Train Your Brain to Build Better Products

How to use product critiques to help you build better products

👋 Hey, I’m Ben! I write deep dives on tactical strategies for building and growing early-stage tech companies. I go deep on growth strategies, how to build products users love, and what actionable lessons can be learned from what best-in-class founders are doing.

This week I’ll be covering one of my favorite ways to develop product sense; by doing product critiques. Product critiques are a great way to strengthen the mental muscles around building products users love; by being intentionally aware of product experiences around you you’ll become more attune to what makes a product experience good, bad, or special.

Julie Zhuo wrote my favorite article on this topic back in 2014 and it’s still one of my all-time favorite product-management reads. Her article is the inspiration for this B.E.N. and I’ll quote her a handful of times throughout. I highly recommend taking the extra ten minutes to read her article in addition to this newsletter post.

At its most formal, a product critique is a written evaluation of a product that asks and answers questions about which experiences were good, which experiences were bad, and which experiences were special. At its least formal, a product critique is a continuous stream of curiosity and awareness about the product experiences you interact with and what makes them good, bad, or special. Going through the process of written evaluation is a great way to exercise the muscles needed to build that stream-of-conscious mindset and I recommend taking the time to do so.

When setting out to do a product critique, it’s helpful to keep in mind what drives the experiences that resonate with users. Julie says it best:

Developing good product intuition—by which I mean developing a good sixth sense about what features or experiences will resonate with people and become successful—is about two core tenets: 1) understanding people’s desires, and 2) understanding how people react to things.

These core pillars lie at the heart of a product critique exercise. It's all about going through a product experience and asking yourself: Why are you using the product? What do you want to accomplish? How do you react to different aspects of the experience?

To provide structure on how to go through a product critique exercise, you can break up the experience into three lifecycle stages and ask a separate set of questions for each:

  1. Before you interact with the product

  2. Your first impressions and explorations

  3. Ongoing product usage

Before you interact with the product

There’s more to evaluate at this stage than you might think. Julie lays out three good questions to consider:

  1. How did this app come to your attention?

  2. What’s your one-line summary of what this app does at this stage?

  3. What’s the buzz so far?


First impressions are important and the context we have going into a first impression can greatly impact the impression itself. Understanding that context is an important first step. Some additional questions you can ask at this stage:

  1. Who do you think the product's target audience is?

  2. What problem is the product intended to solve?

Your first impressions and explorations

As we all know (and as I noted above), first impressions are important. Julie outlines six questions that can be used to take a critical eye to early experiences:

  1. What’s the experience of getting started or signing up?

  2. How does this app explain itself in the first minute?

  3. How easy to use was the app?

  4. How did you feel while exploring the app?

  5. Did the app deliver on your expectations?

  6. How long did you spend in the app?

Despite being at the very start of the customer lifecycle, onboarding and early experiences can be significant retention drivers or retention detractors. Nailing this part of the product experience is key to building a product with high retention that users love. Some additional questions you can ask yourself at this stage:

  1. Did you feel lost on what to do or how to do something at any point?

  2. How long does it take for you to start getting value from the app?

Ongoing app usage

The true test of building a winning product (and in doing so, a winning business) is building something that users want to consistently engage with over time. With that in mind, Julie outlines another five questions to consider in the weeks after first using the product:

  1. How often have you used the app? When do you tend to use it? What compels you to open it?

  2. How does this app compare to other similar apps?

  3. What do other people think of this app?

  4. Based on all that you know, how successful do you think the app will be a year from now?

  5. (And eventually, after enough time has passed), were you right in your prediction of how this app was going to do?

At this stage, you’ll have a good understanding of what experiences within the product are good and bad. You’ll also likely have a wishlist of things that you wish were slightly different. Some additional questions to think through as you evaluate the product and the business behind it:

  1. If you could wave a magic wand and change (add, remove, alter, etc.) one thing about the product, what would it be? Why?

  2. How does the product monetize? How could they expand their monetization strategy?

  3. How does this product grow and how could they drive more growth?

Product critiques really come down to being aware of the product experiences you interact with every day. Think about those experiences, what they do well, what they could do better, and how you can use those learnings to influence the products you’re building.

That’s all I’ve got for you for now. Until next Friday!

- Ben

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