Product Thinking: Identifying the user and their problem to be solved

Ward Andrews
By Ward Andrews
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This is one of a series of blog posts exploring what product thinking is, why it matters, and how to develop it in your organization.

In a previous post, we covered what product thinking is and why it matters. Like everything in good UX design, product thinking starts with the user.

Specifically, product thinking starts with the core question, “What makes your product useful?”

This seems like a fairly straightforward question, but the answers can be complicated. It’s easy to get caught up in what features make people comfortable with your product. If you focus too much on features, you can lose sight of the larger purpose those features are meant to solve.

To avoid that, we like to draw backwards and get a 360-degree view of the problem we’re trying to solve by researching and exploring to answer some core questions.

What problem are you trying to solve?

At the root level, product thinking is about solving problems. No matter how your product evolves in its features or look and feel, to be successful over the long haul it needs to solve a core problem for your customers. This problem needs to be real and easy to define and understand.

You need the discipline to not chase white rabbits and build fancy features just for the sake of having them. Each feature needs to contribute to solving that larger problem. This is how your product becomes not just comfortable but truly meaningful for customers - because it solves (and, ideally, anticipates) a core problem that they have in their life.

If the problem is too vague or not based on lived experience, then the product will feel irrelevant no matter how nice it looks and feels. If the product is oriented to the wrong problem, nobody will choose to buy or use the product.

A clear definition of the problem is more important than the solution itself because broken solutions can be fixed and adjusted. But if you’re chasing the wrong problem, no solution will be able to fix it.

Whose problem are you trying to solve?

It’s not quite enough to identify the problem. That problem needs to be felt, experienced and faced by a real person. It’s up to you to know who that person is as thoroughly as possible.

This means getting into the heads of your core target customers and users and empathizing with their needs around the problem. This isn’t a one-time effort. It’s an ongoing process that gradually peels back the layers of who your core customers are and what they really need.

We like to rely on archetypes more than personas. There are always going to be demographic details that help you segment your audience for marketing purposes. But in order to build a product that solves real problems, the behaviors, attitudes, and environments of your customers are more important than demographic data points about things like gender and age.

Everybody on the design team needs to have a clear and evolving picture in their head of the person on the other end of the product. Without this, you end up with features that stand a 50/50 chance of being successful.

How can I be sure I’m attacking the right problem?

This is the tricky part. It’s almost always a good idea to start with simple conversations. Talk to your core customers and users and understand what they believe about the problem they need your product to solve. But that is almost never enough.

Most people don’t know what they want until they see it. They have a hard time articulating their own needs. They often even misunderstand their own actions.

True innovation comes from watching people’s behavior and identifying the subconscious motivations that drive that behavior. Don’t just trust what somebody tells you they do. Watch them do it. You’ll be amazed how often they clearly contradict themselves with their behavior.

The hard truth is that you’ll never be 100% sure that you’re addressing the right problem for the right person. But you can get more and more confident the more you research and understand the need underlying the core problem. The more you empathize with customers and users, the more you’ll learn, and the more confidence you’ll have that you’re solving a real problem for real people.

Draw backwards to identify the right problems for the right people.

Clients often come to us with what they think is a clear understanding of the problem they’re trying to solve only to have us help them realize they’ve been chasing the wrong problem.

We have more than 20 years of experience and a proven process that helps you get a 360-degree view of the problem, the people who have that problem, and the solutions that will help them.

Let’s start a conversation about how we can help you do the same.