Whether you work in product management, marketing, or sales, a good problem statement can be very beneficial in helping to define, market, or sell your products.

The other day a product idea was pitched to me which, when described verbally, was one of those ideas that was very complex and difficult to explain. It began to feel like a maze of features which not only overwhelmed me, but bored me. I rapidly lost interest and started to think about other things.

If this sounds like a reaction you often see in your product teams, customers, or stakeholders, then you might need to think about tightening up your message.

I started working with the client to simplify the explanation of the business model enough that people hearing about it would not get overwhelmed.

This was the perfect scenario for a problem statement.

For anyone who doesn’t know what a problem statement is, it is the basic problem that the market is experiencing which you feel you can solve with a product.

Writing a problem statement is not an easy task. I have found that it works best as a very simple statement without caveats or descriptions. When I ask someone to write a problem statement the first time, they invariably try to use their solution as the problem.

Bad Problem Statement: “Cambridge needs to create a congestion zone and charge drivers for driving within that zone.”

By using their solution as the problem statement, they have not only avoided acknowledging the actual problem they are trying to solve, but they have essentially ended any discussion around how to solve the core problem. If the audience doesn’t agree with their solution, there is no empathy remaining around the need to solve the problem that still remains.

Good Problem Statement: “Traffic into Cambridge can come to a standstill, usually in the mornings.”

A good problem statement explains in very basic terms what the core problem is. With luck, this results in an ‘A-ha!’ reaction in the audience which is critical if you wish to guide them down the right path towards creating the right product or selecting your product as their solution.

Real World Case Study

Chances are that the makers of Google didn’t sit down and say “lets build a search engine” just for fun. They probably first identified a problem in the market such as “finding anything on the web is difficult.” Their solution was “build a search engine.”

Now that the problem statement and solution statement have been sorted out, it is a good time to begin listing the features and benefits of your solution. This is another situation where people often mistake one concept for another. Your feature is not inherently a benefit, and the benefits that your solution provides don’t count as features.

I prefer to list the features and benefits in table format with features in the left column and benefits in the right column, each benefit aligned with a specific feature. The hypothetical Google features and benefits might read:

Problem: “Finding anything on the web is difficult.”

Solution: “Build a search engine.”

  • Feature #1: Robots scour the internet for words and phrases
  • Benefit: Website owners do not need to submit their sites for inclusion into search results
  • Benefit: The latest versions of website are always searchable
  • Feature #2: Words and phrases on the internet are indexed into a database of results
  • Benefit: Searches can occur fast and results displayed almost immediately

If you take this example and use it as a template, keep an eye on how often you find yourself writing a solution in the problem field or a benefit in the features field. After a bit of practice, you can get your product idea clearly defined and communicated.

WARNING: This is the most deeply technical of my posts so far. You might want to have an aspirin ready.

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that when you create a software product, it is important to identify a market problem and provide a solution to the market for that problem. This is slightly different from the approach many of us take which is to find out what the customer wants and provide them with what they want. This often isn’t solving their problem at all but is merely giving them features that they think they need.

I was lucky enough to sink my teeth into my first product management role at ARM with the RealView Profiler tool. This product is something that took a concept that’s been around for a while (and even available as open source in some manner) and figured out how the existing products in the market were failing to answer the problem that software developers were looking to solve. Notably, the existing profiling tools for embedded software could only profile milliseconds of software execution without resorting to software annotation or instrumentation of the hardware. This didn’t give the software develoeprs an accurate measure of real-world usage of their software.

<supergeekmode> Imagine, for instance, that you are writing the user interface for an internet-enabled TV. You need to ensure that the code you’re writing will fit in the footprint of the embedded system and that the amount of runtime memory required to run the software will fit within the amount of RAM available to you while at the same time ensuring that performance of the user interface and all other functions (video stream) aren’t impacted. </supergeekmode>

Obviously, only being able to measure this for a few milliseconds of application runtime isn’t going to do you much good in terms of measuring size and performance from the users’ point of view, and annotating the code or instrumenting the hardware to give you longer duration results won’t be an accurate representation of what the user will see.

Therefore, the solution to the market problem was to create a long-duration code profiler that can analyse the fully-optimised production software.

Still reading? I’m impressed!

So how do you achieve this? Well, our technical geniuses worked it out and I can’t share the details. Needless to say, it involved some impressively innovative thinking.

What I can tell you, though, is how much fun it was to launch this product all over the world and see people’s reactions, whether they were customers or competitors, when they realised the possibilities. We created an incredibly easy to use product for them that made their optimisation attempts fast and accurate and comprehensive. And because I care about such things, we made it pretty as well.

Here is an article about the launch of the version that supports optimising applications running on mobile phones running Symbian OS

Yesterday I had lunch with a 3 year old (as well as various other adults) and pulled out the trusty iPad to help with entertainment and distraction. This might make you cringe at the thought of a sticky, fidgety little munchkin defacing such a gorgeous piece of electronics, but I had my trusty rubberised (washable) case on the iPad which has proven invaluable in the past when contending with my unimpressive gracefulness.

What struck me, though, was the speed with which the three year old was able to figure out how to interact with the iPad. That in itself was astounding, but even more remarkable than that was the ease that the child had in using the various applications that were presented to him.

I had previously downloaded apps such as My First Words, Insects HD, Bubbles, and iFish Pond to inspire children of friends of mine, and they are simple but interactive apps that engage a child’s mind. The key elements that make these apps worth paying for are the simplicity of them, the obvious purpose of them from the moment they are opened, and the inability for the user to do anything wrong within the application.

In this age of small, simple component software rather than the complex, behemoth applications of the 90s, this ease of use is going to become the element that makes or breaks a software product’s future. The days of a software application needing to be everything to everyone are fading fast.

These days more non-technical people are using computers than ever before. It is virtually impossible to get through daily life without a computer. Yet most software applications and operating systems still expect users to understand non-intuitive technical concepts in order to achieve simple objectives.

I believe that the key to success for a software company is to make things simple and easy, avoid adding too may features and options, and simplify. Apple has gotten it right once again, and if we are up to the challenge, the rest of the world can embrace the concept and make technology fun for everyone.