Learn about the role of the problem space in product management.

What is a Problem Space in Product Discovery?


Great products don't just happen. They result from focusing on your customers' needs and building well-tailored solutions that cater to them. 

However, there's no way to know your customers' pain points without committing to well-laid-out research. This is where the problem space comes in. It's the key to discovering new ideas and finding out who your ideal users are. 

In this article, we'll take you through problem space mapping and how to execute this as part of product discovery. Here's what we'll cover: 

  • What is the problem space? 
  • Why is the problem space important? 
  • Why is problem space mapping a challenge for product teams? 
  • How to map out the problem space
  • Benefits of problem space mapping 
  • Three(3) tips for successful problem space mapping

What is the Problem Space? 

The problem space is home to the underserved needs of your target customer. It is where product managers and cross-functional team members learn more about customers' pain points and jobs to be done, how these problems came to be, and why they matter. It also provides a clear definition of existing target markets. 

Being in the problem space is about curiosity and openness. It looks at broad philosophical questions including:

  1. Why is this feature needed?
  2. What benefit does this bring to the target audience over a different approach?
  3. How will this improve how users do their work today?
  4. How does it fit into their current toolset?

When mapping out a problem space, you shouldn't simply think about all the possible needs of a prospective user. Instead, you should narrow your thoughts to the specific needs that you'd like your product to address. This way, you can streamline what your solution accomplishes for customers. 

Mastering the problem space is the most crucial step in product discovery. If you get the hang of it, you'd have a solid foundation for solution space mapping and, ultimately, product development. 

Why is the Problem Space Important? 

The truth is, users don't care about your solutions. Instead, they care about their problems. And they buy products to solve pressing problems (and not just for fancy designs or features). This means to build a "solution" that customers love, you need to understand their problems well enough.

Defining the problem space will help you:  

  • See things from the point of view of your actual customer 
  • Communicate the context of the customer's situation
  • Identify the right audience
  • Think critically about your product solutions or offerings
  • Provide enough detail for effective product discovery 

In all, when you spend ample time in the problem space, you will gather valuable data and ultimately achieve product/market fit.

Why is Problem Space Mapping a Challenge for Product Teams?  

Many product teams would rather spend time discovering and developing solutions than finding the problems worth solving. 

Why does this happen? 

Frankly, there are several reasons, but the top on the list is: Problem space mapping is complex and somewhat tedious—it could feel like digging a hole endlessly. You invest significant time researching and asking questions to gather useful data from your customers. 

Also, many organizations focus on the wrong metrics and end up with misguided insights that tell them nothing about the customers’ problems. This results in a lack of deep understanding that ruins product discovery in the long run. 

Let's dig into some other challenges product teams face with problem space mapping. 

Vague Information from Customers 

Due to an overemphasis on solutions, your customers may find it challenging to communicate their needs clearly. They'd prefer to provide feedback on existing products or describe possible solutions to their problems. 

For example, if you ask users to point out Google Sheets' biggest competitor, many would say Microsoft Excel or some other spreadsheet tool. But, in reality, the biggest competitor is actually the pen and paper. 

Against this background, it's clear that if care isn't taken, you will end up with large volumes of solution-centered information. As a product manager, your job is to sift through this data from solution space thinking and find useful insights that help you define the problem space. 

Cognitive Biases

Bias affects the quality of information you get from the target audience. It shows up in several forms, such as undercoverage bias, researcher bias, and survey bias. 

For example, if the researcher has a preconceived notion of the ideal problem, they may skew the questions to achieve what they have in mind, even if it's an unrealistic presentation of the market needs. Undercoverage and survey biases can also affect the validity of responses, leading to wrong problem space assumptions. 

Sharing What You Learn With Others 

Product discovery is a collaborative effort in many organizations. Even if you're the sole member of your product team, you'd need to work with cross-functional team members in marketing and customer success. In this case, information-sharing becomes a challenge. 

To pull through, it's best to find a tool that helps you achieve collaborative alignment with your team. Epiphany's insight management tool is a great option here. You can use it to organize critical findings in your data and build a feedback loop for real-time information-sharing. 

How to Map Out the Problem Space

Problem space mapping is primarily about answering two(2) questions: 

  1. Are we targeting the right people?
  2. Is this problem worth solving? 

Here's how to go about them. 

  • Define your customers and their goals
  • Prioritize user research 
  • Track what you learn 
  • Keep reframing your audience

Define Your Customers and Their Goals 

With a clearly defined target customers, it's easier to know who you're building for and the challenges they're facing. 

So how do you achieve this? 

Here are a few tips to get you started on the right foot. 

Look at Your Current Customer Base 

Researching your existing customer base is an excellent place to start. At this point, your goal should be discovering any demographic patterns, characteristics, and interests that cut through the people who buy from you. Do they fall within a specific age bracket? Or do they have similar interests? 

You can share a customer feedback survey or demographic form to help you collect the data you need here.

Look at Your Competitors

Let's say you don't have any customers yet. In this case, your best bet is to check out your competitors. Who are their current customers? Are they targeting any new niches? These sets of people would most likely benefit from your product, so you should target them. 

Even if you have existing customers, it pays to take the extra step to look through your competitors and learn more about your industry—you'd be surprised what you may discover! 

Prioritize User Research

Many times, organizations skip past user research to execute product development. The result? They end up wasting resources on a solution that has no authentic user context. 

Smart product teams know that successful user research empowers them with enough data for strategic decision-making. 

The next question is: How do you conduct user research? Frankly, there are several steps to take here. 

You need to recruit participants, come up with the right questions, and select the best-fit data collection methods to extract the required information. When you're done gathering responses, you can create data categories and analyze them for valuable insights. 

Track What You Learn

Adopt a user research database to help you track all the information gathered from your target audience. Here, you can easily organize customer learnings, share information with your team, and update insights as you learn more about your audience.  

Epiphany is an excellent tool for building user research databases for product teams. It allows you to seamlessly integrate research insights into your overall product planning and make data-driven decisions. 

Keep Reframing Your Definition

As users evolve and go through new experiences, their preferences, behaviors, and characteristics will change. This means you have to constantly reframe your definition of your target customer's profile as you cannot rely solely on past information. 

Product managers can borrow a leaf from human resources managers and adopt pulse surveys—this is a great way to discover new insights about your audience. Then, you can use these pieces of information to prioritize what to build next. 

Benefits of Problem Space Mapping

The obvious advantage of problem space mapping is it helps you achieve product/market fit. The more time you spend in the problem space, the more accurate understanding you develop about the market and the solutions you should be building. 

It's easy to get lost in the "solution ocean" where every product manager thinks about building the next big thing. However, if you focus on defining the problem accurately, you will: 

  1. Achieve team alignment with users' specific needs
  2. Design solutions for specific customer problems
  3. Create a top-notch user experience with each product
  4. Have a more accurate understanding of the market in which your product is really competing
  5. Discover any existing ways your customers can solve the problem you want to solve 
  6. Streamline specific product requirements

3 Tips for Successful Problem Space Mapping 

It is challenging to stay focused on the problem when your development team believes they already have a brilliant solution. To keep everyone on the same page, you should;

  1. Brainstorm problems with enough excitement
  2. Hide solutions when working on problems
  3. Talk in terms of customers' pain points and not product features 

Wrapping Up 

As a product manager, it's your job to ensure that every solution your team develops ties back to the problem space. This means you must think beyond the obvious and do the hard work of figuring out what your product needs to accomplish for customers.

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