[Episode 2] How to activate your creative brain in a PM interview?

You can’t unless it’s already on.

Elena Chen
8 min readOct 1, 2019
Source: https://images.app.goo.gl/DZ5YooFt6xmXJykf8

Creativity is an important competency for PMs but it’s also a tricky one to learn. Many friends asked me to teach them how to be creative, as I managed to check the creativity box in my PM interview and spent one summer working at IDEO, a global design and innovation firm. This post will give you both frameworks and concrete examples to help you come up with creative answers to product design questions.

You can also read my other post [Episode 1] How to land a PM job without PM experience for general PM interview prep tips.

If a banker can be creative, why can’t you?

PM candidates coming from a highly logical or structured work environment, like business or engineering, are often worried that their creative brain has been undermined by their past work. The good news is that you are undoubtedly creative and have the full potential of killing a PM interview.

My favorite quote from the book Creative Confidence, written by Tom and David Kelly is

“Belief in your creative capacity lies at the heart of innovation.”

Believing your creative capacity without external validation is hard. I had the same self-doubt. After working in investment banking for 5 years, I felt I had just the opposite traits of designers, result-oriented, logical thinking, good at spreadsheet, etc. When I was extended an internship offer at IDEO, my first thought was that I fooled them! After a while, I realized that I probably underestimated my creative muscle.

Let me share my IDEO cover letter. A fun fact is that it was made in PowerPoint, not even Photoshop!

Creativity is not like running water that you can just turn on and off.

You can only be as creative in an interview as you are in daily life. Time pressure suffocates creativity. That’s why IDEO designers never commit to a tight project timeline. Buffer time has the magic of nurturing innovative ideas.

To exercise your creative muscle, we can break down into two steps.

  • Step 1, separately practice (A) using as little mental bandwidth as possible to float through product design interview with mediocre ideas, and (B) brainstorming interesting ideas with no time pressure.
  • Step 2, put them together. Try coming up with interesting ideas in a mock interview.

Creative ideas ≠ Creative features

A common misunderstanding about creativity is that your feature needs to be unique. However, what truly differentiates your ideas are unique user insights, i.e. solving the right problems.

Source: https://images.app.goo.gl/PUr6pyWKNNBHkn8KA

Let me give you an example. A common product design question is “Designing a camera for blind people”. At first sight, it might seem like a dumb question. Why would vision-impaired people need cameras at all?

As you dig deeper, you will realize that it is not true. Even though blind people don’t take pictures the same way as non-disabled people, they have the same need of recording memorable moments in their life. You can anchor on this insight and design a camera that allows blind people to capture the right picture without using eyes. You may discuss whether blind people tend to take pictures of themselves or others, how to guide them to locate the best frame, and how to design shutter button or flashlight for them, etc.

A better answer could be recognizing blind people’s needs of photo sharing. As blind people can’t see the pictures themselves, it’s most likely that they take a picture for sharing with families and friends. Based on this user insight, you can talk about designing more accessible sharing photo features.

An even stronger candidate may point out that the biggest pain point of a blind person is to see. This problem can be solved by a smart camera app supported by computer vision technology. Imagine a “Be Your Eyes” camera app. Users can point the app to any object and the camera will be able to recognize and tell the users what is in the frame. Example use cases include reading a restaurant menu, identifying the amount of a dollar bill and knowing who is at a party.

To recap, don’t rush to design “creative” features without diving deep into user needs. You can demonstrate creativity by simply identifying non-trivial user pain points and coming up with simple but relevant features.

Let’s talk about fallback options

Unique user insight is not easy to come up with on the fly. To reduce stress, we need a backup plan. Below are 2 quick ways to get started.

  • Have a list of cutting-edge technology
  • Piece common products together
Photo by Aleksandar Popovski on Unsplash

Have a list of cutting-edge technology

This list is what you can always hold onto in an interview. In other words, for any question, you can go down this list and look for inspirations.

To create your own list, I recommend reading two Medium posts written by Stephen Cognetta(Xoogler and GSBer) What is the future of X and Mention these five tech trends in your PM interview.

