Focus on the Problem, Not the Solution by Spotify Product Manager

The contents of this talk and article are the opinions and experiences of the speaker, and do not reflect those of Spotify.

It’s disappointing when a product your team worked hard on isn’t as successful with users as you thought it would be. Why does this happen?

Cindy Chen tells us how spending more time understanding the problem can help us avoid this and create better products.

Meet Cindy Chen

Cindy Chen Product Manager at Spotify

Cindy Chen is a Product Manager at Spotify’s London office. Cindy works in content moderation at Spotify, building tools to help their operational teams ensure that the company is in line with content policy and rights protection. 

Originally from Toronto, Cindy started a career in accounting and transitioned into tech, picking up experience from various positions along the way until she found product management. Before working with Spotify, Cindy worked with the FinTech startup Paddle. Cindy is passionate about understanding problems to deliver the best possible solution, and brings this passion to all of her roles.

How to Focus on the Problem, Not the Solution

Focus on the Problem

Have you ever wondered if you’re building the right thing? If you have, this is the solution: focus on the problem. 

According to Paul Adams, the SVP of product at Intercom, their teams spend 40% of their allotted project time on the problem. Before designing anything, they define and prioritize phases of the product development life cycle.

Why do this? Why spend almost half your time understanding the problem instead of working on the solution? Because your solution can only be as good as your understanding of the problem.

When we don’t spend enough time defining the problem, we run the risk of building a product that solves a surface level issue or a symptom, instead of the underlying cause of the real problem.

Let’s take Quibi as a case study. Quibi was a mobile-only streaming platform specializing in short-form content. It had all of the ingredients for success: it was created by former Disney and HP executives, big names in Hollywood produced its content, and it received an incredible amount of hype and investment. And it flopped. Badly.

Let’s take a look at 3 reasons why:

1. Content and target customer mismatch

Quibi targeted Gen Z with the format, but was producing content for the wrong audience. Though their content was high quality, they missed the mark in understanding what kind of content would excite their user-base, as demonstrated when they turned down partnerships with some YouTuber influencers.

The lesson? Understanding your customer is key to building a product that will satisfy their needs.

2. Unclear value proposition

Quibi’s stated value proposition was optimizing video experiences on mobile. The main feature they were selling was being able to view content on your mobile phone in either horizontal or vertical orientation. Was there a problem there to begin with? 

They didn’t understand the problem, so their product didn’t solve it. The flip capability is a neat trick, but in the end no one was willing to choose Quibi over other streaming platforms just for this feature.

3. Poor leadership

The lack of clear value proposition came from poor leadership, even though the leadership team had stellar credentials, with many years of experience in the entertainment industry. 

What they did was overly rely on their expertise and fast track to creating the end product without properly understanding their target customer: focusing on the solution before knowing what problem it was they were trying to solve. Instead of using research and experimentation to create Quibi, they relied on intuition. And while intuition is important, it needs to be balanced with proper data to support the solution built.

The lesson here is the Build, Measure, and Learn model from the Lean Startup. This makes sure we build things quickly, iterate, measure, and learn. Measuring impact made and collecting feedback allows us to go back into the beginning and continue iterating.

Even with some of the top minds and talent in the business, Quibi failed. The case of Quibi demonstrates what can happen when we rush to create a solution without properly understanding our customer and defining the problem.

You might also be interested in: Anatomy of a Product Disaster: Quibi

People looking at phones

How Do I Focus on the Problem?

There are 5 stages in the Spotify design process: 

Understand It  → Think It → Build It → Ship It → Tweak It

These stages aren’t linear or sequential, but rather an iterative process that you can come back to as you learn something new or as the market changes. If something happens that makes you ask if you’re solving the right problem, go back to any of the phases and validate the problem. 

We’re going to focus on the first two phases, Understand It and Think It, as these two are the most important in defining the problem and understanding the customer.

The first phase, Understand It, is the first step of learning about the problem space and what’s happening in the market.

Ask yourself questions like: What are your competitors doing? Is this an evergreen market? Who are the customers? What are they like? Knowing this allows you to dive into the opportunity and the problem that needs solving. 

And after the Understand It phase, you should have the problem defined!

