Product management is a science of experimentation and discovery. Early in our career, we learn that opinions, and in particular predictions about user behavior, are often wrong. It is a natural human instinct to assume that our rational assessment of a problem, based on our past experiences, will yield sound conclusions and represent the likely sentiment or behavior of others. But this is rarely true.
In reality, reliance on heuristics (the practice of using past experience to assess current circumstances) is no different then reliance on our biases.Cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from rationality in judgment. We create our own “subjective reality” from our perception of various inputs. Our subjective cognition of reality, not the objective input, dictates our opinions and the conclusions we draw. Thus, cognitive bias results in perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what can simply be called subjective irrationality.
A common misconception is that good product managers are gifted with “product instincts.” They have an innate ability to know what users want. This mystical ability doesn’t exist.
Like any other scientist, product managers must formulate a well-reasoned and well-researched hypothesis to solve a problem. And like a theoretical physicist, our ideas can only be proven through sound experiments and the objective analysis of empirical data.
Known as “The Scientific Method”, there is nothing innovative or novel about this approach. It has been in use since the 17th century by practitioners across a range of disciplines, from the social sciences to physics and mathematics. It is the standard process for the investigation of phenomena, acquiring new factual knowledge, or correcting previous assumptions. For a body of knowledge to be deemed scientific, to represent objective truth rather than subjective opinion, it must pass scrutiny based on empirical, quantifiable evidence subjected to well-established principles of scientific reasoning. Experiments are a procedure designed to apply scientific scrutiny to a hypothesis, resulting in factual, incontrovertible truth.
The method is a continuous process that begins with observations (e.g. user studies, user experience research, live experiments, etc.). Based on these inputs, product managers develop ideas about how to address a user need. A strong hypothesis can be thought of as a well-reasoned prediction that can be tested and validated.
But not every solution hypothesis can be empirically validated. While some hypotheses can be proven by carefully controlled experiments that gather empirical data, depending on how well additional tests match the predictions, the original hypothesis may require refinement, alteration, expansion or even rejection.
The following diagram helps to illustrate the process of validating a product hypothesis: