Important Problems – Comparing Products Part 4

If you understand the important market problems, you can make a good product.  If you understand how important each problem is, for each group of customers, you can make a great product.  If you’re new to this series, go back and start at the first article, we’ll wait for you right here.

Overall Product Comparison Process

This is a relatively long series.  Each article will start with a recap of the overall process.

Getting useful information from comparing products requires you to:

  1. Introduction & Overview (so that the step-numbers align with the article numbers)
  2. Identify your customers.
  3. Articulate the problems they care about solving.
  4. Determine how important solving each problem is, relative to the other problems, for your customers. (This article)
  5. Characterize how important it is for you to solve the problems of each group of customers.
  6. Discover which (competitive) products your customers consider to be your competition.
  7. Assess how effectively each competitive product solves each important problem.
  8. Assess how effectively each competitive product solves each important problem, for each important group of customers.

With this information, you can create a point of view about how your product compares to the others.

Important Problems

In the previous article on defining market problems, we identified 6 personas / contexts by which we would compare the kindle fire with other products.

  1. Tina – A hi-tech prosumer who is using the device to get smarter about the latest trends in her industry
  2. Tim – A hi-tech prosumer who is using the device to enjoy niche fiction content, particularly comics, e-zines and self-published works
  3. Kenny – A typical kindle user who is using the device for his work in the finance space, studying proposals and business plans, etc
  4. Karla – A typical kindle user and voracious reader who is using the device to eliminate the large pile of books on her nightstand
  5. Chris – A basic consumer who would is studying business in college
  6. Christina – A basic consumer who is in a book club, and who is always reading the latest best seller

The reason it was important to identify contexts is that the important aspect of personas is to identify groups of users with homogeneous perspectives on the relative value of solutions to particular problems – and the three personas previously identified would place different values on the solutions, depending on the context in which they were using the device.

Revisiting the Market Problems

We also identified a set of problems that these personas would want to solve.

  1. Read Anywhere – Be able to read content in multiple physical environments / on multiple devices, and not lose my place in the book.
  2. Annotate – Be able to annotate / highlight what I’m reading for future review.
  3. Talk About It – Be able to have conversations with other people who are reading what I’m reading.
  4. Find More to Read – Make it easier for me to find other content that I would like to read.
  5. Subscribe – Be able to subscribe to magazines / newspapers / blogs / serial publications.
  6. More From My Network – Be able to read what people I trust are reading.

This process is iterative, and in reviewing the 6 problems above, a valid question is – are problems (4) and (6) different versions of the same problem?  When writing requirements, it is important to specify the problems and not the design.  This is a tricky one, as it blurs the line between requirements and design.  Reasonable people can make either of the following interpretations:

  • The market requirement is to “find more to read” by any means necessary – it could be through receiving recommendations from the user’s network, or it could be based on some not-specified “black box” heuristic and scoring algorithm.  These two requirements are duplicates.
  • Yes, ultimately the user is trying to find more to read, but this is actually too abstract – consider the goal of “enjoy using the device,” which is also the ultimate goal, and too abstract to be useful in guiding the product creation.  Asking people you trust for recommendations is a well established practice for finding reading material, and people make the distinction that it is inherently different from, and provides unique value relative to other approaches (like finding similar products, or “people who bought this also bought this other thing“).

Based on research I’ve done for previous clients (primarily on findability and recommendations in an eCommerce context), my personal perspective is that these problems are distinct, and should be treated differently.  This is one of those Art of Product Management situations, where different product managers can, will, and should reach different conclusions.  For this analysis, the problems will be treated distinctly, and the data that I invent will reflect that I believe these problems would manifest with different importance for different personas in different contexts.

In contrast to the above analysis, problem (1) conflates the two notions of “multiple devices” and “multiple environments.”  People familiar with eInk technologies and Amazon’s Whispersync technology may see these as independent solutions to reading in direct sunlight, and moving from device to device respectively.

I’ve combined these two ideas, primarily because of the influence of this presentation about multi-screen strategies from Precious , a design and strategy consultancy.

[image from Precious article]

My interpretation is that the notion of device shifting is something that is intentional – use the right device for the right environment – and not arbitrary.  Based on that, and the technologies that enable reading in different physical environments – like direct sunlight or a dimly lit room – should be evaluated as part of implementing a device-shifting strategy, and not independently.

Combining these two (in this example) is an opinion-based decision, just as keeping problems (4) & (6) distinct is an opinion based decision.  If the data you gather in identifying problems leads you to combine or separate those problems, do so.

