It may sound funny, but the best product people are the ones you rarely see. Being a great product person means that you understand your own business, the competitive landscape, and current market trends, but most importantly, it means you understand your users.
Everyone has opinions, and opinions can be good, but they can also be dangerous. The biggest trap for product people is to have an opinion on day one—whether “day one” means it’s a new product or that you’re new to the position or new to the company.
Opinions based on nothing but your gut are just assumptions. If you make statements like “This is how people are going to use our product” and “I know what people are looking for, so let’s build that,” and you only have your opinion to back them up, than what you’re really saying is, “This is how I assume people are going to use our product” and “I think I know what people are looking for, so let’s build that.” When you do this, you’re guessing, and guessing leads to failure.
What you should be doing is getting out of the office and talking to your users (either current or potential). Opinions and assumptions are good, but then you have to get out and talk to people. Ask users how they do their job, what frustrates them, and what would improve it. These conversations should be made before and (even more important) during development. As you build, bring prototypes to the users and expand the conversation by asking them to use the prototypes. Ask them what they like and don’t like about them. Does it solve a problem for them? Does it make their life easier?
At least half of a product person’s time should be research: market research, competitive research, and user research. User conversations will strengthen your opinions about what your users are looking for, and you will go from assuming what to build to knowing what to build.
If you want to succeed as a product person, you should expect colleagues to say “I haven’t seen you in a while, what have you been doing?” As long as you’ve been spending most of your time with customers in order to understand what they need and what problems you’re going to help solve, then you’re on the right track. You need to be able to tell your boss or senior management that you know exactly what your users are looking for, and you need to be able to back that up with solid research: surveys (both qualitative and quantitative), analytics (usage, both transactional and non-transactional), and feedback from user conversations.
Being a good product person is about having strong opinions, but also about mitigating the risk of those opinions. Instead of just making decisions based on your gut, support them by doing research, by understanding usage and numbers, and (most important) getting user feedback.