ProductFTW #12: Determining the Problem to be Solved

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been chatting about how to influence others and get more work done when you know the problems you’re trying to solve and the things you’re trying to build. Today, we’re diving into some foundations, before you’re even ready to build something. Remember when Zach talked in ProductFTW #4 about product strategy usually coming from the CEO? But what if that’s not the case? Where do you even begin? This is for the folks trying to build their product strategy who are either stepping into the PM role for the first time or hustling to build a product from the ground up.

To start, there are two fundamentals to focus on:

  1. What is the problem you’re solving? 
  2. Who are you solving for? 

What’s the problem? 

You probably have more questions at this point than you have answers. And that's okay.

It is typically easier to find the problem, determine who the audience is, and prove that it is worth solving versus starting with the audience and looking for something to solve. I’m sure there is psychology behind this, but I will leave it to the experts and focus on the the former approach.

We’ve all heard those success stories about people quitting college to build something from their parent's garage. But how did they decide what to build in the first place, and how did they get the courage or motivation to put everything in their life on hold to build it? I see it boiling down to three categories:

  • You’ve run into a problem yourself and feel it needs to be solved.
  • You’ve heard enough people venting about something that you’re convinced it’s up to you to tackle it.
  • A combination of one and two.

To use me as an example, back in 2013, when I joined, I was sitting on $30K of credit card debt. Talk about irony, right? I was trying to sell the perks of credit cards while personally, I was drowning in debt. It struck me how everyone was talking about points cards, yet nobody was focusing on getting out of debt or using credit wisely to turn things around. That’s what sparked my first venture, The Debt Girl. Think of it as The Points Guy’s counterpart, but all about getting your credit to work for you, not against you. That squarely put me in the first category, feeling the pinch and trying to solve a problem for myself. But was it a problem worth solving?

Who’s the audience? 

To determine if the problem is worth solving, you start by identifying the target audience. This step, known as “quantifying the problem,” is about understanding how many people are struggling with this issue and the scale and depth of their pain. Several methods exist to compile this data, but it usually starts on the internet. There's a wealth of existing data online, including industry reports, consumer behavior studies, blogs, and more.

Next, and sometimes the most daunting for us introverts, is the need to talk to people. Yes, face-to-face is best, but device-to-device communication can work too. This approach not only provides first-hand accounts of the problem and its impact but also gets you talking about the problem and potential solutions. The way you discuss your solution needs to resonate with your audience, and these initial conversations can be a great way to brainstorm ideas.

Sometimes, talking directly to people about the problem can be challenging. When I was pondering The Debt Girl, I knew how embarrassed I was to be in debt, and the idea of sharing my biggest secret with others, especially strangers (though sometimes that's easier), was daunting. It's definitely easier to have these conversations when you are directly experiencing what your target audience is because you're talking to them on the same level. If you find yourself in the second category (you’ve heard enough people venting about a problem that you’re convinced it’s up to you to tackle it), it doesn't hurt to do some research on how to discuss sensitive topics or to find someone who can speak on your behalf.

There are numerous tools available to help assess the problem's relevance and intensity among your potential audience through surveys, interviews, and social listening. Platforms like social media, forums, and community groups can provide insights into how your target audience discusses and experiences the problem. Surveys, in particular, can help you not only determine the relevance of the problem but also gather direct feedback on your proposed solution.

Your goal with all this research and conversations is to solidify who your solution is actually for and to develop a user persona. Think of a user persona as a detailed sketch of your ideal audience segment, pieced together from real data and stories. It’s a blend of what they want, the hurdles they face, who they are, and what influences them to make decisions, giving us a clear picture to keep in mind while we build things they’ll love.

Image from Alexander Gilmanov

I used to laugh at user personas. I thought they looked nice but didn’t really understand the practice of writing down who my target audience was and thought it was a waste of time. That changed when I started working on The Debt Girl. I thought my target would be anyone who was in debt, but as I started talking to people, I quickly realized there are many types of debt outside of credit cards and a lot of factors that go into someone getting into debt. I wouldn’t be able to give advice or information to every use case, nor should I.

Validate your hypothesis

Now that you know who you are building for, you need to validate your findings. There are many ways to do this without a lot of upfront investment, such as launching a minimum viable product (MVP), creating landing pages, or conducting pilot programs. These experiments not only refine your understanding of the problem and its significance but also gauge the market's readiness to embrace your solution.

Throughout this process, you should continuously iterate based on feedback and new data. Your goal is to ensure that there is a significant, engaged audience for whom your solution not only addresses a genuine need but does so in a way that is economically viable. While I was going through this process, I launched a website, wrote articles, and promoted them on social media, gauging engagement. Over time, the feedback I received indicated people needed help budgeting, coming up with a plan, and understanding their options, a pivot from helping people leverage credit to get out of debt.

In the end, whether you’re knee-deep in the problem yourself or stepping into someone else’s shoes to understand their struggles, the essence of product management lies in empathy, research, and iteration. It’s about believing in the problem you’re solving, the solution you’re building, and the people you’re helping. Remember, the journey of a product manager is not just about launching products but about creating meaningful solutions that resonate with and enrich the lives of your users. So, dive deep, keep learning, and always be ready to pivot based on what you discover. After all, the most impactful products are those that are built with purpose, passion, and a profound understanding of the human experience.

But what if you’re a product manager and the CEO did set the strategy, and you haven’t experienced the problem yourself or seen firsthand how this problem impacts others? You can still be a great and empathetic product manager, but you need to believe in the product strategy and vision. Find the data, talk to the customers, live in the problem, and dig deep. Empathy isn’t something that happens overnight, and you are not a bad product manager if you are struggling. You need to find some proof for yourself that the problem is worth solving or move on.

About ProductFTW

ProductFTW is a weekly newsletter about product management, with a focus on real-life experiences in startups. We want to help product leaders be successful by giving realistic approaches that aren’t for giant tech companies. We know you don’t have a full-time product designer on each team. We know your software probably hasn’t been used by millions of people worldwide–yet. We’re here to bridge the content gap from building your product and team to scaling it.

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