What is the CIRCLES Method?

The CIRCLES method is a problem-solving framework that helps product managers (PMs) make a thorough and thoughtful response to any design question.

The seven linear steps of the process form the CIRCLES acronym: Comprehend the situation; identify the customer; report the customer’s needs; cut, through prioritization; list solutions; evaluate tradeoffs, and summarize your recommendation.

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Key Concepts of the CIRCLES Method

The sequential structure of the CIRCLES method enables PMs to move through essential questions to understand what needs to design and why fully. Some consider the CIRCLES method to be a checklist for asking the right questions when forming an exhaustive and organized response to a design question.

According to Lewis C. Lin, author of Decode and Conquer and creator of the CIRCLES method, the first critical step — comprehending the situation — is a three-fold process that involves:

  1. Clarifying the goal (e.g., increase revenue, market share, or engagement).
  2. Understanding the constraints you have for the problem upfront (e.g., how much time do you have, how many engineer resources are available, etc.).
  3. Understanding the context of the situation that gives you foundational knowledge (i.e., don’t guess or make assumptions–instead ask questions that help you understand, like “What is it?” and “Who is it for?”).

Hear Lewis C. Lin walk through the CIRCLES method.

Here are the seven steps to the CIRCLES method:

Comprehend the situation (What? Why? Who? How?)
Identify the customer
Report customer’s needs
Cut, through prioritization
List solutions
Evaluate tradeoffs
Summarize your recommendation

Alicia Newman at Learn Worthy writes:

“The CIRCLES framework is put together so that you can use mental cues to structure your response to a product design question. Knowing the backbone of the framework ensures that once you get that product design question, you will know which elements to include in your answer no matter what the product is.”

Why Is the CIRCLES Method Important to Product Management?

The CIRCLES method is useful in product management because it:

  • Keeps the focus on users by distilling who PMs are building the product or feature for. Communicates why they are building it.
  • Helps PMs prioritize things like product features, execution, user feedback, and the product roadmap
  • Enables PMs to ask the right questions during the critical first step (comprehend the situation) to gather ample information before rushing to a solution
  • Encourages PMs to keep an open mind as they move through the sequential steps of the framework instead of jumping to conclusions or a solution

Related terms: Customer EmpathyUser ExperienceProduct DesignProduct DiscoveryDesign Thinking