging businesses no transaction fees for a certain amount of time to try to grow their ecosystem.

Venmo was eventually acquired by Braintree, another player in the payments space, so I imagine the pressure to monetize is a bit lessened now. I sense there are still a lot of users of Venmo, so there’s still room to do some interesting things. For example, maybe Venmo could move towards being like Mint, becoming a hub for a user to track all of her spending in one place. Or, maybe a simpler next step is to help with things adjacent to when users would be using Venmo today, things such as splitting bills for things like restaurant checks, scheduling recurring payments to peers for something like rent, or offering discounts when we detect the user is in a certain geographic area.

So in summary, I like Venmo because it addresses a clear user need very elegantly. It may not have as great a business model, but its large userbase is a testament to how well it addresses a common user need, and I think this large userbase could allow it to try some more interesting ideas in the near future.