Patterns of Pain: How Product Managers Solve High-Value Problems

Jim Semick
Co-founder, Board Member at ProductPlan


The most successful product managers think of themselves as finders of pain, not finders of products.

In my experience launching ProductPlan and prior products, I’ve learned that talking early with potential customers to identify pain can lead you to create better, more innovative solutions. Although it may seem obvious, that’s not how many companies start—they often start by building a product and then later seek out problems for it to solve.

It’s this “product-first” thinking that is at the core of many product failures.

When the up-front pain-finding doesn’t happen, products miss the mark and can waste countless hours in development effort. Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed this first-hand.

My philosophy: Find the patterns of pain first, and you’ll be able to create better products.

Ultimately, what you’re seeking is a market with a consistent problem area. Then, you can obsess about that problem. Thoroughly validate it and confirm it’s a problem you can solve. Moreover, if you find that solving this pain is at the top of your customer’s priority list, you have a much better shot at creating a winning product.

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Finding Pain through Customer Discovery

People buy products to reduce pain or create a gain. You can uncover this through customer discovery. Through customer discovery, you can learn what it would mean to a customer if you solved that problem.

Your goal is to uncover the value proposition of solving problems. A value proposition represents the value that the customer gets out of using your product. So a value proposition could mean:

I believe a “product” is more than the product itself; it includes the pricing, services, the way it’s sold, and so much more. With this broad definition, you have much more room to discover frustrations that customers are facing with their current solutions or the way they’re solving problems today.

My recommendation: start by speaking with at least ten prospective customers. Even at low numbers, these interviews will give you incredible insight, especially if you start hearing a consistent pattern of pain.

Ask the Right Questions

One of the techniques that I recommend is asking open-ended questions. Open-ended questions allow people to include more information in their answers, including how they feel, which will lead you to ask questions you hadn’t considered.

“Why?” is by far the most powerful question you can ask, so ask it often. Rarely accept a customer’s initial response. By asking “why?” as a follow-up question, you can extract an enlightening answer and get to the crux of an issue.

Once you find a problem to solve, it’s essential to understand how high on the priority list this falls for your prospects. An even more basic issue to understand is whether the customer is aware that they have a problem. If you need to educate customers that they have a problem in the first place, that’s a sign it could be tough to create awareness and acquire customers in the future. And if they are aware they have a problem, is the problem big enough, pervasive enough, and painful enough that someone would be willing to pay you to solve it? Do they even have the budget and the decision-making authority to purchase?

If you’re solving problems that people don’t care about solving, or worse, they’re not willing to pay, then you don’t have a business model that’s going to work for your product.

Pattern Recognition

A lot of people think the validation of a new product is a scientific process. For instance, if you conduct 30 or 40 interviews, then somehow, you will achieve a statistically valid result that gives you the truth. But this process is subjective, and biases abound.

You have to read into the nuance of what people say, and that is anything but scientific.

When you conduct about 15-20 interviews, you will start to hear the same things again and again. You’ll hear patterns. So by the 21st interview, you’ll ideally hear something similar to what you’ve heard previously.

However, if you do not hear a pattern of pain after a dozen interviews, then there might not be a problem to solve.

There is no magic number for the right amount of interviews. However, for every additional interview you conduct, you’re incrementally lowering your risk of failure. You can conduct ten interviews and reduce your risk of failure somewhat, or 20 interviews and reduce it even further. After 90 interviews, assuming you’re asking the right questions, you can reduce your risk substantially. That is the main point of the process.

Also, as I interview, I pivot my questions and the pitch along the way. So my fourth interview is nothing like my first. Once I learn where I missed the mark, I adjust and move on. This flexibility is especially true if you’re validating a solution for a domain where you have limited experience. It can be a little awkward if you’re not speaking the same language for the field. If that’s the case, you’ll learn how to phrase questions, use the right industry buzzwords, etc.

How We Found Patterns of Pain at ProductPlan

At ProductPlan, we discovered pain around the product roadmap process by initially conducting 30 interviews with product managers from a variety of companies. Most of these discussions focused on their day-to-day challenges, and the pain they were experiencing planning, prioritizing, and communicating their product roadmap.

We discovered significant pain around product roadmaps. Product managers were spending hours every week on the roadmapping process, and they still weren’t able to prioritize effectively. There were disconnects communicating the roadmap with internal stakeholders.

They found it hard to get alignment within their organizations and found it challenging to tie the roadmap back to strategy. We also discovered that, because they wanted their roadmap presentation to look good, they spent valuable time making their roadmap look great for stakeholders and executives. The visual aspect mattered.
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Based on discovering this pain, we built and launched a product that hit the pain head-on. We didn’t try to solve every problem they had but focused on reducing the pain around product roadmaps. We also created a gain by helping product managers communicate with and align their teams better. Ultimately, we help them ship better products, and we help them look good with beautiful roadmaps.

We spent hours coordinating and conducting those initial interviews. By the time we launched the product, we had done over 70 interviews. But because of all of this up-front work, we got our roadmap software to market quickly, on a tight budget, and we made no significant pivots along the way.
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You can read more about finding patterns of pain and product-market fit in our book: Find Product-Market Fit Faster, Lessons for Product Managers