Just about everyone in the product and design world has had experiences where they've had to work on product ideas with people whose communication styles and ways of approaching ideation didn't quite align. For lack of a better phrase, these people don't speak product, and product ideation with them winds up being a frustrating experience.
This post is about defining roughly what speaking product means, and what you can do with people who don't. It's inspired by experiences I've had over the years of working with all different types of people on product concepts - from journalists to therapists, doctors, engineers, educators, and more.
What "Speaking Product" Means
I've noticed two patterns for people who don't speak product - they're either too abstract or too concrete.
To speak product is really to be able to understand and navigate the balance between the abstract and the concrete when discussing new concepts, knowing when to zoom in and when to zoom out, and finding the right level of detail for the problem at hand.
Ideation goes fastest at 10k-30k elevation. Too close to ground and things come crashing to a halt, stuck navigating the small hills and valleys of details. Too high up and you run out of oxygen or get sucked into space.
People who are too Abstract
Some people can only speak in abstract terms when discussing product. These are often CEOs or leaders who are too disconnected from specifics and too unskilled in product or design to make meaningful progress in product discussions. These people can see connections between disparate things, some of which may make sense if properly thought out, others of which make absolutely no sense. They tend to think their ideas are much more concrete than they are, and latch onto the emotion of 'this is going to be great' without sufficient detail for that to be an informed conclusion.
The way to work with these people is to get them to agree on examples and use cases and general goals. You may also need to tell them that the idea was theirs as you go about defining the product, especially if there's a power dynamic.
People who are too Concrete
Some people can only speak in concrete, linear terms when discussing product. These are often subject matter experts, engineers, etc. They are diligent people who want to provide the right answer, but who lack the imagination or abstract reasoning abilities to make meaningful progress in product discussions. These people need product ideas to be explained to them in torturous detail, describing a very tightly defined circumstance in which the product is used, or walking through each step of what the product may do. They tend to latch on to disproving the premise of the imagined product with (often irrelevant) edge cases and details, rather than seeing the general thrust of what the ideated product is trying to do and whether it makes sense.
The way to work with these people is to keep reinforcing the general goal and purpose of the product, to keep them focused on the bigger picture. When necessary, get feedback only in specific circumstances to reality check your ideas, but otherwise keep these people away from ideation sessions.
Learning to speak product
In some circumstances for expediency's sake it may be best to just avoid working with those people on product, but I remain open to the idea that finding the right balance of abstract and concrete thinking is a skill that must be learned. Something I've learned is to be patient in people's journeys to learning how to speak product. Several times people who I didn't think would be able to adapt have been able to, with sufficient exposure, become productive members of ideation session.