Not Your User’s Problem

Understanding the Difference Between User Problems, Business Needs, and Solutions

First, let me say that I love all the emphasis on Customer Development, Early User Research, and Product Market Fit that I’ve been seeing these days. What I don’t love is the massive confusion that often comes along with it.

There’s a particular type of confusion I’ve seen on teams at the very beginning of the product development process that I’d like to try to clear up. Or possibly add to. We’ll see.

Some people don’t seem to understand the difference between a Business Need, a User Problem, and a Solution. But you have to understand the difference, because if you don’t, you’ll end up doing the wrong sort of research and designing the wrong product.

A Business Need

At its very simplest, a Business Need is what a product will do for your company. This can often be expressed in the form of a metric that needs to be moved or a hypothesis about how building a new feature or product will make you a billionaire.

Here are some examples of business needs:

  • Improve the conversion rate on a landing page so that we get more people trying our product.
  • Increase revenue by selling more widgets.
  • Get more registered users for free by getting our current users to share our product.
  • Increase engagement with our product so that people are more likely to be retained users.
  • Build a huge user base so that we can eventually monetize it.

What’s interesting about these Business Needs? Well, in one way or another, all of these things, if executed correctly, should eventually increase our revenue or decrease our spend. We need to do these things to have a viable business. But there are all sorts of ways to do them, some of which are great for users and others that aren’t.

To identify a business need, typically you’re going to want quantitative data. You need to know what your metrics are in order to figure out which ones need to be higher. You don’t determine a business need by talking to users.

Obviously business needs might be caused by user problems. For example, if your onboarding process is hard to use, you could have low conversion rates. But the business need is increasing the conversion rate, which you might do in a number of different ways.

A User Problem

Your users have problems. Some of the problems they’ll pay you to solve for them. Some of the problems you’re probably causing for them with your terrible UX. Some of the problems they don’t even know they have.

Here are a few examples of user problems:

  • It’s hard to share documents across different computers.
  • The first time experience with a particular product is confusing and complicated.
  • The user can’t use an app when it’s not connected to the Internet.
  • A person has trouble finding a good hair salon in her area and booking an appointment.

You’ll note that these user problems are all quite different. The first one inspired lots of companies, like DropBox. The second one is common to many products. The third one is mobile specific. The fourth one could be solved by a number of different types of products, some of which are quite low tech. There are roughly an infinite number of other user problems that could exist.

The common factor here is that these are problems experienced by humans. The other common factor is that there is no guarantee that solving a user problem will actually fulfill a business need. Sure, solving problems for people is generally a good thing, but there are some user problems that people will pay you to solve and others that they won’t.

To identify a user problem, your best bet is observational and generative research. Watch people in the wild using your product or other products. Follow people around while they perform various tasks or do their jobs. Understand the things that make life difficult for people and then identify the biggest, most important problems that you could solve for them.

A Solution

A solution, as the name implies, is how you solve a problem. Ideally, your solution will solve a user problem which will fix a business need.

Here are a few examples of solutions:

  • A network that connects you to all of your old high school friends.
  • An improved and streamlined onboarding flow that helps users get their data input.
  • A video tutorial of a complicated process.
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As with the problems, there is a practically unlimited supply of solutions. In fact, any given user problem almost certainly has dozens of possible solutions. Some of those solutions will be easier to implement than others. Some will solve the user problem better than others. There is almost certainly no single, correct solution to any problem, but some are better than others.

To identify a solution, you need a thorough understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve, the way it’s going to improve your business, and a decent grasp on basic design principles. This is the part of the process where you get to be creative and share your ideas.

Research won’t tell you the correct solution to a problem. As much as you might like, you can’t simply ask users how to solve the problems they’re experiencing. If they knew how to solve them, they wouldn’t need you. What research will do is give you better insight into the problem that you’re trying to solve.

Why Should You Care?

You’re going to need to do very different things depending on whether you’re trying to solve a business problem, understand a user problem, or come up with a solution.

For example, if you want to solve a business need like a low conversion rate, you’re probably going to want to do usability testing to understand why the rate is so low. If you want to discover a key user problem, on the other hand, you’ll want to do observational and contextual research on people within a particular market segment. And, of course, if you want to create a solution, you’ll need a solid understanding of the business and user problems plus some solid design thinking methods.

Before you start your next user research, take a moment and ask yourself whether you’re trying to learn more about a business need, a user problem, or a proposed solution.

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