How To Research Like A Product Manager

Before pen is put to paper with regards to the development of a product, a Product Manager must organize how research will be conducted. The research should provide a Product Manager with an intimate understanding of a customer’s pains points and needs. A Product Manager also needs to have a deep understanding of why those pains and needs exist, if the product being built is solving the real problem, what the consequences are when the product is build, and what are the real motivation behind the request, pain, need?

In order to answer these questions a Product Manger should organized their research into market segments. Each market segment should include the customer’s characteristics, pains and needs, how the market segments are having their pains or needs met today, location/geography, buying journey, and customer persona. Additional information to be collected includes key trends, market size, annual market growth, competitive intensity, and potential market share. The ultimate goal of the research phase is to collect enough ideas and data to make informed decisions about the product before moving into the design phase.

The Product Manager is not the ideas person. Rather, they seek and gather input from a wide variety of sources using a multitude of techniques. These ideas can come from other employees within an organization, metrics, customers, users, social media, forum, publications, support requests, amongst others. It is a Product Manager’s responsibility to sort through the good, bad, and the ugly ideas and determine

1) whether or not to develop them and

2) if they will be developed, at what time

Depending on the type of organization a Product Manager works for will depend on the types product created and for what reason. A smaller company may want to focus on product development for user acquisition and growth. A larger, more established company may want to focus on developing or refining existing products for customer satisfaction. Or, an organization may want to remain the same size but increase revenue from existing customers.


Internal, External, Quantitative and Qualitative

Several key techniques can be used by a Product Manager to make informed decisions about products. A combination of internal, external, quantitative, and qualitative data collection is a powerful combination of research. Customer interviews allow for the collection of qualitative data from which patterns could emerge. Anthropology is the art of observing customers in their natural environment. This provides deeper insight into “the day in the life of a customer.”  There are also metrics from support tickets, tools, website traffic, etc. Below is a simple model that illiterates how to think about collecting different types of data. Through the research phase, all the data collected should be organized, analyzed, and displayed to inform an organization’s next steps. When conducting research to bring a new product or service to market, a Product Manager should be looking for early evangelists. These are customers that have a problem or need a Product Manager is trying to solve, are aware of the problem, actively looking for a solution, have tried to fix the problem themselves, and can acquire a budget. Early evangelists, typically, experience the pain or need something so badly they are prepared to work with an unfinished, or beta version of a product so long as it fixes the pain or provides the need they are after.


Sizing The Market

When researching a market, the aim is to determine whether or not an opportunity is worth pursuing. Market size is defined as the total number of products or services that an industry can sell to a particular customer segment. Market size can be measured in units shipped, volume, money, timing , etc. Markets are broken down into sectors e.g. manufacturing. Each sector is broken down into industries e.g. footwear manufacturing. Market segmentation is the process of splitting the overall market of customers and potential customers into different groups of shared interests, needs and characteristics.

There are a multitude of ways to segment a market including demographics, price, distribution channels, etc. The aim is to find a customer segment where an organization’s product or service will have a competitive advantage.  The Total Addressable Market (TAM) is the total revenue opportunity for a product or service. The Served Available Market (SAM) is the segment of the TAM targeted by an organization’s product or service which is within the organization’s operational limitations. The Target Market is the segment in the SAM that an organization aims to capture.

To determine the market size two methods can be used; top down and bottom up. The top down approach typically starts with broad statistics e.g. the population of a country and is filtered down from there. The best places to find this type of information are industry reports, market research reports, government websites, etc. The drawback with the top down approach is that it provides general information, high estimates, and limited accuracy. The bottom up approach approximates the market size by adding all the supply data from market participants. In small markets, add up the sales volume of market participants. In large, growing markets, add the revenue of the largest players along with consolidating the revenue from all the smaller players. Finally, interviewing customers to determine how much they spend in the particular market. The method of research can be broken down into primary and secondary research. Primary research is the research conducted by a Product Manager themselves e.g. customer interviews or running tests to gather data for analysis. Secondary research is the collection of data from resources such as industry reports, search terms, keywords, government websites, and census data.

