Just about every product creator 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. This is because there's a certain literacy necessary for product ideation. Let's call it speaking product. A few people are naturals at it even if they've never engaged in ideation, but most are not.
This post is about defining roughly what speaking product means, and what you can do with people who lack this literacy. 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
Comfort - First and foremost, speaking product operates on a kind of Goldilock's principle: good discussions exist in a relatively narrow band between the abstract and concrete. Its like flying; ideation goes fastest at 10k-30k elevation. Go lower and you crash into the small hills and valleys of details. Go higher and you run out of oxygen or get sucked into space. You have to be comfortable operating in this weird in-between space, and it's not a place that many people are accustomed to working in, because it's typically not the band where individual contributors do detail work nor where managers direct and manage.
Calibration - Next, to speak product is to be able to navigate the abstract-concrete balance, knowing when to zoom in and when to zoom out, and finding the band to work in for the specific point at hand. Ideas only come to life when the big picture and the details come into alignment, which means moving up and down in this band a lot. When the discussion moves, you need to be flexible enough to follow and calibrate your contributions. If you're in the wrong band, you wind up talking past each other or getting frustrated at not seeing the bigger point or the important detail of a particular contribution.
Connections - Finally, speaking product is about being able to easily tap into your particular perspective and subject matter expertise and draw relevant examples and ideas out that others can connect with. Even if you have the right perspectives in the room, things can go wrong if what concepts you're connecting to are not unique, understandable, or useful. Many an ideation session has gone to waste from irrelevant contributions or those that require excessive explanation for minor progress.
Dealing with abstract types
Some people default to speaking in very abstract terms when discussing product. These are often CEOs or managers who are too disconnected from specifics and unfamiliar with product or design to make meaningful contributions in product discussions. Sometimes they're just sitting in, other times they want to run the show.
What to look out for:
- Connections made between things which aren't meaningfully related and require many follow-on questions to understand.
- Downplaying the complexity of ideas, or a mismatch between their perception of how concrete their ideas are versus how others perceive them to be.
- Frequently latching onto the emotion of 'this is going to be great' without sufficient detail for that to be an informed conclusion.
How to work together successfully:
- Get them to agree on examples and use cases that ideas can be tested against.
- Ask them to think about objectives and general goals for the emerging ideas.
- Link things back to their abstract statements when moments of forward progress occur in session. Especially important if there's a power dynamic.
Dealing with concrete types
Some people default to speaking in very 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 don't engage enough in the types of abstract reasoning that progresses product discussions.
What to look out for:
- Having to explain product ideas 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 for them to 'see' it.
- A tendency 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.
- A tendency to brain dump information in long complicated answers whose facts stray from the point of the exercise when asked simple questions.
How to work together successfully:
- Keep reinforcing the general goal and purpose of the product, to keep them focused on the bigger picture.
- Steer they away from particular solutions and just ask general questions like whether something is possible, or complicated, or risky, and maybe questions like roughly how hard it might be.
- Only bring them into tightly defined sessions that are more about reality checking ideas until you think they can engage in more open-ended ideation.
Learning to speak product
As a short-term strategy, product and design teams often quickly learn who to ideate with and who to avoid based on this literacy of speaking product.
As a long-term strategy though, its far more effective to try to develop this literacy across different parts of an organization. That's because almost every org has people in it that know the right answer or have the right perspective that are the key to unlocking problems that product and design people are working on.
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 very useful contributors to ideation sessions.