Now that you know your problem, you can move to Think It. Here, you start ideating and validating different concepts with customers. There are 3 tools we can use to stay focused on the problem as we move through Think It:

  1. The Five Whys,
  2. Jobs to be Done
  3. Defining Success.

The Five Whys 

The Five Whys is a popular user interview research method. The reason why it’s important is because it helps you get to the emotional core of the problem by uncovering a user’s motivations and assumptions. 

We use The Five Whys because humans are complex. People usually don’t reveal (or know) why they’re behaving a certain way. You need to ask questions that probe a few layers deeper in order to find out the real reason behind a behavior. And in order to do this, you need to practice vertical questioning.

Horizontal vs vertical questioning

So let’s do a thought experiment.

Let’s say you’re the Keurig company and you want to find out why someone wants to drink coffee at home in the morning. There’s a few ways you can go about it. 

Starting with the first why, you can ask: why do you drink coffee in your kitchen in the morning? And a response could be: I want to feel awake with caffeine. 

From here you could say: So why don’t you drink tea instead? Tea has caffeine as well.

And a response could be: Because I don’t like the taste of tea. 

And now that line of questioning is blocked off. This is horizontal questioning. Your respondent told you about wanting to feel awake with coffee, and you offered an alternative to that and began digging into why caffeine is important. 

Coffee machine

In vertical questioning, we don’t focus on alternative products or even features of our own product. What we do is try to get to the emotional center of why they use our product in the first place. Let’s try the same experiment, but questioning in a vertical way:

Q: Why do you drink coffee in your kitchen in the morning?

A: To feel awake with caffeine.

Here the thing you want to dig into is the reason why they want to feel awake. 

So you ask: Why do you need to wake up feeling refreshed? 

And the person may say: So I can be mentally prepared for the day. 

And if you go along with this thought you’ll ask: Why is it important to be prepared for the day? And they’ll say: Well, because I have a long list of stuff to get done. 

And now we’re getting somewhere, closer to the person’s context and their motivations. 

Continue this line of questioning: Why can’t you mentally prepare by writing down a to-do list? And the answer: Because this morning ritual of drinking coffee in my kitchen gives me a quiet moment to myself before I tackle my to-do list. 

And now you’ve uncovered a gem. This is the type of insight that helps us find an emotional need. The direction of questioning you want to follow is that which gets you closer to the motivations, thinking process, and emotional state of your customer when they’re using your product, as well as why they’re using your product. 

In the Keurig example, it’s because this product is giving them a quiet moment to themselves before they tackle the day. That is the emotional need they’re hiring your product to fulfill. And this could have many implications once you understand the job that they’re hiring your product to do. When creating the product you can start thinking about how you can enhance this quiet moment for your customer. How can you change the product so that customers have a better enjoyment and more consistent enjoyment of those quiet moments? With this thinking you meet the emotional need instead of catering to pure functionality. 

Jobs to Be Done 

Closely related to The Five Whys is the Jobs to Be Done, because it gets to the bottom of what the customer is hiring a product to solve for them. The job itself doesn’t necessarily describe a task, but aims to identify an emotional or aspirational need.

Alan Clement defines jobs to be done as the process consumers go through whenever they aim to change their existing life situation into a preferred one, but cannot because there are constraints that stop them. In layman’s terms: we as humans want to better ourselves or the situation we’re in.

You might also be interested in: 10 Free eBooks For Your Product Manager Library

A great example comes from the founder of Revlon, who said:

“In the factory we make cosmetics; in the drug store we sell hope.”

What you’re telling customers is that when they buy this lipstick, they get a tool to feel more confident about their appearance. The customers are hiring a product, the cosmetics, but it provides an emotional job, not an aesthetic one. Once we understand what the customer is trying to achieve, we can then design a product that gets the job done. 

Another useful way to unearth the customer job to be done is by discovering already-existing compensatory behaviors they are exhibiting (i.e. when customers don’t have a suitable product, how do they get the job done?). 

I’ll give a personal example: when I was working at a telecom company, my team designed a consolidated linear TV (cable TV experience meets Netflix). Through our ethnographic user research, we found that some participants had cobbled together a TV box, for example with a Roku player and a blu-Ray player together, so that they can satisfy the whole family’s video entertainment needs. 

There wasn’t a product at the time that satisfied dad’s live sports games, and the kids’ Netflix, and high quality films that the whole family could enjoy together. And because of this compensatory behavior of cobbling together different systems, we learned that there actually is a need for this consolidated video experience, and that people were probably willing to pay for it.

