How to Counter Experience Bias as a Product Manager

BY Saurabh Gupta ON MARCH 2, 2016

We all have that one senior colleague – whether it’s the experienced number crunching data analyst, or the product manager who just joined from a Fortune 100 tech firm, or our manager – who has a few words of advice for the new feature we are working on. Does their input suddenly change your opinion, or force you to twist your understanding of the feature? If yes, then you may have fallen prey to experience bias.

Experience bias has an adverse effect on you, in that it kills those sparks of creativity that would have otherwise allowed your brain to reflect more deeply into the use cases, get into more user personas or look out for solutions that will truly push your product ahead. More importantly, if you’re crediting an idea without an honest, objective evaluation, you are bringing in uncertainty that may misrepresent your performance as a product manager. 

By no means do I mean to imply that such advice should be greeted with deaf ears, though! As a product manager, it is important to be open to multiple points of view. Go ahead and pocket the ideas you receive. But no, you don’t need to act on them instantly.

But let’s be honest, sometimes it’s really hard not to try and use the assumed knowledge of a more senior colleague. And sometimes the team around you falls prey to the bias, and ends up discounting your opinion because they’ve assumed that seniority automatically leads to gold-plated wisdom. Let’s look at ways in which you can counter experience bias at work.

Make data your biggest supporter

You do a lot of research as a product manager. If you are a young product manager, you’ll be doing it even more. So, after a few weeks of intense background research, you’ll become strongly opinionated about pursuing a certain product strategy. But perhaps you’ll find yourself alienated on this front from your colleagues, who don’t share your opinion. So what now? Simple – go on the lookout for data that supports your cause. It’s the best way to counter experience bias.

In most cases, to get supporting data you can dig into the existing metrics that are already being monitored for your product. However, it’s equally likely that you may end up in cases where there is zero data. So what do you do then? Use analogies that best describe your strategy. Can’t get any analogies? The best bet then is to implement your strategy on a small scale. Do a closed release of the new version of your merchant app to a small subset of your customers. Perform A/B testing and pull out the results. But do remember to make a note of all the assumptions you make in the process and accommodate them while drawing inferences from this data.

Crucially, while you’re looking for data that supports your cause, don’t fall prey to confirmation bias! You always need to be open to the possibility that you might be wrong, and be willing to acknowledge and account for data that doesn’t necessarily support your view.

Your background can make your opinions heavyweight

Don’t undermine your roots and where you come from. If you come from a creative advertising background and you are working on evaluating go-to-market strategies for your new product, there’s a lot you bring to the table. If you’ve been in a corporate communications role or a management consulting role, even though for a short stint as an intern, you’ll find that your stance on the product’s internal messaging will be unique from your colleagues. Don’t be afraid to make use of what you know. Make your background a value add, embrace your own viewpoint, and bring it to the table.

What’s important is to understand that while your mentors and colleagues will always have suggestions based on their experiences, as an owner and implementer of the product it is your duty to judge their ideas on their own merits, after stripping off all the biases.

Not all decision points are grey – Learn to extract the black and white

As you start becoming comfortable in the shoes of a product manager, you will be surrounded with product decisions you need to make day in and day out. Some of these decisions will be comparatively easy – having a dropdown or not, a bar graph or a line graph, static text or popover. Others might not be so straightforward – such as what goes into the roadmap, what go-to-market strategy to adopt, or what goes out in the first phase of a big revamp.

The key is to separate and extract the black and white decision points from the grey ones. Make your decision points as objective as possible. Break the bigger road-mapping problem into smaller decision points that have a clear cut yes-no breakdown. You’ll find that the more objective you make your decision points, the more progress you’ll make in terms of judging ideas without bias, and cementing your own credentials as a skillful product manager. You’ll notice that the impact is twofold – firstly, you’ll gain confidence in making decisions independently, and secondly you’ll enjoy the benefits of reducing the cloud of uncertainty.

Wrapping up

No matter what company culture you celebrate, experience bias is likely to be prevalent from startups to multinational giants. As you take your time to build a strong foothold in product management, it is important for you to be sensitive to the negatives that experience bias brings along. Start taking steps to either avoid applying the bias to your own team, or to put plans in place to work around the biases you’re having to combat.

Saurabh Gupta

About

Saurabh Gupta

Saurabh is a product manager at Freshdesk Inc. and has previously worked in Cisco Systems, KPMG India and CA Technologies. He began his career as a product developer and later transitioned into product management. He's passionate about products, strategy and technology.

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