The SAR Method for Product Management Interview Questions

man being interviewed

Product Management interviews can be really intimidating, especially if you suffer them for the first time. This is a result of the importance of the PM position. From your point of view, it symbolizes your advancement as a “shaper” in tech, ready to lead teams and products to greatness. Perks and compensation, obviously, make it a more-than-satisfactory career goal. However, think of the interviewer(s), who is representing your future employer there. What are their key concerns with regards to investing in your career development?

In today’s economy, product is everything. Even established brands are doing their best to attach themselves to the digital revolution; a respected name is no longer enough. You must offer users an unparalleled experience. And this could take months, if not years. Thus, a product leader must generate trust before being granted the privilege of managing some of the world’s most cherished products and features.

This is precisely why Product Management interviews feature a lot of questions that are meant to show how candidates really fulfill their tasks. This article will show you how to use the SAR method to answer these challenging Product Management interview questions. The last section has an example which you can replicate to virtually answer any question that you encounter in the future.

woman sitting on sofa with laptop thinking

Why Use the SAR Interview Method?

First of all, do not see SAR as a “trick” to fool an interviewer. What strategies of these sort teach you is to communicate something that is already there. If you have applied for the right position, have adequate skills and experiences, then these techniques are simply helping you flesh out who you are. However, pivoting on SAR and other methods to portray a false impression of your abilities would be a serious mistake. Truth will always come out in the end.

Now, let’s get into it. What does “SAR” even mean?

Situation.

Action.

Result.

Can you start figuring out what an answer based on this looks like? Imagine that they ask you “How did you deal with a disagreement with the engineering team?”. First, you describe the situation: a particular instance where your goals and those of the technical team were misaligned. Then, you describe the actions you took to solve this conflict. Finally, you explain the results linked to your intervention.

building facade with one, two, three drawn as numbers

Thus, in three steps, you are doing at least five things. Let’s see why the SAR method is extremely useful to structure any interview answer:

  1. The situation paints a picture of who you are as a professional. Literally, it describes a scene where you are taking care of things in an office. This is a key interview goal.
  2. You are not just dropping names and numbers; you are adding actions and context to them. This way, they become way more real than your resume and other application materials.
  3. The fact that you are willing to go in detail shows that you are open and honest. Especially if the story sounds less as “bragging” and more like a situation which truly tested your skills.
  4. The way you arrived at a conclusion and put your decisions in motion reveals your thinking process. This is crucial for many interviewers, who want to understand the how as much as the what.
  5. Finally, the information and particular data you pick to explain the effects of your actions are clues to your robustness as a PM. Particularly, your rigor when justifying your actions.
person unpacking letters

Unpacking the SAR Interview Method

Now, let’s unpack each component to see how you should build your answer around them.

Pick Your Situation Carefully

This might sound obvious, but not everybody understands which situation portrays them in the best light. Sometimes, we are not the best judges of our own character. The basic principle is that you avoid over-complicating things. First of all, because you will not have much time to develop a point in full. Secondly, because this will help you make more impact.

Choose a moment of your working life where there is a clear obstacle, important for the project’s success, whttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2u7wOpoLxUMhich puts you right in the center of the action. Think of yourself as a screenwriter building an action sequence, where you are the hero. It should not be too easy, but rather difficult enough so the audience can empathize with the hero.

Again, as with a movie, your set up needs clear characters. Pick your “enemies” carefully: a situation where you are ignoring your superiors or alienating other teams might be detrimental for you. Likewise, this situation should be something where you had direct oversight. Perhaps it was an activity that was in a grey zone in terms of jurisdiction, but it should not look like you intervened in something that was not connected to your position or irrelevant for the interview.

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Prioritize Your Actions (STAR!)

Action, this is what matters after all. The recruiter wants to see how you intervened to influence over a situation. Some people call the SAR method STAR, adding “Task” to highlight the importance of the goal that was meant to be fulfilled; either in the context of that situation or within your general responsibilities. However, this makes it sometimes a bit difficult to establish a difference between Action and Task. Let’s look at the latter first.

Tasks involve whatever you had to achieve when you entered that situation; the mission you were meant to fulfill with your action. There are many Product Management perspectives which emphasize this task-based perspective. For instance, Jobs To Be Done looks at product and feature discovery as a process of analysis of your user’s actual interaction with your product. Similarly, you should explain your role and intervention in the context of the mission you were accomplishing in that case.

How do we evolve from this, to the action? Well, if your situation was a decrease in user interaction, and your task was to stop this decrease; your action would clearly imply undertaking the research and improvements needed to stop the churn. Remember that the action should sound realistic: you are not meant to be the only smart person in the room. Rather, emphasize how you arrived to a conclusion by acting in concert with others, slowly gaining their trust and relying on your leadership skills to implement your final vision.

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Results Are More than Numbers

Many who have tried to use the SAR method virtually forget about the results bit. They tend to think that describing their miraculous intervention and rushing a happy ending will satisfy the interviewer. Remember: the movie analogy works here too! Who enjoys a film ending like that? You should not just state the outcome, but reflect on what worked in that case and how you measured it in terms of data.

