Mastering the fine art of open-ended questions

By Subraya Mallya - November 2014 | Topics - Product Management

A day-in-a-life of a Product Manager involves a variety of interactions.

  • sometimes it is customers
  • sometime Open Ended Questionsit is the marketing team and
  • in large parts  it could be the engineering team.

As a product manager one is required to seek out information from one channel, synthesize it and feed other channels. It could be

  • understanding the requirements from a set of customers, rationalizing it and validating it,
  • crafting it to feed the positioning, messaging initiatives of Product Marketing
  • while simultaneously translating it into functional specifications for the engineers.

Two of the most critical skills of being a successful product manager (I dare say, most jobs) are asking open-ended questions and listening. Listening involves processing information and cataloging them properly in your memory for recall later. But it starts with the questions you ask, how you ask them and how you follow up.

A typical mistake most people make here is they imagine/rehearse the conversation going a certain way and prepare guiding/leading questions. That forces you to contain/constrain the discussion with the goal of covering all the topics. A good product manager would let the discussion flow and let the answer drive the discussion further with few of any nudges along the way.

If asking questions is a skill, asking open-ended questions, that gets to the heart of what you seek to learn, is definitely an art. So how does one get better at doing that. Here are some simple guidelines to follow.

Avoid asking multiple choice questions

While asking questions it is natural to think of the possible answers and give the respondent the choices. There is a fallacy in that practice. By bounding the potential answer with multiple choices, you might get the answer to your question, but you will not get the color/details on why that answer is correct or you will not get a better context for the answer.

For e.g. Say you asked your friend

Would you use this product I have built for parents like you?

being your friend whether they like your product or not, they might respond saying – Yes.

Instead if you rather ask them the question as

If you you came across this product, how would do you use it? or if you were to suggest this to a friend of yours how would you suggest they use it?

The answer you get might be much more verbose in terms of details and nuances. It will also eliminate any assumptions you might make.

Avoid asking a Yes/No question

Asking a series of question which can have a Yes or No for an answer can make it a very quick discussion. Not to mention it will leave you with a bunch of unanswered questions. If you cannot shake off this habit of asking a Yes/No question, then to ensure you find the information/knowledge you are seeking, ask follow ups.

First question: Is this product useful for you?

Answer: Yes

Follow question: Can you share with me how you see it being useful? or How so? or Why?.

That eliminates any assumptions you might end up making.

Start with generic and then drill down to specifics

It is important to keep the initial question broad so you the answer covers all the bases. Once the initial answer has taken a broad swipe at the answer then drill down to the specific area to get to the nuances.

  • Generic question : What do you think of all the innovation in the payment space?
  • Specific question : How important is it for you that we support multi-channel payment model – like for example – Pay by Paypal in Home Depot?

Nudges, Cues are good

As mentioned in the prior sections, containing the answers to a specific set of answers is usually bad way of seeking information. If you want to do that – do a survey not interview. That said, it is important to steer people into giving you more information by nudging them or giving them cues

 Nudge: If the respondent answered a prior question with an answer and stops. You could nudge them further with “how so?” or “Why do you think so?“, “What made you conclude as such?

Cue: We know you operate in US, UK and DE. Where else do you do business?

Say No to Rapid Fire Questions

Use pauses after each question and not straight away jump to the next one. Leave the rapid fire questioning method to the press reporters. They just need nuggets that they can sensationalize (correctly or incorrectly). You need more nuanced information. So having that pause in between can trigger additional thoughts in the minds of the people answering the question.

This skill of asking open-ended questions is a very transferable skill and a critical one. Given the overload of commitments each of us (customers and us alike) has, it is important to best utilize the opportunity you have in front of the customer. While it is important for a Product Manager to have this skill, it is also paramount when it comes to Sales Discovery Calls, Customer Support inquiries and Customer Success Engagements.

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