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  • Writer's pictureHarshal

Navigating Product Manager Case Interviews

Updated: May 13

Avoid These 6 Ideas. Use This Framework To Ace Case And Strategy Questions.


When interviewing for a product management role, you may encounter product, case, or strategy questions. Behavioral questions probe your past experiences. Unlike behavioral questions, product case questions focus on your ability to apply hard skills to hypothetical scenarios. Below, we'll explore several frameworks and examples to help you ace these questions.


I wrote another post about doing well in PM interviews here.


Two people in an interview conversation with their minds whirring with frameworks.
Two people in an interview conversation with their minds whirring with frameworks.

This post was originally published on www.sparkcreativetechnologies.com on Oct 11, 2023.


Objectives Of Case Interview Questions

Case interview questions assess your mastery of the hard skills essential for a product manager, specifically across the 9 phases of the product life cycle, as described here. If you’ve seen the resume checker, you are familiar with these phases.

The interviewer uses case questions to evaluate your proficiency in applying a structured approach to problem-solving. Since you are in the tech industry, you need to demonstrate 1) a deep understanding of technology and business, and 2) the capacity to drive innovation.


Balance Of Innovative Vs. Structured Responses

excelling at case questions required innovation and structure.
excelling at case questions required innovation and structure.

During interviews, you will feel the tension between offering a structured response and demonstrating spontaneous innovation. You can learn to do both by:

  1. Frameworks: Refining your framework through practice, which will lend structure to your responses. Over time, you'll internalize this framework. You will smoothly integrate it into your responses without needing to explicitly look at it.

  2. Second Brain: Creating a cheat sheet or a second brain filled with innovative ideas across product types. This spreadsheet will assist you in recalling and applying a previously conceived innovative idea to a new question or scenario during the interview.


Strengthening Your Innovation Muscle

Three key strategies to strengthen your innovation muscle:

  1. Compile a List

  2. Focus on Core Tech

  3. Stay Informed


1 - Compile A List

Begin by developing your innovation muscle through the creation of a spreadsheet. List out:

  1. Your favorite smartphone apps, offline products, electronic gadgets, or websites. Or your most-used, loved, recently-purchased, or least-used product.

  2. Products and appliances that need an accessibility version. Imagine, for example, a cooktop, smart watch, or microwave tailored for use by individuals in wheelchairs or those with visual impairments.


Use a spreadsheet application like Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel for this instead of Notion, OneNote, or Google Docs. Writing in small spreadsheet cells instead of large documents will force you to be succinct.


2 - Focus On Core Tech

Next, devote time to brainstorming multiple enhancement ideas for each of these products, aiming for 10x improvements.


Concentrate your innovative efforts on one or two core technologies. In my case, I focused on a (ML) machine-learning-based recommendation engine, drawn from my experience across various companies. My experience helped me identify input/training data for almost any product. I could think of ways to enhance any product’s user experience through tailored recommendations using ML algorithms. So, I built on my strength.


3 - Stay Informed

Keep your finger on the pulse of innovation by staying current with

  1. new startup ventures and

  2. cutting-edge features introduced by major tech players.


You can suggest similar features for other products based on these updates. To stay up to date in tech, refer to my previous article with a curated list of sources.


“Good artists copy, great artists steal”.


Avoid These 6 Ideas In Product Design And Case Questions

Here are some ideas to avoid. I’ll explain why.


1 - Resist The All-in-One Product

Do not propose an all-in-one product. Proposing a product that aggregates all functions found in competitors' offerings, plus additional features, indicates a lack of prioritization. It reveals an overreliance on existing products. It shows a deficiency in identifying niche unmet needs and meeting these user needs through unique solutions. Aim for an independent product proposal rather than a feature addition to what industry leaders already provide.


2 - Bypass Minor Enhancements

Refrain from suggesting UI improvements or bug fixes that offer slight user experience enhancements. Your proposed enhancements should be substantial. What does substantial mean? It should necessitate comprehensive changes, including frontend, backend, and algorithmic modifications, thereby showcasing your depth of skill in product development.


3 - Choose Outside The Popular

This is relevant for discussions when you are asked to choose the product to improve.


Avoid selecting widely recognized products for enhancement during discussions of your favorite products or most-used apps. Opting for platforms like Gmail, Uber, or WhatsApp, which are industry benchmarks, means your suggested improvements are likely to be incremental. Additionally, interviewers, familiar with these platforms, may have counterarguments ready, challenging the feasibility of your ideas.


For instance, I once suggested YouTube highlight only relevant video segments for viewers, to save them from needing to watch entire videos. But my interviewer at Google shot down my idea as it conflicted with Youtube’s objective of maximizing viewing time. Interesting that Youtube later launched this feature.


