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.