Painkillers vs. Vitamins

Kyle Sandburg
Strategy Dynamics
Published in
7 min readApr 1, 2018


Solve your customer pain and you’ll reap the rewards

Why Painkillers vs. Vitamins

I’m going to assume that you are trying to solve a customer experience. Just solving a customer need does not mean you’ll have a killer product. One way like to think about the types of products that you can create is the idea of a painkiller vs. a vitamin. Either can be good products, but products that people crave and love are more often painkillers.

Building killer products

What are your favorite products? What makes them so special to use? In my life there have been a few of these products that have been “killer products”. Here is my list:

  • My first iPhone — I upgraded from a Windows Smartphone (yes Microsoft had a smartphone years ahead of Apple), though the UX of the iPhone was just killer. Since then the iPhone has only gotten stronger and better.
Source: google Images
  • Spotify — I had been streaming music since the early 2000’s, but it wasn’t until Spotify came around that I found a solution that I loved. I could pick and choose music that I wanted to listen to. Over time Spotify’s algorithms have made it even easier for me to listen to what I want and find music that is fresh.
  • Netflix — I wasn’t a major user of the DVD by mail version, but when they launched streaming it changed my behaviors. Streaming was so much easier to watch shows. I could watch when I wanted, where I wanted and as much as I wanted. No more questioning whether I had set the DVR or what time a show was on.
  • Overcast — This podcasting app is awesome. Not only is it easy to find your favorite podcasts, it makes it easy to play these. The things that really set it apart for me is that I can fast forward 30s at a time (aka skip ads) and that there is variable speeds to play and at 1.7x it feels natural and smooth. Finally, you can share episode at specific times when there is an idea that is sparked in your mind and you don’t want to figure out the exact spot. Such a killer podcasting app.
  • Theo Dark Chocolate — I had never tasted an organic single origin bar before Theo in Seattle. It had so much distinct flavor from bar to bar and opened my palate to a whole new world. (While maybe not in the same tech category, but definitely met an unmet need)

There are other products that have met unmet needs for me. The ones above are those that stood out to me. These Painkillers all serve as reference designs as I think about building products.

Jobs-to-be-done approach

How did the companies above deliver such amazing products? They all largely solved an unmet customer need. I would argue that Steve Jobs was the best marketing professional that we have ever seen. He was constantly gathering feedback on customer needs, understood where the market was going, where technology was going and changes in purchasing behavior. This vision positioned Apple to go after what sometimes looked like niche solutions to later be seen as revolutionary.

Now you are likely not the next Steve Jobs (I know I’m not) and your company likely doesn’t have a Steve Jobs (though someone may think they are). Assuming you and your company are in this bucket, what do you do? My recommendation is leverage the Jobs-to-be-Done Framework to identify your customer’s unmet needs.

The below framework from Customer Centric Solutions is one that we are using at Porch to better understand customer needs. What I love about this is that it forces you to think holistically about an experience. This last year I started to mountain bike. I wanted to try mountain biking (push) as I love trails and I wanted to spend time with friends being active (pull), but I’m not the most coordinate (anxiety) and I love to trail run with my limited free time (allegience). By evaluating a whole picture and bringing in all facets of the decision can help you understand how your product fits in your customer’s lives.

After you have the customer needs defined it is time to brainstorm ideas and get feedback on those features. If you are looking for a framework the Kano model is a good one to reference (Great article on the model here).


The goal of the Kano model is to understand what features are basic necessities that your product must fulfill and what features are value adds. The approach evaluates features based on the customers perception if the feature is present or absent. A couple example questions to get at the absent vs. present reaction:

  • Functional (present) question: “If exporting any video takes under 10 seconds, how do you feel?”
  • Dysfunctional (not present) question: “If exporting some videos takes longer than 10 seconds, how do you feel?”

The model leverages these responses to plot features against the graph above to determine which features to invest.


One of the classic examples is McDonald’s Milkshake. Clayton Christensen of Harvard came to find through his research that many people were buying a Milkshake in the morning to provide energy and occupy their morning commute.


We recently completed a study at Porch looking at our contractor to better understand their needs and how well we were fulfilling the needs. The process we took was the following:

  1. Conduct an internal workshop to capture the current customer journey
  2. Conduct interviews with our customers to capture additional insight
  3. Gather benefit statements across the journey
  4. Survey hundreds of customers to get their insight — great post here on survey design.
  5. Analyze the data to pull out recommendations based on Importance vs. Satisfaction. The chart below shows the output from the exercise.

We were then able to leverage the above data to identify the benefits with the highest opportunity to go after. For us that meant conducting a few additional interviews with the customers to understand their needs. It also started a set of internal brainstorming of new features. We are currently working on those new features and will start to test these using platforms like to get initial feedback before we launch various A/B tests with our core product. We are confident we have some good painkillers in our backlog that will address the needs we uncovered.

So What

I have seen many teams start with solutions and hope that they are addressing a customer need only to find out that the customer did not value the new feature. Sometimes this is because their product was a vitamin.

Problem identification is step one and can increase your odds of a successful product, but it doesn’t guarantee that you will solve the customer problem. A critical component is picking the solutions that solve customer pain points. When you have a painkiller you will see good adoption. A couple years ago we launch a Business Card feature in our App based on customer feedback. Within weeks of launch we saw rapid adoption of the feature as it was an easy way to connect with their customers.

In Closing

The key is not whether your product is a painkiller or a vitamin, it is that you are addressing the highest priority customer needs. This means getting out of the office and meeting with your customers.

I’ll finish with this great video of Jobs in 1997 where he talks about starting with the customer experience.




Kyle Sandburg
Strategy Dynamics

Like to play at the intersection of Sustainability, Technology, Product Design. Tweets represent my own opinions.