4 - Steer Clear of Integration or Acquisition

Do not give an idea that requires integration between products or acquisition of a company. Ideas centered around integrating services like Google Calendar, Gmail, or Facebook with other products, or hypothesizing potential acquisitions, tend to fall flat. These concepts are not centered on tech or product-first thinking. Given the mixed success rates of acquisitions and the complex tech ecosystems of each side, you are likely suggesting minor improvements rather than transformative changes. Also, these strategies are executed by large business development and acquisition teams, so a Product Manager would not be able to own and make such an impact.


5 - Avoid Ad-Based Pricing

Don’t propose advertising as a primary revenue source. Ad revenue alone is not sufficient to sustain an entire company. Focus instead on more viable, innovative revenue strategies.


6 - Avoid Price Promotions

Do not propose lowering your price as a competitive response or to enter a new market. Price is a weak differentiator of a hi-tech product. Setting a low price does not help you showcase your PM hard skills.


Framework For Product Case Questions

9 step framework for product case questions from clarifying the situation, identifying needs, to measuring the launch success.
9 step framework for product case questions from clarifying the situation, identifying needs, to measuring the launch success.

I recommend using this framework when tackling product case questions. These steps are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive (MECE). You can skip certain steps depending on the context.


I built the above framework after reading some books and experimenting with frameworks across 100s of mock interviews until I identified one that resonated with my approach and for other aspirants. I referenced these books: 1) Decode and Conquer 2) Cracking the PM Interview.


Here are the 9 stages:

  1. Clarify the Situation

  2. Identify the Users

  3. Identify User Needs

  4. Identify gap vs existing product(s)

  5. Identify Feature Improvements

  6. Execution Plan

  7. Go-to-market plan

  8. Metrics and counter-metrics

  9. Evaluate risk and trade-offs


There are 4 ‘Identify’ steps. Use a convergence-divergence approach (from design-thinking) at each step. Thanks to Michelle Ovalle for the illustration.

Divergent and Convergent steps in the ideation process.
Divergent and Convergent steps in the ideation process.

Here is a short overview of each stage.


1 - Clarify The Situation

Begin by asking clarifying questions. For instance, is the goal to increase revenue, profits, or the user base (for network effects)? Is the market scope one city, one country, or global? You may get directions from your interviewer. Or you may be asked to make assumptions and move forward.


2 - Identify The Users

Determine if the end user and the buyer are the same. They may not be the same in B2B procurement or children's products. For a smartphone app, define the target audience: all phone users, smartphone users, iPhone users, or users who also use app X.


3 - Identify User Needs

Understand the user's mindset, needs, and challenges. For example, a product designed for senior citizens might require a different interface than one aimed at teenagers.

One way to show your understanding of user needs is by drawing a customer journey map. I wrote more about it here.

4 - Identify Gaps Vs. Existing Products

Every new product has predecessors. Understand what current solutions users employ to meet their needs. Even a teleporter has an existing product. How do users travel distances physically or virtually? They go in a car, train, or plane. They may only send their thoughts, not their body, by using email, letters, phone call, or Zoom meeting.


5 - Identify Feature Improvements

Suggest improvements by identifying gaps in user needs. Present at least 3 feasible ideas. If you have only 1 feasible idea, you run the risk of having your idea shot down by your interviewer. If you have more than 1 suggestion, your interview can help you eliminate some that they do not like.


Utilize a 2x2 matrix or similar tool to categorize your features. You can compare cost versus benefit, short-term customer advantage versus long-term architectural value, or use the Kano model.


6 - Execution Plan

Outline the execution strategy. Describe the cross-functional teams you will need to work with, and why. Does this need not just engineering but also design and data scientists? Does this need other product teams?


7 - Go-To-Market Plan

Explain how you would introduce your product to the market. How will customers learn about your product or feature? What will encourage them to use it? Demonstrate your understanding of user discoverability.


8 - Metrics And Counter-Metrics

Determine how you will measure success. What metrics should not move when your success metrics are changing? For example, if reducing customer support tickets is a success metric, ensure customer satisfaction isn't compromised. The objective is to autonomously address user requirements without causing a rise in customer attrition.


9 - Evaluate Risks And Trade-Offs

Choosing one feature over others comes with trade-offs. For instance, a ML-based personalization feature might alienate privacy-focused users. How will you mitigate these risks? How will you tackle the "cold start" problem in network-effect products? Are there shortcomings in your MVP that future product roadmap needs to address?


Framework For Product Launch Or Go-To-Market

Different ways to announce a feature are grouped in pre-release, release, and post-release phase.
Different ways to announce a feature are grouped in pre-release, release, and post-release phase.

One of the steps in the 9-step framework is planning the product launch. Utilize some of the tools mentioned in the above visual to launch and announce your product.


