Interview tactics to find worthwhile customer problems

Eliciting inadequate solutions by focusing on users’ Jobs to Be Done

Nick Roberts
Aug 11 · 7 min read

The call to arms for entrepreneurs and product managers is to find a problem worth solving and do something about it. But how specifically do you come up with a good problem?

In my experience, if you simply ask someone what’s painful about a particular product or process, the answers tend to be surface-level (“the button to do x is hard to find” or “the UI looks super outdated”). To arrive at an obstacle worth eliminating, it takes a deeper understanding of what people want to get done. It also takes an appreciation of the emotional and social environment to figure out why people want to do it.

For this, I borrow a lot from Clayton Christensen’s Jobs to Be Done framework. Christensen argues that most companies are founded on problems discovered accidentally. To innovate in a way that isn’t based on luck, we need a more scientific method to reveal jobs that have bad or partial solutions.

During customer interviews, finding jobs with inadequate solutions boils down to a few tactical lines of inquiry. I’ll illustrate my approach with the example of a residential realtor, many of whom I’ve interviewed for my work as a product manager at States Title.

1. What are they trying to do?

Typically, I like to start very high-level and use some combination of the following questions:

Their responses are frequently along the lines of: “I’m trying to sell houses [in the case of a listing agent] in order to get paid and also to acquire new clients. If you’re known as a good listing agent, you get more business. My feeling of accomplishment comes when a deal closes or when a new client agrees to work with me.” Answering these questions reveals a high-level understanding of your audience’s objective, but we need to drill further to get to a “job.”

It’s important to note that you should try to narrow the conversation away from generic responses like “I need to earn money” or “make my customers happy” because these responses don’t help you at all. Jobs, as Christensen defines them, are “ongoing and recurring” and take place within certain circumstances. Our goal is to get the full story of what, who, how, and most importantly why they’re doing what they’re doing.

2. What circumstances surround their goal?

Based on our realtor’s response, we need to get more context on the environment around the job so the story takes more form. This is where I like to introduce more of the who, where, and how questions.

This isn’t a full listing. My preference is to ask followup questions in order to gather enough information that I can clearly summarize my audience’s goals and circumstances back to them and make sure they agree with my summary.

3. What gets in the way?

Now that we have a richer picture of what the realtor is trying to do and the context of their job, we want to excavate for an opportunity.

4. What solutions or workarounds are they trying right now?

At this point, we’ve revealed several great candidate issues for further exploration:

To avoid exploding the scope of the interview, I like to talk more about a single obstacle. I choose based on the one that I perceive to cause the most pain for the interviewee. Another good indicator is if they keep harping on one thing in particular. In our example, our realtor mentioned stagings and showings a couple times, so I want to dig into that more.

5. What would a quality solution look like?

Here’s where we can obtain the basic requirements for our solution, if we choose to make one.

After all of this, we’ve finally revealed an underserved need and even developed a basic set of requirements if we did choose to solve.

Takeaways

I like to approach problem discovery interviews with users by thinking in terms of the Jobs to Be Done. For me, it’s a solid way of uncovering the root cause of a user’s behavior, revealing what their current solutions lack, and where there may be opportunities to innovate. This means getting clear on:

Repeating this process across many interviews lets you develop patterns and see which underserved needs crop up repeatedly. Using this method also signals whether there is adequate demand for a better solution and even its key requirements.

Helpful Resources

P.S. we’re hiring product managers and designers at States Title in San Francisco!

Sr. Product Manager

Sr. Product Designer

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Thanks to Fiona Foster

Nick Roberts

Written by

Product at States Title, previously @ eBay. https://nickrroberts.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +536K people. Follow to join our community.

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