Gathering the Data

In the previous article on identifying market problems, I indicated that you are using a mix of qualitative and quantitative data-collection techniques to identify the problems.  It is during those activities that you also quantify the relative importance of solving these problems.

Innovation Games are a particularly engaging way to gather this type of information [disclosure: while I haven’t formally done work for the company, I have worked with and know and respect the founder Luke Hohmann , and likely will work with him again in the future].  I’m including them here because they have worked for me.  A couple examples:

  • 20/20 Vision – get customers to put solutions to the problems into relative order (for them).  Effectively, a card-sorting exercise.
  • Speedboat – the relative priority insight you get from this game comes when people put anchors at different depths, indicating the severity of a particular problem.
  • Whole Product – this brainstorming game can also be used to identify what people perceive to be Must Be (table-stakes) capabilities of your product.

Surveys can also be used to gather data when you need to get feedback from larger numbers of people, or are operating in an environment that is less collaborative.  A simple approach – ask the question “How important is it to you to solve problem X?”  Read up on Likert scales to understand the dangers of asking this type of question, and determine if you need to bring in someone who is an expert at survey design to minimize the impact of bad survey design in your results.

Quantifying the Results

Using the word, quantifying, may not be wholly accurate here – it implies something scientific, when really you are synthesizing the data you have received, in order to eventually determine the relative importance of solving (or improving your solution of) specific market problems.  A made-up word like numberifying might be better.  If quantifying, used in this context, causes your head to explode, please comment below – I suspect this might be a hot-button for folks, but I’m not really sure if it is.

[larger image]

The above table shows hypothetical data representing the “quantified” relative importance of having a solution for each problem, to each persona / context.

For example, Kenny wants to use a device to review and annotate proposals and business plans – internal company documents.  He can do this on any of a number of devices, but the ability to do it “anywhere,” as long as he can annotate, is what really matters to him.  He’s not at all interested in capabilities to find more to read, discuss what he’s reviewing, or subscribe to new content.

For Christina, however, the act of reading is more social than private.  She is not worried about making notes in what she reads or subscribing to new content – she’s reading books and talking about them with her friends.

Gaining Insights

We’re not to the point in the series where we can actually compare competing products effectively yet, but you can already start to get insights.  Imagine you are designing a product for Christina.  Your business case is about going after the “Oprah book club” audience, and Christina is your target user.  You already know which problems are important to her, and more importantly, which problems are not important to her.  You can completely eliminate the subscription and annotation capabilities from your product and create something that Christina would love.

This step alone allows you to avoid the elastic user problem.

Usually, you aren’t able to design a product for just one user.  You can’t be all things to all people.  This is part of the analysis you have to do to determine what to build first – identifying the relative importance of problems to each persona.  The next step is to figure out the relative importance of each persona.  Combining the two allows you to understand the overall relative importance of each problem.


Creating a great product for your customers means not only knowing who your customers are, but also knowing which problems they want to solve, and among those problems, which ones it is most important to solve or solve first.  When comparing your product to competitive products, the best measure is one that compares the products based on the most important problems for each group of customers.

Recapping the overall flow of this series of articles on product comparison

Getting useful information from comparing products requires you to:

  1. Introduction and Overview (so that the step-numbers align with the article numbers)
  2. Identify your customers.
  3. Articulate the problems your customers care about solving.
  4. Determine how important solving each problem is, relative to the other problems, for your customers. (This article)
  5. Characterize how important it is for you to solve the problems of each group of customers.
  6. Discover which (competitive) products your customers consider to be your competition.
  7. Assess how effectively each competitive product solves each important problem.
  8. Assess how effectively each competitive product solves each important problem, for each important group of customers.

With this information, you can create a point of view about how your product compares to other products.

28 thoughts on “Important Problems – Comparing Products Part 4

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  13. No surprise that this is an excellent series of blog entries. I think there is a missing ingredient, however. Any comparison of products and any evaluation of prospect problems should take into consideration the notion of singular focus.

    As Ries and Trout counsel us, marketing is a battle for the mind, and it’s exceedingly difficult to occupy more than a single idea in the mind of the consumer.

    A product comparison should thus include a model of the “territory” each of the products occupies in the mind of the consumer. Lately, I’ve created such mindshare models for the products I manage. For an example, however, check out this mindshare model of the Democratic presidential candidates back in 2008.

