How Language, Social Science, and Product Intersect

facebook twitter


For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a deep fascination of people, wanting to understand how they experience the world and why they make the decisions they do. This fascination has shown up in three distinct ways in my life: learning languages, pursuing a sociology degree, and working in product management. On the surface, these concepts don’t appear to be connected. But if you look a level deeper, you’ll see a common thread start to take shape: They’re all centered on the study of human behavior.


I can tell you from firsthand experience, having spent years learning French in school and later living abroad, that the best and fastest way to learn a language is to spend lots of time with native speakers. If you can move somewhere people speak the language, even better! Why? Because until you’re immersed in a people and a culture, you won’t truly understand the language. Facial expressions, body language, social norms—these are all integral parts of how people communicate, yet they can’t be easily taught in a textbook. It takes frequent, consistent time spent with people to achieve clarity. Sound familiar? This is known in the social sciences as ethnography—the study of a specific group of people by becoming immersed in their culture and observing how they live. The bottom line? The closer you are to people, the closer you are to solving the problem.

Patterned Behavior and Inference

I didn’t take very much formal Spanish in school, but I now speak Spanish almost as well as I do French. Though much of that has to with how many more opportunities are available for me to speak Spanish than French (going back to my prior point on immersion), it also has a lot to do with my ability to see the similarities between the two languages. Since both are romance languages, they follow many of the same rules regarding feminine and masculine objects, verb conjugation, etc. By recognizing these patterns and frameworks, I significantly sped up my understanding of Spanish while at the same time solidifying my French abilities.

Quite like identifying patterns in language, sociology centers on the study of patterns in social interaction. Max Weber, one of the founding fathers of sociology, wrote a groundbreaking book called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In it, he looked at how core beliefs of the Protestant faith—like using the God-given resources available to the individual—intersected with the industrial revolution to foster the form of capitalism that is now synonymous with American culture and identity. He identified patterns of social (in this case religious) interaction and principles that shaped a social phenomenon. And in the same way, we as product managers try to identify patterns in customer behavior and measure their impact on product outcomes.

First Quantity, Then Quality

When learning a language, you typically start by building your vocabulary. The more words you know, the more you’ll be able to communicate your basic needs: restroom, food, hospital, lodging, etc. Once you’ve got that foundation established, you can then focus on grammar and sentence structure so you can describe your wants and needs in more detail: I need stitches; where’s the nearest hospital? I’m in town for the week; is there a hotel near downtown you’d recommend? You master the broad concepts before focusing on finesse.

Along the same lines, when starting a sociological study, you come up with a hypothesis and then conduct quantitative research so you can counter or support your hypothesis with some statistical significance. Once you’ve quantified your findings, you back up your research with subject interviews and focus groups to add more context and description (i.e., qualitative research). Again, you start big before going small.

Product operates kind of in the same way. You identify a problem. You may hold some basic assumptions about that problem, but first you use quantitative and qualitative research before building out the solution. You review current events, research industry trends, and conduct competitor analysis to accurately scope out the problem (quantitative). Later, you conduct customer interviews and panel discussions to add color and clarity to how the problem manifests in peoples’ lives (qualitative). If you asked me how to easily summarize research methods, I would say this: Quantity tells your story; quality sells your story. Both are ultimately important for your audience (stakeholders).


I hope this helped you see how these three seemingly different disciplines intersect and overlap. So, what should you take away from this? No, I’m not asking you to move overseas or take a class on social theory, but you can take some best practices from these fields and start applying (or refining) them inside your product leadership.

Get close to your customers. Their problems should become your problems—that’s how well you should understand their world. Be quick to recognize behavioral patterns and contextual frameworks. Validate and qualify those patterns and frameworks by using qualitative and quantitative research methods. And above all, don’t ever lose your fascination with people or your desire to solve problems. For as surely as you understand people, you’ll arrive at the right solution.