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80% of products and features are rarely or never used. Why? Because they're solutions for problems customers don't care enough about.

I spent over a year doing 100+ customer discovery interviews only to follow the wrong problem. I've also spent 5+ years as a Techstars Community Leader and Global Facilitator helping hundreds of early stage entrepreneurs from around the world to validate their ideas and build first-concept products. If there is one thing I've learned, it's that validation is hard.

At the end of March I came across a thread by Twitter-wizard and Stripe product genuis Shreyas Doshi describing a validation method called Customer Problem Stack Ranking.

I used the method on our own startup and the problem that we spent 7 months of discovery reseach crafting came dead last with PMs. 

Dead. Fucking. Last.

We learned more in 2 hours using stack ranking than we did in 100+ customer discovery interviews. 

So, I've taken my idea validation experience and built a tool for Customer Problem Stack Ranking that helps you to validate ideas, find product-market fit and build solutions that customers love.

To explain how Customer Problem Stack Ranking works, I'm going to take a startup idea that I've heard at countless hackathons; an app that makes it easier for a group booking their holiday to split the cost of accommodation and activities. We can call this hypothetical app Splitzies. Ok, lets jump in.

 

 

What is Customer Problem Stack Ranking?

Customer Problem Stack Ranking (CPSR) tells you how important your idea is compared to the other problems your target customers experience. It's a simple data-driven approach to understanding whether your idea solves a burning pain point  🔥 or just a mild inconvenience 🙄

 

Step 1: Write Your Question

Customer Problem Stack Ranking is a type of survey so it needs a question, which usually goes along the lines of "What is the most frustrating aspect about ____ ?". Your CPSR question should be broad enough that it allows your participants to explore all the problems associated with an activity rather than just the specific problem that you're trying to solve. 

For our imaginary app Splitzies, our 'activity of focus' is booking a group holiday so our question is: What is the most frustrating part of booking a group holiday?

 

Step 2: Turn Your Idea Into A Problem Statement

Asking target customers to rate your idea is a bad idea. As Rob Fitzpatrick's book The Mom Test explains, if you ask people about your idea they'll just tell you it's great so that they don't hurt your feelings. Instead, we need to turn our idea statement into a problem statement so that we can compare it to the other problems that customers face in our 'activity of focus'. 

For Splitzies, our problem statement could be: "Dividing the cost of a hotel booking is frustrating and complicated when planning a group holiday." You can create multiple problem statements to explore the different pain points your idea might solve and the different words your target customers might use to talk about the 'activity of focus'.

If you're not convinced about the need to use problem statements, here's a short video from a serial entrepreneur. If you're struggling to write your own, here's a quick how-to video on problem statements.

 

Step 3: Create Peripheral Problem Statements

Brainstorm problem statements that fall under the same 'activity of focus' but aren't related to your idea. These can be informed by a handful of interviews using open-ended questions or by reading some "pain points" related blog posts/forums. Don't worry if you feel like you've missed some peripheral problems. Stack Ranking tools let participants add new problem statements to cover areas you miss.

Lets have a go at writing some peripheral problem statements for Splitzies:

- Keeping a list of potential Airbnbs and hotels turns into a giant messy spreadsheet.
- Agreeing on dates that suit everyone is a pain!
- It's difficult to plan activities when I haven't organised a transport method like car rental or public transport.
- It's hard to find out how expensive a destination is for general things like food and transport.
- Some destinations are very different depending on time of year but good information on seasonality is hard to come across.

 

Step 4: Send Your Stack Rank To Target Customers

Send your stack rank survey link to target customers. Pick one specific segment rather than a generic demographic to avoid noisy data. For example, if I send my Splitzies stack rank to both young parents planning a family holiday and student backpackers, they're going to have very different priority problems and our data will get all messed up.

If you haven't got a pre-release waitlist, hit people's DMs on online communities, forums and social media. We joined a few Slack communities for Product Managers and got +25% response rate on a couple hundred messages for a Customer Problem Stack Rank we did on our own startup (this outreach only took a couple of hours one evening).

 

Step 5: Iterate!

You start to see priorities emerge very quickly once votes start rolling in. As participants add their own problem statements, you'll also learn about new pain points you hadn't known about. Use these learnings to inform new sample problems and continue pushing your link out to participants.

 

Step 6: Results

Sort all the problems by highest or lowest importance to stack rank your statements. In one click, you'll know how important your value proposition is compared to the other problems your target customers face.

Like I said, the results of our own stack ranking experiement showed us that the value proposition we had spent 7 months building through customer discovery research came dead last for our target users. What was surprising though, was that our stack ranking helped us realised the big picture problem we were interested in was actually really important to our target customers, but they were using a completely different vocabularly to us. The words we were using couldn't have been resonating less.

So, we took the top 6 most important problems from our stack rank results and rewrote our entire landing page and onboarding experience.

 

Step 7: Go.

The best time to do Customer Problem Stack Ranking was yesterday. Whether you've got a killer idea for a startup or you're trying to align your existing product with problems that your customers actually care about, Customer Problem Stack Ranking is a versatile and flexible solution that's ready to help.

We used our own tool OpinionX for our Customer Problem Stack Rank experiment (it's free to use). Also, I'm happy to jump on a call with you to help you create your CPSR if you'd like a hand.

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Let me know what you think or if you have any startup validation/customer discovery horror stories ✌️


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    Just created my first two surveys, great tool! Thank you for sharing.

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      Glad to hear that Patrick! :)

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      This is fascinating.  I will check out Opinion X to see if it can help me figure out next steps in terms of how to scale my business.  However, I am not a tech company. I run a virtual co-working membership-based business that rests on various SAS software tools and apps, but I am not creating custom software.  I am building a community of accountability to support remote workers, soloprenuers and even corporate employees to work more effectively from home while combatting loneliness and forging new connections.  I keep thinking it's super simple, but then I learn new layers of complexity in terms of how my customers want to be served.  And what tools I need to market the business.  

      Thanks for your article.  It has triggered a few ideas for me! Much appreciated.

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        Everything always seems simple on the outside :) "How my customers want to be served" is such a commonality to software businesses - at the end of the day, customers are trying to solve problems, whether it's software or otherwise. Glad you enjoyed the article and that it sparked some ideas. Keep me posted if it helps you out or if you have any questions I can help you with relating to your customer discovery work!

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          I already set up an OpinionX survey, but I am not feeling confident I am asking the right question. I am going for a walk to think about it :)

           

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            Would you like me to take a look and give you some feedback? I've been helping people create stack rank surveys for months so I can probably offer a few pointers!

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              LOL. I cancelled the survey before I saw your note.  Thanks so much for the offer. 

              I need to rethink the question.  I know my user base really well and I understand WHY they use the service. But I want to know how to make their experience with the current offering the best that it can be.  And also to figure out how to attract many more members with similar profiles to my current lovely client base.  I am not sure if the survey format is the right tool for this?  Perhaps a more traditional survey is a better approach.  Contemplating. 

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                Fair question Dawn, it is possible that a traditional survey could fit your needs.

                If you're looking for data to help you prioritize between multiple options and could do with your community's input, OpinionX would still be a good fit. The setup prompts are designed to get survey creators to create a problem-orientated survey, but we've had plenty do co-creation projects and community engagement surveys on OpinionX too. Our survey experience for participants is thankfully very adaptable to lots of research occasions.