When researching market size, determine whether it’s a new, existing, re-segmentation of an existing market as a low-cost player, or a re-segmentation of existing market via a niche strategy. Each of these markets have unique attributes that will dictate factors such as cost of entry, launch type, competitive barriers, positioning, sales model, margins, sales cycle, chasm width, ongoing capital, time to profitability, customer needs, and adoption. In an existing market, the users and the market are known and the product being introduced will compete against existing products based on features and performance. In a new market, the users and direct competitors are unknown. Because the product or service being introduced has never been seen or used before, or it is solving a problem or providing a need a customer didn’t know they had, it will take a significant amount of time and money to educate the new market participants about the products benefits and features. In a re-segmentation of an existing market as a low cost player, a Product Manager assumes that there is a large enough market share of customers that will use their newly introduced product if it is “good enough” but perhaps inferior to existing solutions. In a re-segmentation of an existing market via a niche strategy, a solution that differentiates itself from it’s competition by providing greater value may capture market share. The challenge lies in demonstrating said value and luring customers away from existing solutions to the new product or service.

After conducting market research a Product Manager should be able to determine if there is a suitable opportunity to enter the market with the new product or service. If a Product Manager chooses to build the product or service and enter into a market, by periodically conducting market research, they will be able to anticipate market shifts, spot emergence of new competitors, craft counter strategies, optimize pricing, and improve their products or services.


How To Find And Track Competitors

There are four different types of competitors; direct, indirect, potential and substitute.

  1. Direct competitors target the same customer segment, try to solve the same problem, with the same solution. Customers will need to make a conscious decision based on the features and benefits each competitor offers.
  2. Indirect competitors solve the same problem but for a different customer, in a different way, and in a different vertical/industry.
  3. Potential competitors offer a different product or service to the same customer segment but don’t address the same problem.
  4. Substitute competitors solve the same core problem but is not delivered the same way or targeting the same customer segment.

A good way to search for competitors is to use Google by tying in “[known competitor] versus.” This will provide comparison blogs and articles between industry leaders and their competitors. As you find more competitors, substitute their name in the search field to find their competitors. Continue this until there you reach the point of diminishing returns. Another useful search tactic is to step into the minds of potential users and ask how they would complain about a particular product or service and use Google to search for those types of questions. When using this tactic, think about what words, phrases, context a customer segment might use when searching online to solve their own problems.

Once a Product Manager has found a suitable list of competitors, it’s useful to store all this information in a single location and measure the data across similar properties. Here, it’s useful to set up a feature table. A feature table is usually a simple spreadsheet with the names of the competitors across the top from left to right and a list of properties listed on the far left, from top to bottom. In addition to the standard competitive information gathered form market reports, a Product Manager can go one step deeper into research and analysis to gain greater insight. Apart from a competitor’s value proposition, market share, target market, core products, and strengths and weaknesses, a Product Manager can also collect data on the following:

  • Who makes up the product team and how good are they at what they do? If they are exceptional at what they do and can out execute everyone else all the time, is it worth competing?
  • When they release a product, how does the market react and how much of the market do they acquire?
  • How easily do they obtain press coverage?
  • How skilled are competitors in designing their products?
  • Do competitors have a technical advantage with regards to patents or their technology stack?
  • How are they priced?
  • How quickly do competitors react to change and cycle through the product development process? Is it a week, like some startups, or is it a year, like some multi-nationals?
  • At what stage of growth are competitors? Are they in a high growth, stagnation, or shrinking stage?
  • Have they completed any funding rounds? Is so, why did they raise? Was it because they were cash strapped? Was it because they were going into a hyper growth phase?
  • What are competitor’s customer reviews like? What is customer sentiment like? Are they keeping their customers happy?
  • What channels to market do they use? What is their marketing message? What appears to be working? How are they getting to market?
  • What technology is on the horizon that might offer opportunities to disrupt the market or provide a competitive advantage?

Competitive Table

While a feature list is extremely beneficial for a Product Manager, the data may be confusing or overwhelming for anyone not familiar with the work being conducted. A good way to visually represent and summarise the finds from a feature table is to represent it using a competitive positing table. A Product Manager chooses an area of competition for the X axis and an area of competition for the Y axis. They then plot each competitor on the competitive position table. The table should be designed in such a way as to show an organizations competitive advantage against its competitors. Generally, an organization will want to display itself near the top right corner and it competitors further to the center and bottom left. Below is an example of a competitive position table.



Whether a Product Manager is in a startup or a mature company, market research should be a consistent and regular task the complete. With constant input from different sources and analysis of the data collected, a Product Manager should be able to lead an organisation by influence and data to reach product-market-fit as soon as possible, refine an existing product or suggestion the decommissioning of a product that is no longer fulfilling market pains or needs. If you found this blog post useful, please feel free to reach out or comment below.

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