    The process of prioritizing and selecting prospect problems should similarly take into account the value of focus. Ideally, the vast majority of the prospect problems a product solves should revolve around a central problem or theme. This theme captures the core value proposition or positioning of the product.

    This sort of focus makes requirements prioritization, marketing messaging, and many other product decisions much easier and powerful, in that the first criterion is whether the requirement, message, or decision strengthens or distracts from the central theme.

    1. Hey Roger, thanks!

      This aspect of positioning is one that resonates with me! I think it does make a ton of sense – and the the mindshare model link and image you created really crystallizes the concept.

      I think the best place to introduce the “one idea” aspect of comparing products definitely belongs here, and should either land in #7 or the not-yet-identified #8 of this series.

      At this point (in step 4), I think we could identify what single ideas might resonate with each group of customers, so your comment is well-timed. However, I haven’t yet tackled the part where we identify which ideas each competitive product uses for positioning.

      Do you think it makes more sense to carve out the “positioning that could resonate” aspects now before trying to assess which messages are already in-place? It seems to me that you could introduce positioning that doesn’t yet have a foothold with a group of customers, and have it succeed.

      It definitely feels powerful to have the positioning identified before prioritizing what to work on first, and my hope is to show how the data gathered during what this series covers can be used to drive prioritization decisions – like “try to be all things to all people.”

      Would love to hear your thoughts and also those from other folks with more outbound experience..

      1. Scott, for comparing existing products and understanding the competitive landscape, mindshare mapping probably belongs at or near the beginning. Regardless of any laundry list of features or of prospect problems, the market already has perceptions of the products and brands. Capture these perceptions as the existing territories that the products occupy in the mind. Then, or concurrently, do the analysis of the personas and the problems the products solve.

        When determining what the positioning should be for a new product, I use problem grouping. I essentially create something akin to an Ishikawa diagram (kudos to you for introducing me to them) of the problems the product could solve, and then I group problems into themes. I select one of these themes for positioning the product, based on how it fits into the rest of the competitive landscape. I describe the guidelines for how to position relative to competitors in my article, “How to Formulate Marketing Messages”.

        1. Hey Roger, thanks again for (yet another) great conversation.

          We might be on different paragraphs, but I think we’re (yet again) on the same page. Putting things in the sequence that I have been makes sense to me when I combine a few of the 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing :)

          • The Law of Focus – Be the One Idea – which you mentioned
          • The Law of Attributes – Be the right idea for any given target market
          • Some mixture of elements of the laws of the Category, the Opposite, Division, and Line Extension

          It’s the last bit that resonates with me that for different markets, a different Focus will resonate, and a different set of Attributes will let you differentiate. My goal is to generate the insights that let you form a strategy to dominate by narrowing your focus to a group of people for whom a single message will resonate – and particularly, for whom a particular product will be great.

          1. Had to go back and look at the book – I forgot the law of Sacrifice :). Pepsi going after the youth market, for example.

            Are you saying that you build a mindshare model before you pick a homogenous group of people (of who’s minds your modeling), and use that as a technique for discovering the different groups of people? That makes sense to me – but isn’t the problem-identification stuff that I’m doing here a way to achieve that?

          2. Scott, in many cases we can and should analyze the perceptions of brands without creating a separate mindshare map for every (or even more than one) persona. While Pragmatic Marketing recommends a different positioning document for each persona, I think Ries and Trout would argue it’s too complicated and unfocused to approach positioning this way.

            We probably need to get on the same “paragraph” about what we’re trying to accomplish. Is the goal to determine the positioning or core value proposition for a new product that has little or no mindshare? Or is it to analyze the competitive landscape for an established product?

            Either way, many of the same factors come into play, and they tend to interrelate so that analyzing them distinctly in a particular order isn’t too helpful.

            Ultimately, positioning sacrifices (i.e. chooses not to target) many market problems and many user and buyer personas,

            But the positioning determination is not as simple as identifying all the candidate problems and personas and selecting which ones to target. It must incorporate an analysis of existing perceptions, the current territories occupied in the mind. You want to find a important and defensible territory to occupy in the mind. To be important, it must solve problems that aren’t already solved. To be defensible, it must be focused and not under attack on multiple fronts.

            Even persona and problem identification don’t necessarily have a particular sequence. Do we identify all the personas and then analyze the problems each one of them faces? Or do we identify problems and then analyze the stakeholders who experience and participate in them? I think the interrelationships are too complex to prescribe a particular sequence for all or most cases.

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