Understand your product’s domain

If you want to be a bad product manager, assume that domain knowledge is all you need to succeed. You know the company, the market, the competition and the customers because you’ve been involved in the industry forever. In fact, you used to be on “the other side” — as a customer, a vendor, or with a competitor. The knowledge that you’ve gathered over your years of service would be impossible for someone to gather quickly, and your domain knowledge is fundamental to your success in product management.

If you want to be a good product manager, make sure to have the right amount of knowledge about the domain in which you are working. Product managers need to understand their market, and to do so requires understanding of the domain. For example, if you are developing software that is sold to police stations to track cases but you have very little knowledge of the law enforcement and the criminal justice system, you will likely fail. How can you understand unmet needs of your customers if you do not even understand their most basic goals and tasks?

Domain knowledge provides product managers with the information to make the decisions that will be best for the customer, user, and market. Without some level of knowledge, product managers are flying blind. As Steve Johnson writes in Everyone needs to know what we do here:

Domain expertise helps product managers connect with buyers and users to truly understand what they need and not just what they want. Domain knowledge steers marketing communications to effective programs with a clear message for the buyer. Likewise developers and engineers. When a judgment call is necessary–and this is often–a developer who understands the customer profile is more likely to make the correct choice.

Additionally, especially in a company where the employees are very experienced in the domain, lack of domain knowledge can impact a product manager’s ability to successfully lead. Speaking about technology companies, Steve writes:

The fastest way to lose credibility in a technology company is to say that you don’t understand technology. It’s okay to say that you don’t understand a new idea or a new implementation but to be effective in technology marketing and product management requires domain and technology expertise. People who tell you otherwise probably aren’t very effective in working with technical products.

However, domain knowledge alone will not make you a successful product manager. While domain knowledge is important, domain expertise is not essential. You do not need to be a lawyer to develop products for lawyers; you do not need to be a Help Desk analyst to develop products for Help Desks; you do not need to be a educators to develop software for educators.

Some experience may help, but too much experience may sometimes interfere with a product manager’s ability to objectively listen to the voice of the customer. Personal experiences and opinions may inadvertently trump customer feedback. You may find yourself ignoring suggestions from others because you consider your background more relevant. (Tip: If you find yourself saying, “When I was a [insert job title from previous experience]” more than a few times, you have probably fallen into this trap.)

Additionally, lack of experience in an area can be an asset if the product manager is curious, inquisitive, and a good listener (which all product managers should be). Maybe you have never worked as an investment banker, but if you can do a “deep dive” and understand their needs, you may actually develop insights about investment bankers that those who worked as one had never realized.

In my Ten Tips For New Product Managers webinar, one attendee asked if domain knowledge was essential when switching from one company to another company. This likely depends on several factors:

  1. Does the organization you are looking to join regularly hire those with little or no domain knowledge? If the company develops products for biotech researchers, and 80% of the employees have PhDs in chemistry or biology, the organization may be unlikely to even consider you despite your vast product management experience in other industries.
  2. Is the domain something that can be learned quickly? Some areas have a lower barrier to entry for domain expertise than others. Obtaining the background knowledge needed to manage a product used by grocery store cashiers to check out customers would probably take less time than getting an understanding of how propulsion engineers calculate thrust for rocket boosters in order to build software to support their work. No offense to grocery store cashiers, of course; it is simply a fact of life and business that some areas require more domain knowledge than others.
  3. How transferable are your product management skills? A product manager for computer peripherals like mice and drawing tablets might be able to transfer fairly well into a role overseeing development of medical devices used in surgery. Despite the very different domains, both roles rely heavily on ergonomics, product design, and manufacturing. Similarly, a product manager for a consumer web portal could likely transition to managing a corporate intranet with little disruption.

Good product managers should have a good solid understanding of the company’s business, the domain and industry, market dynamics, and user and customer behavior. Domain knowledge is helpful, but domain expertise or experience is not always required. A good product manager will be able to learn a new domain quickly and add insight that those working in the domain for some time might have missed.

Note: This post is part of Pragmatic Marketing’s second BlogFest. The How To Be a Good Product Manager post “Use conferences to learn, not to sell” was part of Pragmatic Marketing’s first blogfest.

5 thoughts on “Understand your product’s domain

  1. i have majored in economics and currently being groomed to be the product manager for a mobile social networking community. the platform is being built on rails and css etc. i am not familiar with the software but i know hell a lot about what people would like to have in their network they would like use. also, i am really good at communications . so, does the lack of software knowledge make me unfit to become a product manager?

  2. I don’t think the lack of detailed technical knowledge will be a major factor in your case.

    Product managers at technical companies providing software to technical customers probably need to have more technical knowledge, but in that case it is more about being able to understand the needs of technical customers than it is about knowing the technical details of your own product.

    In one sense, from your perspective it shouldn’t matter whether your product is built in Rails or Fortran. The technology should be right for the solution, but that’s for the technical people to figure out, not you. As long as the technology is able to meet the business goals, the product manager should be happy.

    That said, you should understand enough about the technology to know what it is and what its basic capiabilities are. For example, I wouldn’t worry about knowing the specific differences between Apache and IIS, but you should know that they’re both web servers, what a web server is, and why it’s important.

    So, Srivikas, as long as you know the basics of what Rails and CSS are, what they do, how they’re different, and what the main capiabilities are, you should be okay.

  3. Hello Jeff,

    I have been a consistent reader of your blog. I am constantly learning product management reading your blog. I have a query:

    I am an Electronics Engineering graduate. I have 12 years of IT experience with nearly 6 years as a Project Manager and 2 years as a Program Manager. I also have Pre-Sales and Marketing experience. My communication skills are good and am able to pick up domain knowledge with ease.

    I am interested in moving into Product Management. Please guide me on the skills/qualifications that i will need to equip myself with in order to make a good Product Manager? Is a move from Program Management to Product Management recommended?

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