Needfinding with Problem Scenarios

Despite the steady ascendence of the importance ascribed to good design, there’s still a lot of misinformation out there. This diagram summarizes two common misperceptions about good practice that I come across: The-Twin-Antipoles-of-Design-Failure

Needfinding, a set of methods originally developed at Stanford over 50 years ago, offers a better alternative. The basic idea is that by focusing on a customer’s fundamental problems/needs (which rarely change) instead of solutions (which change a lot), your company remains anchored in a foundation that’s highly durable yet innovation-friendly. Tactically, it helps make sure that your customer research is actionable.

After reading this tutorial and engaging with the related practice you will be able to:

  1. Take new ideas and frame them in terms of an objectively testable customer need
  2. Operationalize your ideas on value propositions with a before and after storyboard
  3. Conduct customer discovery to refine and test your ideas on customer needs

Focusing on Needs that Matter

I like to organize needfinding around three key elements: 1) problem scenarios 2) alternatives and 3) value propositions. If you’re familiar with the ‘jobs to be done’ framework, problem scenarios are very similar. The basic idea is to understand your customer’s fundamental problem/desire/habit/job/need/task, including (#2) their most preferred alternatives. Against these, you can both tune and test your value hypothesis.

The following diagram summarizes these items: Personas-Problem-Scenarios-Alternatives

I think you’ll find these problem scenario-alternative-proposition trios are more discussable, actionable, and testable than most alternatives. How many meetings have you been in where there’s argument about which features the firm should implement? Why not at least argue about which problems really exist and are important? At least then you’re much closer to what’s fundamentally relevant to the customer.

If you’re selling to businesses (B2B), ask yourself what fundamental jobs you’re doing for the customer- these don’t change over time. While the way we fulfill them change, neither do our fundamental needs and desires, which is what you’ll be looking at if you’re selling a consumer product (B2C).

Following identification and prioritization of your target problem scenarios, you’ll want to look at alternatives- how is the customer/user resolving these problem scenarios today? If the problem scenario really exists, they’re doing something about it now. Discovery around both problem scenarios and alternatives is much less costly than discovery on propositions for the simple reason that you don’t have to have anything built to acquire the answer. You just need to go out and observe your customer personas. Only after you have a working view on the relevance of problem scenarios and an understanding of current alternatives would I recommend evaluating value propositions.

I use an example company called ‘Enable Quiz’ in the materials on this site. They’re testing a solution for companies that hire engineers and want to better screen technical talent so their hiring process works better.

The key personas are Helen the HR Manager who’s acquires resumes and helps screen candidates and Frank the Functional Manager who determines his hirings needs and makes the final decision on hiring for the team he manages.

Here are a few notes on their problem scenarios, alternatives, and Enable Quiz’s ideas on value propositions for them:

PERSONA Helen the HR Manager Frank the Functional Manager
PROBLEM SCENARIO “It’s need to screen recruits for specific technical skills in order to send Frank/Francine just recruits with the skills they want. “I have limited time and I don’t want to be a jerk. It’s hard to screen for all the relevant technical skill sets.”
ALTERNATIVE(S) – Call references- Take their word for it
A lot of unqualified recruits are ending up with Frank/Francine.
– A few probing questions- Take their word for it
VALUE PROPOSITIONS New ability for meaningful screening of technical candidates, increasing % of successful hires and lowering Frank’s workload on recruiting. Less time doing interviews, and better hires sooner.

Your key question around these problem scenario-alternative-value proposition trios is: How much better is my value proposition than the current alternative(s)? Is it ‘better enough’ that the customer’s going to buy or use my product?

In fact, you can roll all this into a testable formulation I like to call the ‘product hypothesis’ (though if could also apply to an individual feature) as follows: Lean Product Hypothesis

This leaves you with a highly testable view of your personas and whether what you’re going to deliver will hit the mark. Shortly, we’ll look at some ways to test that assumption, but first I’d like to show you how storyboards can help improve your personas.

Interviewing Subjects to Discover and Test Problem Scenarios

For this, I recommend you follow the same process I recommend for doing discovery on personas:


In practice, you’ll usually be doing this work in parallel with persona development. For details on the process, see: Personas Tutorial- A Persona Process.

Storyboarding A Before & After Scenario

Storyboarding-Three-Little-Pigs-SmallStoryboarding is a great way to show what you mean with your problem scenarios. Communicating is hard and arguing is worse. And we’re probably much less effective communicators than we think. With this format, we push ourselves to make communicate better and make sure we’ve really thought through our problem scenario as a testable hypothesis.

This format is actually a pair of storyboards, both describing the same problem scenario. The ‘before’ board shows the relevant personas using their current alternative to resolve the problem problem scenario. The ‘after’ board shows the same problem scenario with your value proposition in place. The board below illustrates the problem scenarios above around hiring engineering talent: Before-and-After-Storyboard

Here’s the narrative with a little more detail:


Helen the HR Manager does an initial screening on Chris the Candidate. She can look at experience but doesn’t really have the ability to validate the candidate’s skill set.

Chris the Candidate is then passed along to Frank the Functional Manager.

Customer Development Storyboard-Before (1/3)

Frank the Functional Manager is really busy and just goes and make the hire.

Customer Development Storyboard-Before (2/3)

But in this case a stitch in time would have saved nine- the candidate doesn’t actually have the required skills to the degree Frank understood/expected/wanted.

Now Frank the Functional Manager has to figure out how to fix a situation where his employee doesn’t have the right skill sets.

Customer Development Storyboard-Before (3/3)

The next board narrates the process once the personas of interest have access to the value propositions the Enable Quiz product offers.



Helen the HR Manager now has a simple way to screen out candidates missing the skills Frank the Functional Manager has said are an absolute requirement.

Customer Development Storyboard-After (1/3)

Making good hires is rarely easy but Frank the Functional Manager now at least knows they’ll have a certain baseline skill set.

Customer Development Storyboard-After (2/3)

And life’s a lot better.

Customer Development Storyboard-After (3/3)