3 Levels of Product Thought - One Way to Think Through Product Problems Rigorously

Summary

  • When I was working on the product management side, I’d frequently challenge the product management team to think about the decisions we were making at a number of levels.

  • In general, there were three levels we consistently identified and applied to our thinking:

    • Level 1 - State What Exists

      • What currently exists? What is the situation? Is the current set of circumstances accurately described and clearly articulated?

    • Level 2 - Historical Cause Analysis

      • Why are we in the current situation? How did we arrive at these circumstances?

    • Level 3 - Have An Opinion

      • If we want to move forward, what should we do? Why should we do it? How do we do so? What resources do we need? What effects will this course of action have?

  • Broadly, it takes comparatively little skill to describe the current situation, additional experience to understand how the current situation was arrived at, and the most aptitude to realize that one should possess and develop an opinion based on the current situation and historical precedent.

  • Having the entire team understand these three levels of thinking gave our team a common baseline to ascertain how far our understanding had progressed given a specific problem.

  • It also provided a shorthand when communicating with each other to say “I think we are only at Level 2 in terms of understanding this issue, can you get us to Level 3 by discussing further with stakeholders?”


Detailed Discussion

This post details just one of the metal models and frameworks I have found helpful in working with product teams. Whenever a new model or framework comes around, it is important to think about why this specific framework might be helpful: after all, models and frameworks are only helpful if they speed us towards a desired result, they are not helpful in their own right. Models and frameworks are ideally a faster means to a desired end.

In that spirit, why is this framework helpful in speeding a product team towards building better products?

The first reason, admittedly more abstract reason, is that it provides you and your team a type of “lingua franca” that provides a faster and more efficient way of thinking about product challenges. In this case, if you consistently enforce this particular framework, you will begin to get answers and discussion at these levels of thought (you get what you incentivize).

The second, and more concrete reason this is valuable to product teams, is that it forces objectivity and rigorousness on every product decision, irrespective of the proposer. The standardization allows any one team member to ask any other to describe their levels of thought in the same way, and dramatically increases the likelihood of data driven decision making.

The third and final reason this framework can be helpful is that it ensures that the critical information for any product decision is gathered up front. Having the information delineated in each level is incredibly helpful in making the best product decision going forward.

Most product management decisions are in an environment of uncertainty, results are all but guaranteed. However, product teams can ensure that the quality of their decisions is consistently high by using mental models and decision frameworks.


Examples

Let’s run through a short example of how to apply this framework to a product decision that has already been made - Facebook’s addition of other emotions to the “Like” button.

  • Level 1

    • Currently, Facebook allows individuals to “Like” a given piece of content to show that they have seen it, express interest, and/or signal to others that they are involved with a given piece of content.

    • Some individuals feel as though simply having a “Like” button constrains the emotions that they can express on the platform and would prefer additional ways to express their thoughts and emotions.

      • (Commentary - Note the lack of data and use of “some individuals” in this statement. This would be an instance where one would ask for more data.”)

  • Level 2

    • Facebook has historically kept the single like button for two reasons - UI/UX design simplicity as well as the desire to keep the community focused on the positive.

    • We are now at a decision point as to whether to add additional ways to express emotion within this part of the Facebook application or to keep it the same.

    • We are considering this change because of the evolution of other social media sites and consumer demand/feature requests.

      • (Commentary - This is a relatively light description of how and why we arrived at this decision. Sometimes this is because there isn’t institutional knowledge to tell you about a previous decision, or sometimes it is lack of effort on the PMs part.)

  • Level 3

    • To move forward, we should attempt to understand the potential UI/UX tradeoffs of making this part of the application more complicated, which emotions we should allow users to express while remaining focused on building a positive community, and how we should allow users to express those emotions (do they do so via additional Like buttons, do we combine other icons into the whitespace on the current Like button?)

    • We’ll also need to understand the additional engineering effort once we have a prospective design as well as whether that design actually makes users feel that they have additional abilities to express emotion on the platform.

    • We’ll also need to think about what effects or changes this will have on other parts of the Facebook ecosystem (WhatsApp, Instagram) and whether we’ll need to implement this change across the board, or just inside the Facebook application.

    • As Facebook is global, we’ll also need to think about localization and whether this change applies to specific markets or everywhere Facebook is used.

      • (Commentary - This is a solid start, but more data would be helpful in making this decision. The internationalization costs of this both in time and engineering effort could make this far more complex than the PM realizes.)

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