The ability to iterate is one of the most-prized Product Management skills. Believe or not, for some people it is very difficult to scrap a project and restart from scratch. But this ability to fail, repeat, and fail a little bit better; is fundamental to develop digital products. Launches are quick, the public can be harsh and investors even harsher. Thus, to successfully work in tech, you should be ready to have a learning methodology when things go wrong.

This is something your future company is dying to know more about.

Regarding data, every Product Manager needs to understand two key concepts. First, vanity metrics are useless. You need numbers to support your stories, not the other way around. Secondly, north star targets are fantastic for team cohesion and product growth. Metric discovery is in itself a vital product process, and linking this type of insight with your SAR story can show an interviewer that you mean serious business.

PM Interview Questions and Answers with SAR (Examples)

We could (and have!) write a whole book with interview question strategies, but we are hoping that with these samples you have enough to build your own answers. If you need some ideas with regards to the questions themselves, check out this post. Keep in mind that these questions will be tied to your past and future roles, so they are kept abstract here on purpose.

The Product Vision Question

Can you tell me an example of a product or feature idea you generated and how you made sure that it was reflected in the final version?

This question is meant to find out whether you can create, promote and defend a particular product roadmap. It refers mostly to your creative process, how you come up with ideas and materialize them. It is very important, particularly in startup positions where you are likely to be the only Product Manager.

With regards to the situation, it is very easy to rely on abstract moments here. Discussing how you “had an idea” can seem challenging. Rather, to show your commitment to your contributions, try to think of a moment where your approach was being challenged. Then, your action will make you seem proactive and dedicated: maybe you produced metrics, or conducted a customer interview to back your point. Finally, in terms of results, you can explain how your particular contribution was backed by better numbers but also an increase in legitimacy as a product professional.

man looking at computer screen, worried

The Team and Stakeholder Management Question

Can you tell us of a moment were you made sure that the concerns of sales-oriented and development-oriented teams were aligned?

Product Managers have a hard time: they can only convince, but they can never directly force other teams to follow their lead. Companies seek professionals who are good at persuading others that the product team is acting in their best interests.

This question is trying to find out whether you are good at avoiding and solving conflicts. That is, your situation does not necessarily have to include an open struggle between departments. Rather, you can choose to focus on a slightly difficult time for the product, how you acted to keep communication flowing between functions and how this resulted in a better situation when things returned to normal.

The User Question

What are your favorite techniques to include the voice of the user in your team deliberations?

It is often complex for Product Manager to include user concerns in their work. This might seem paradoxical, because they are meant to be the customer’s advocate in the office. But there are many PMs who work in huge isolated offices, at a distance from the public. Others work in B2B and SaaS markets, where the roles of customer and user are not (always) the same. Thus, only really market-oriented PMs can claim to know their user very well.

The goal with your answer is to describe a situation where understanding the user was crucial; perhaps, with the launch of a new mobile application. Then, you must show which tools and techniques (surveys, social media listening, etc.) you employed to pick a particular direction of travel. Finally, your results should deal with the information you gathered and how these insights were included in future product activities.

man talking to an audience in a coworking space

The Business Intelligence Question

How would you react if the competition began providing the same services at a lower cost?

Remember that Product Management is all about market viability. Or, rather, you will not have to remember because others will keep reminding you. Time and money constraints abound in tech: the role itself, PM, is meant to bring more efficiency to digital operations. This cohesive leader should always be ready to launch, scrap and reinvent the most established of digital institutions.

This hard question could be answered with a real or hypothetical experience. It is important to show that you understand the constraints inherent to a contemporary tech operation. Thus, your first action could include analyzing your opponent’s USP and weak points. Another alternative would be to reflect how you made tough choices to cut costs. Whatever the case, even if your results were negative, you should show how you had sufficient business acumen to confront this difficult situation.

The Product Failure Question

What have you done in a situation of serious technical or commercial failure for a product or feature?

This is another challenging question. It is meant to show your resilient side. That is, your ability to rise from the ashes, regroup and recover lost ground. If you can think of a suitable situation, it is very smart to build empathy through your difficulties. Do not dwell too much on your or your team’s mistakes; without ignoring your limitations, of course!

If you are able to walk your interviewer carefully through your activities (even if they were slightly chaotic at the time!) you will generate a sense of confidence. You should never express disloyalty towards your former product or brand; rather, show your prospective employer how you did everything you could to produce a positive or negative result. Remember to reflect on these results!

woman and man looking at computer screens

SAR or STAR: A Method to Show Product Management Leadership

Job interviews are, on the whole, some of your life’s most challenging moments. Product Management interviews are at another level. The role is such an opportunity to shine as an individual and as a member of a team, that you will have to show a lot of fitness and commitment before the interviewer. The SAR (or STAR) is a very useful preparation technique that can be deployed to emphasize your achievements in context.

Situations, actions and results abound in every job. However, with our guide and examples you should be able to build your own answers. In time, repeating this process will make you the best interviewee. Providing bad answers should no longer be an obstacle between you and a Product Manager position. Of course, sometimes you really need to make that extra effort to show real Product Leadership.

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