Here are a few examples on my list:

I. Context-Awareness

Definition: The ability of a system or system component to gather information about its environment at any given time and adapt behaviors accordingly. (Source: WhatIs.com)

Source: https://images.app.goo.gl/1HmUtunk9KTZHsNPA

Product idea: Centralized app recommendation system

Problem: With lots of mobile apps installed on their phones, users often struggle to locate an app quickly. As a result, they need to carefully organize apps to make them easier to locate, or use the search bar, or simply forgo great products by minimizing app installs.

Use cases: This centralized app recommendation system can automatically surface the right app based on users’ context. For example, if you have a dinner appointment at 6:30pm, when you unlock your phone at 6pm, your map apps will show up on your home screen as you probably need to navigate to the venue. As you arrive, OpenTable will be recommended so that you can retrieve the reservation details easily. An hour and half later, the system will suggest Venmo or other payment apps to help with your payments or expense splitting.

II. Computer Vision

Definition: An interdisciplinary scientific field that deals with how computers can be made to gain high-level understanding from digital images or videos. (Source: Wikipedia)

Source: https://images.app.goo.gl/otggGBTd2APFMP6r9

Product idea: Smart wardrobe

Problem: Cloth matching is often a frustrating experience because people spend a lot of time on it, it’s hard to keep track of all of your clothes and not everyone has good intuition about fashion.

Use cases: Imagine a smart wardrobe that uses computer vision technology to scan all clothes, accessories and shoes in your wardrobe. Then, it will recommend cloth matching based on your calendar and taste. For instance, you have a work out session in the afternoon or a cocktail party in the evening. The smart wardrobe can suggest what outfits you should wear today. The smart wardrobe can also make purchase recommendations for clothes, shoes or accessories based on the latest fashion trend. Also, what about connecting your smart wardrobe with your friends’? It would be super cool if you can like each other’s cloth matching or even share accessories or dresses.

III. ML-based personalization

Here is a good read about personalization engine if you are curious about algorithms at a high level.

Source: https://www.hansondodge.com/blog/2017/november/website-personalization-three-easy-ways-to-get-started/

Product idea: Personalized audio guide for museums

Problem: People often have a hard time planning their museum tour efficiently. Most audio guide requires users follow a specific order of listening. For users who have limited time, a fixed agenda may make them miss some good part of the exhibition. Users also have different interests and may be attracted to only part of the museum.

Use cases: This personalized audio guide can detect the location of a user and play audio for the item the user is standing in front of. In addition, it will collect the amount of time the user spends on each item in the past, both in this museum and elsewhere, and personalize the tour in three different ways. First, it can recommend art pieces based on Collaborative Filtering, i.e. people like you have viewed these items. Second, it can tailor the quantity and diversity of items recommended, based on how much time a user has today. Third, it can recommend art pieces based on your past behavior, e.g. users probably want to spend more time on paintings than sculptures if enough data indicate that they favor one over the other.

Piece common products together

An even simpler approach than coming up with new features is to make connection among existing products.

Source: https://images.app.goo.gl/aqJXkGmskoA5SDfQ8

For example, if you are asked to design a video conference app, you can talk about a seamless user experience across basic video conferencing, document sharing and polling. Users often have troubles getting access to documents the presenter screen-shared. Also, if a large team want to make a decision based on voting, they now need to leave the video conferencing platform to use a third-party tool. Why don’t we combine them all into one platform?

For question like “How would you improve Apple Watch?”, how about a personalized fitness coach idea? It would be combining 5 apps into a single user journey, namely, Siri, Activity, Workout, Heart Rate, calendar. A user will first use Siri to set a personal fitness goal. Then Apple Watch can help the user break this goal into measurable activity metrics, e.g. exercising for 30 minutes per day, sleeping before 12am, and dinner before 7pm, etc. Apple Watch will then use data across Workout, Heart Rate and calendar to track a user’s progress, build accountability mechanism and adapt those goals over time.

One caveat for using the above two fallback options is that you still need to carefully structure your answer in the right order, i.e. selecting users, identifying pain points and discussing solutions. Never jump straight to technology or features because they are just means to an end.


Be patient with yourself. You would be surprised by how creative you can be with enough practice.

Prioritize user insights over features if you can.

If your mind goes blank in an interview, don’t forget to check your list of technology or piece common products together.