Product Sense

Domain Knowledge

building a great product crosses many domains

🌳 Evergreen Last updated on Jan 28th, 2021

Product sense is about making better decisions. If you have a deep understanding of the domains you’re operating in, you’ll naturally make better decisions.

Good PMs extensively research the domain in which their product operates. Great PMs become the worldwide experts in that domain...


To become a domain expert, you'll want a good understanding of:

Customers and Consumers – How well do you understand their problems and the progress they’d like to make?
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Industry and Competition – How do you define your competition, and what are your strengths relative to theirs?
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Product and Technology – Do you understand the product and the potential of the technologies that power it?
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Customers and Consumers

Start by talking to your customers. The people that buy your product. The people that use your product. And potentially the people that consume the output. Try to understand the problems they're facing, and the outcomes they'd like to create.

The struggling moment is the seed for innovation.


The Jobs to be Done (JTBD) framework is a good place to start. The premise is that people don't buy products. They hire them to make progress in their lives. They usually don't think about hiring a product until they have a struggling moment. You need to understand these moments and position your product to help them in that context.

If this concept is new to you, I suggest watching the video below to get a basic understanding.

Customers are often segmented by demographics. But you want to understand causation, not correlation. First, identify the jobs they want to get done. Leverage that knowledge across product development, marketing, and sales.

There's probably a distinct set of causes behind the reason they buy your product. When you talk with your customers, try to understand the timeline of events that led up to the initial purchase so you can uncover those hidden causes.

JTBD Timeline


During this journey, forces are pulling in multiple directions.

  • What was pushing them towards buying?
  • What anxieties were pulling them away from the purchase?
  • What are the tradeoffs they're willing to make?

You need to understand the progress they are trying to make. And the thing that's preventing that progress.

Excerpt from 📖
Demand Side Sales 101: Stop selling and help your customers make progress

It's natural human behavior to hold back when being questioned; to give the simplest answers to stop the interview. As a result, our interviewing techniques are based more on criminal interrogation methods than market research methods and social sciences.

You must unpack things from the details, to actions, as well as when (time) and space (where). It's the details that enable us to understand what caused a person to make progress and buy our product or solution.

Interviewing for causes is part art (learned through experience) and part science. It's based more on criminal and intelligence interrogation that traditional interviewing and market research templates.

This approach can help you empathize with customers, and discover their struggling moments. But it means you need to talk to your customers. And you need to talk to them in a specific sort of manner.

This can NOT be done on a zoom "Brainstorming" or surveying customers needs. It starts with a set of long-form, hard core open ended interviews.


Below is an example of what this type of interview might look like.

Another useful tactic is to break down your customer's job into a series of process steps. For example, most content creators can break down their work into these steps:

  1. Plan/Schedule the Work
  2. Design/Create the Work
  3. Publish the Work
  4. Analyze the Results
  5. Make Changes based on Performance

Most jobs will follow a similar pattern, that can be broken down into distinct steps. Your product won't need to address every step, but you should understand where you fit in to the entire job that needs to get done.

Excerpt from 💻
Outcome-Driven Innovation: JTBD Theory in Practice

Analysis of hundreds of jobs has revealed that all jobs consist of some or all of the eight fundamental process steps: define, locate, prepare, confirm, execute, monitor, modify and conclude

A job map is not a customer journey or customer experience map: it does not describe the journey the customer goes through to buy, receive, set-up, use, upgrade, clean and maintain a product.

Read Moreby Tony Ulwick

For each step there are one or more desired outcomes. You can then use quantitative methods to ask customers how important the job is, and how satisfied they are with an existing solution or service.

JTBD Survey

Satisfied needs do not motivate a change in behavior.

Make sure you understand the problems they have at each step and the progress they’d like to make. The struggling moment creates demand. Make your product fit that context.

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Industry and Competition

Now that you understand the jobs your customers have, you can decide which ones you want to focus on. What are the alternatives they can choose? How will you be different? A deep understanding of the industry and competition can help you deliver a successful product.

Excerpt from 💻
3 types of knowledge a product manager should seek

Although organizational knowledge and product knowledge are tremendously valuable, we have to admit that if we had to pick one type of knowledge to be successful in product management, we’d pick industry knowledge.

Industry knowledge is most directly associated with the ability to deliver successful products that will grow your company’s revenue.

