19 Questions All Curious Product Managers Ask
December 1, 2020

19 Questions All Curious Product Managers Ask

by Brian de Haaff

"I spend two-thirds of the time thinking about what people want to hear and one-third thinking about what I want to say." You might think this is a quote from a modern-day business leader. But it is actually a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln — way back in the 1800s. If you are a product manager you can probably relate to the sentiment of empathizing before speaking. Because you have to be deeply curious about customers' problems before you can deliver a winning solution.

Building anything of value requires that you uncover what your customers are truly thinking and feeling.

Curiosity is about being interested — wanting to know people so that you can comprehend their challenges and concerns. This is fundamental to product management because in order to deliver breakthrough innovations, you need to care about understanding people.

But many product managers (and people) end up just feigning interest because they are told they need to listen more. Tell me if this sounds familiar. You interact regularly with current and potential users — maybe conducting interviews, hosting focus groups, and combing through survey answers. You may even use an ideas portal to gather and assess feedback.

Are you forging a genuine connection though? It is hard to know. People may give you superficial responses or tell you what they think you want to hear. Maybe the folks who are willing to participate in an interview are not reflective of the broader user group. Or customers ask for specific functionality but end up really wanting something else.

Deep conversations allow you to move beyond the surface to reach the nucleus of who your customers are, what they want, and why.

This is where empathy comes in — thoughtful and substantial interactions help you feel what they are feeling and see your product or service from their perspective. Before engaging with a customer directly, it is helpful to document the questions you might want to ask.

This is why we include a place for you to add your own discussion guide as part of empathy sessions in Aha! Ideas. Because you need to be prepared to quickly follow up each question with another thoughtful one. You probably already know the basic user interview-type questions to ask. So here are a few unique options to add to future discussion guides when you are working on a new product or preparing to launch a major new area of functionality:

What three words would you use to describe the work you do?
People are more than demographic information. Identity also refers to how they see themselves, who they interact with, and what they aspire to achieve. Listening closely to the language they use to represent themselves can reveal the traits or values they care about most. When you can capture the essence of who is using your product, you can better build a solution that they love.

Here are some more questions to help you grasp who your customers are:

  • Can you tell me what you like most about what you do?

  • What is the most frustrating part of your work day?

  • What energizes you more — starting a project or finishing one?

  • Who else do you think I should talk to about this?

What is the most difficult problem you are trying to solve?
As I wrote earlier, sometimes what people say they want is not always what they actually desire. For example, if someone requests the capability to make a button blue, what they may really be asking for is a color picker. Differentiating one-off solutions from long-term ones reveals a more complete picture of what people need to succeed in the future — not just today.

The following questions will help you determine what people truly need:

  • What are you currently using or doing to solve the problem?

  • What workarounds have you created?

  • How much would you pay to solve this problem right now?

  • When do you refer to our help documentation?

What happens when you cannot solve it?
Sometimes folks know exactly what they want and are happy to tell you. But it can be difficult to determine the "why" behind their request — the larger problem they hope to solve or the unmet need they are trying to address. When people are not consciously aware of their "why," you may have to pose the question multiple times (or rephrase it in different ways) to find the real answer.

These additional questions will help you explore what motivates your customers:

  • On a scale of one to 10, how important is solving this problem to you?

  • If your teammates and company leaders did not care about this, would it still be important to you?

  • Can you tell me about the last time you needed to perform this task or action?

  • What was the outcome?

How would you like to solve the challenge?
People cannot help correcting misinformation, especially if it is about them. Make sure what you are suggesting is askew or a worse version of the ideal. By giving users the opportunity to refute or correct you, you push them to verbalize exactly what they care about — helping you discover the essence of what they think and feel. You have to be judicious about this technique, but it can be useful for eliciting a response.

Ask questions like these if you are struggling to understand how to help your customers:

  • So you did X before Y?

  • Would you say that your biggest obstacle is Y?

  • You are not currently looking to solve Z, right?

Discovering your customers' truth is a continual process — you need to create opportunities for meaningful connection throughout the product lifecycle.

Adopt a curious mindset. The next time you are speaking with customers, notice when a response surprises or perplexes you. This is a clue that there is more to learn. So pose follow-up questions and request examples to get more detail. And share what you learn with your teammates so that everyone can benefit from your knowledge.

Curiosity and empathy are like muscles. The more you exercise, the stronger you grow. This is an undeniable and gratifying truth — just as applicable two centuries ago as it is today.

What questions do you always ask customers?

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Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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