A product’s value proposition should be clear, and it should describe the product in terms of what customer job it is satisfying. 

Some of the best brands are refined by their problems. If you need to furnish a dorm room, the first company you think of is Ikea. If you need to answer a question, it’s Google. If you need to blow your nose? Kleenex. Kleenex has even become synonymous with tissue paper, which is a great demonstration of how powerful their brand is. 

You might also be interested in: Branding for Builders

When you find product-market fit, it means that when you communicate a product value proposition through your marketing and branding channels, the message will resonate with the target customer group because it satisfies a customer job that they might hire the product to do.

Defining Success

Our third and final tool is Defining Success. 

Define what success looks like in your user’s context and decide how to measure this success. It’s helpful to define your success outcome while defining your problem, because it’s important that success is measured by how well the product solves the problem. 

We can define success with questions like: 

How will the user feel after hiring your product? What will have changed when the product that they hire has solved their problem or helped them achieve what they wanted? If we humans want to better ourselves and the situations we’re in, how are customers expecting life to be better once they find the right solution for a job to be done? 

Defining success from the beginning also helps narrow down the scope of the problem that you’re solving. Some problem spaces are very big and there’s many different ways you can approach it. Maybe you can reach your goal by solving a niche problem, or by tapping into uncharted territory. 

And as you move forward, you can use your definition of success as a North Star throughout the project. It can remind you what outcome you’re trying to achieve, without prescribing how to achieve it. It helps you envision a future state when something has been solved, and keep in mind what outcome you’re trying to optimize for. 

And finally, it’s a useful guide to validate and test early concepts to see if you’re going in the right direction. When you know what outcome you’re trying to optimize for, you can start to test these concepts with some early customers and based on their feedback see if the project is moving in the right direction to achieve the outcome you’re aiming for.

Graph of Spotify's thoughtful execution tree
Image credit: Spotify

Spotify’s Thoughtful Execution Tree is a framework that was developed in-house by Spotify to stay focused on your success outcome. It works like this:

  1. Identify your goal
  2. Think about how can you leverage quantitative and data and insights to
  3. Identify the different problem areas and opportunity areas that will help you reach that goal. 

The goal here can be high level; it could be a business goal like increase revenue, or improve the profit margin, or decrease operational costs. And once you start to gather insights and data, you start to identify different ways in which you can reach that goal. 

And the other two tools apply as here well. After this problem and opportunity identification stage, you can use The Five Whys and the Jobs to Be Done frameworks. By understanding success through a goal, it becomes easier to define different ways in which you can reach that goal, and makes it less likely that you’ll invest in a solution that doesn’t address your problem.

You might also be interested in: Setting Goals for Product Success

IRL Applications

Real life is messy. So real-life applications are messy. While it’s good to have tools to refer back to that lay out helpful concepts, it’s important to remember that these frameworks and methodologies won’t always fit perfectly in practice. And that’s okay.

Knowing the tools allows you to be adaptable and adjust them to make them work for you. If you can’t ask The Five Whys – maybe you don’t have access to your customers – modify it or try a different research method. What’s more important is to understand the underlying thinking behind the framework and apply it. 

The second IRL tip is to begin with an end in mind. Things change so much: the market might change, the requirements might change, your stakeholders might change. Things always move along quickly, especially in the tech world. So it’s really important to always remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing, and not lose sight of that. 

Checking in with this end-result also provides a moment for you to reflect and decide whether or not any of the changes you’re observing should impact what you’re doing. Beginning of with an end in mind is a good way to keep track of whether or not you’re still staying on course, and can help you determine if you need to change course.

And the last IRL tip is to bring people along with you on the journey. There’s a lot of people involved in the process of product development. And as you learn things, it’s really important to bring everyone with you on that journey so they understand the reasons why you’re making certain decisions. This gets everyone in alignment: co-creation is a good way to get your stakeholders and your team on board. Show them the importance of spending time to define the problem. Invite them to some of these user research sessions or usability testing, expose them to the process in any way you can. 

We know product management is both an art and a science. In this instance, the science is the data side of research: testing, experimenting, creating hypotheses to validate. And as we apply these research methodologies, we need to understand that there’s an art to working with people. Understanding the underlying emotional needs that our product is trying to fulfill requires a special touch. As you define your problem, remember to balance both the scientific tools and the human touch so you never have to wonder if you’re building the right thing ever again.

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