Industry knowledge breaks down into a few categories, but generally we mean having a subtle and multifaceted understanding of the trends that drive buying decisions in the marketplace where you compete, the up-and-coming solutions to current (and future!) customer problems, and how those customer problems vary by industry in your customer base.

Read Moreby B. Reeves and B. Gaines

To understand your industry and competition, you'll need to know the trends that drive buying decisions and you can uniquely position yourself. It's therefore important to answer:

  • Who is our target customer?
  • Why are they selecting our product instead of our competition?
  • How will we reach them?

Watch the video below to see how this is done.

  • Target Customer – a segment of the workstation market that was underserved and growing fast
  • Why They Choose – need to build at least one custom application and/or use great productivity apps (with interpersonal computing)
  • Distribution Strategy – developer camp to increase bottem-up demand (3x faster than Sun)

A set of customers who need great productivity apps and want to connect to others. The market is still relevant 30+ years later. And we're all part of it. Vision 🔮.

It helps to understand the dimensions of performance that your customers care about, and understanding how you can uniquely improve their experience. Below is a more recent example of defining your basis of competition.

Excerpt from 📈
Netflix Q4 2018 Shareholder Letter

In the US, we earn around 10% of television screen time and less than that of mobile screen time. In 2 other countries, we earn a lower percentage of screen time due to lower penetration of our service. We earn consumer screen time, both mobile and television, away from a very broad set of competitors.

We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO.

...Our growth is based on how good our experience is, compared to all the other screen time experiences from which consumers choose. Our focus is not on Disney+, Amazon or others, but on how we can improve our experience for our members.

Read Moreby R. Hastings & others

Managers and industry analysts often keep their framing of competition simple, but from the JTBD perspective competition is not limited a single category.

Netflix doesn't compete with video-streaming companies, they compete with all our screen time options. Their focus is on improving that experience.

In the software world, where you can build almost anything, it's crucial to have a well-defined scope for your product. Choose your competition wisely, as you'll want to focus on where you can add the most value compared to alternatives.

Where to start

  1. Find the first step in the workflow where you can add new value
  2. Plan how to transistion from the previous step

Where to stop

  1. When the next step is done by a market leader
  2. If the next step can be completed in many different ways
  3. You're at a step where you can't add value

Some steps may be well-served by industry leading companies, but others might be underserved and ripe for improvement. To get the most leverage, you'll need to focus where you add value and not try to build everything. You need to define a competitive position that is unique and valued by customers.

You need to understand your industry and competition.

It often takes grunt work to identify the relevant resources to help you get this understanding. If you're lucky, you might already know an expert that can help you speed up the process. Either way, you'd better get to work.

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Product and Technology

Product knowledge means knowing your product inside and out – its benefits, its limitations, what users love about it, and what they hate.

You should understand how all the features in a product are connected together, so you are able to evaluate different designs and pick a solution that customers will more easily understand. You don't need to sweat minute technical details, but you should be able converse at technical level about architecture and product decisions alike.

The exact amount of technical knowledge needed will depend on the product. Something developer focused (like an SDK) or involving data science will require more than a UX-driven product.

Of course it never hurts to have more technical skills than required. A solid foundation would include basic knowledge of:

  • Front end technologies - HTML, CSS, JS
  • Backend technologies - programming languages, APIs, databases
  • Architecture, devops and testing

On top of this, it's helpful to have knowledge of general principles around UI design and usability.

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Some final words

on Domain Knowledge

Great PMs possess knowledge across multiple domains. Acquiring this knowledge can take time, but it pays off with better outcomes in the end.

Excerpt from 💻
Product Judgment: How some people can repeatedly create product success

You can observe and talk to customers as they engage in using your product and its workflows, deeply interrogating UI decisions you’ve made, and that will help you build Product Judgment in knowing how to design an easy-to-use product. It won’t help you make roadmap calls.

Building a great product crosses many domains. From what problems the product solves, to how it solves them, to how it is priced and positioned in the market.

To build fully rounded Product Judgment, you need to cover the wide range. This is why when I run customer interviews, I always cover a lot of ground. When working at Google, I ran many hundreds of tactical research interviews on the usability of proposed new social products.

Read Moreby Paul Adams

Anything Missing?

If you think something is missing from this section, please use the link below and I'll add it if it makes sense.

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Otherwise, continue to the next section in Product Sense to learn about the importance of empathy, and how to improve your interpersonal communication.