Framework For Market Entry

When considering a market entry scenario, use the well-known Porter's 5 Forces framework. Use this when considering entering a new country or targeting a new user segment.

Porter’s 5-forces framework.
Porter’s 5-forces framework.

Here's a brief overview of each force:


1 - Rivalry Among Existing Competitors

  • An increase in competitors results in more competition. Without differentiation, this can lead to a price war.

  • Market growth allows competitors to thrive without cannibalizing each other's share.

  • High exit costs make companies reluctant to leave, even in adverse conditions.


2 - Buyer Power

  • In industries dominated by a few key buyers (e.g., government agencies or large banks), these entities wield significant control.


3 - Supplier Power

  • This is relevant if the suppliers of critical components or materials have significant bargaining power over companies.


4 - Threat of Substitutes

  • For instance, online retailers like Amazon face competition from physical stores.


5 - Threat of New Entrants

  • Barriers to entry play a critical role here.

  • If the products are priced high, it provides an opportunity for new players to enter the market.


Framework For Product Pricing

When it comes to pricing a product, there are 3 primary approaches to consider. Don’t choose just one of these 3, but look at these methods collectively in the pricing discussion.

The 3 Pricing approaches:

  1. Cost-plus

  2. Value-based

  3. Competitor-based


Here’s how you can integrate all three methods:


Cost-plus: Calculate the cost per product (unit) and add a slight margin to go above break even. Or add a percentage profit margin.

Use this method to determine your floor price - the minimum you could consider charging for your product.


Value-based: Then, assess the value your customers derive from your product, known as the Economic Value to the Customer (EVC). This number is the maximum price your customer is willing to pay.


Competitor-based: Next, analyze your competitors' pricing strategies. This gives you a benchmark and helps you understand what customers might expect to pay for similar products.


For instance, a book like "Scientific Advertising" might claim a value of $216 due to its extensive insights, but if most marketing books are priced around $20, customers will anticipate something within that range. Similarly, you can charge a small fee for an iPhone app but expect to offer your Android app for free.


Alternatively, if your product is positioned as premium, charge a higher price point compared to the competition.


While these methods help get some numbers, they don't form a complete pricing model. Here are some common pricing models to consider:

  • Ad-supported: Often insufficient to sustain an entire company.

  • Freemium: Monitor costs associated with free users and the conversion rate to paid tiers.

  • Tiered: Offers various pricing levels based on factors like volume, customer type, or features.

  • A la carte: Customers select and pay for specific features or upgrades.

  • Usage-based: Customers are charged per unit of usage (e.g., per SMS sent or GB stored), so their monthly bill corresponds with consumption.

  • Subscriptions: Regular payment cycles, often monthly or annually.

  • Razor blade model: Initial product sold at low or no profit (e.g., razors) while complementary goods (e.g., razor blades) generate ongoing revenue.


My recommendation for SaaS (Software as a Service) products:

  • Implement a freemium pricing model: Offering some features for free allows you to cater your product to a broader audience.

  • Introduce multiple pricing tiers: Do not have just one premium price point. Multiple tiers allow your product to price discriminate and cater to different customer segments with varying degrees of willingness to pay (WTP).

  • Adopt subscription-based pricing: This model highlights your strengths in key metrics like retention and churn in the AARM metrics. Having retained users and the potential for future churn gives you another benefit. You can now build features to improve post-sales experience as it will increase customer lifetime value.


How Many Is Too Many Frameworks?

I shared multiple frameworks above, which can be overwhelming. So, I’ll help you prioritize.

  1. The 9-step framework will help you cover most product case questions. It also has the most amount of new steps. So, focus on this.

  2. You are likely familiar with the 5-forces framework. You likely know of the 3 ways to price a product. So, you are likely to remember them even if you don’t practice them a lot.

  3. You can refer to the product launch diagram once every few days to gradually internalize it without a need to practice it.


How to Practice the Framework


1 - Start With Whiteboard

Initially, when applying this framework to product case questions, I recommend using a whiteboard or chalkboard. These larger surfaces and broad markers, encourage you to think at a high level without getting lost in the details. They also promote a more visual, pictorial form of thinking over writing extensive text.


Once you are comfortable with this approach, transition to using pen and paper. Using pen and paper is more suitable for virtual interviews.


2 - Familiarizing Yourself With The 9 Steps

In your early stages of using the case question framework, write down these 9 Steps on the right-hand top side of your board or paper. As you tackle each step, mark a tick to track your progress. This process helps ensure you are covering all bases and in the right order. If your virtual interview is coming up soon, you can have these steps ready on paper in front of you.


When you have internalized the 9-step framework, stop writing them explicitly.


Is there anything else that stumped you about case questions? Let me know.

This post was originally published on www.sparkcreativetechnologies.com on Oct 11, 2023.


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