Defining the problem your product solves through brainstorming sessions

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How ideas (usually) start

These six words are often stuck on repeat in the entrepreneurial world: “about 70 percent of startups fail.” Of course, no one starts a company expecting to, or wanting to fail (that I know of, at least), but what are people thinking about when they start a company? What are the reasons people start a company? How do they know their company will be a success story because, again, I assume, very few people will start a company while thinking it will most likely fail.

Essentially, a product is a solution to a problem. Usually, the problem is something the founder(s), or people close to the founder(s), have experienced in their day-to-day life. We aim to help people, to make their lives easier with different products. This concept is really powerful, but, sometimes, the importance of really defining the problem you are trying to solve, who’s problem you would solve and how you are effectively solving that problem can be overlooked.

You get an idea, are excited about the potential, and run with it. You know people who have experienced the problem your idea solves, so why not go for it?

As a user researcher, I have worked in many different startups. In fact, I love working in startups more than I do established companies. The reason behind this is not only the excitement of being a part of something new, but, also, all the hard work that goes into actually defining the problem, the audience and the potential solution. Oftentimes, when I come into a startup, I am asked to set up an entire research framework, which is something I definitely enjoy doing. However, what usually ends up happening is a lot of work outside of setting up a basic framework. Instead, what I tend to focus on when joining a startup, is a lot of the generative and discovery research that may have been skipped over or overlooked when the company started.

As much as I love being hired to do this myself, I also believe it is important to empower non-researchers to conduct this upfront work, especially at the crucial beginning stages of a startup. This allows a company to truly think through what problems they are trying to solve, who they are solving the problem for and how that audience thinks the problem should be solved. It is also a great way to set a vision and a mission: why is the company solving this particular problem? What, as a company, should be achieved?

These questions can all be answered with the below outlined exercises – try them out. An especially effective way of getting into doing-mode is starting internally, with some stakeholders, and then conducting some quick user research.

Why is this important?

User research can get a bad rap for being too time intensive, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. In fact, most of the projects I run start with internal validation, which helps define the direction of the project and work out any awkward kinks before speaking with our users.

Doing this kind of work, and answering these types of questions, will save you a lot of time and effort in the long run. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me they wished they did research before building and releasing a feature, I would be fairly rich by now. Thus discovery research will help make sure your product and company is actually aligned with what your target audience wants and needs. Without this, it is really hard to grow and maintain a product.

How do I do this?

Whenever I join a new company or hop in for consultancy work, I always aim to answer the below questions:

  1. What problem is this product trying to solve?
  2. Who would benefit from this solution?
  3. How would the ideal solution look and act, from the eyes of the above audience?

And, the final question:

Who cares? Aka: Why should people care about this product?

Although, I tend to introduce that last question later, once I gain some buy-in and start the momentum of creativity.

As I mentioned, I always start with an internal brainstorm before actually speaking with users. In the following steps, I will outline how to brainstorm internally, and follow with a separate article on how to conduct discovery research with your users.

The brainstorm session

What is a brainstorm session?

A brainstorming session is a meeting that brings together stakeholders from different teams to create ideas through sketching and discussion. Overall, brainstorming sessions help you, as a team, explore your mission and what you are ultimately trying to achieve with your product. They allow for alignment on what the problem is your product is trying to solve, and for whom.

There are a few reasons why design studios can be beneficial:

  1. Internal stakeholders are able to flex the creative side of their brain, which many product managers and developers don’t often have the opportunity to do
  2. Allows stakeholders (and yourself) to turn concepts, or user research insights, into actual ideas (otherwise known as solutions, I just hate the word solution)
  3. Everyone gets a chance to contribute —  developers, product managers, sales, marketing, solutions architects are all invited. With this many different people and perspectives in the room, there can be lively discussion from many different viewpoints
  4. Brainstorming sessions lead to overall alignment and understanding. Everyone will be able to contribute their opinions on the questions being asked, and you can come to a joint answer that all can support

Who is part of a brainstorm session?

For a successful brainstorming session, I try to get a mix of people in the room from various areas of the company, including:

  • Product
  • Tech/Engineering
  • Sales
  • Marketing
  • Account management
  • Customer support

I do this in order to capture a multitude of perspectives because, when it comes down to it, people do define the product, company, and audience in different ways. It is extremely important to align on overarching answers to these questions, so there is a clear understanding of a mission and what you are trying to achieve.

How to run a brainstorm session?

For these discovery- and problem definition sessions, I split them up into four separate sections, each one relating to the questions mentioned above:

  1. What problem is this product trying to solve?
  2. Who are we trying to solve this problem for (target audience/user)?
  3. How are we solving the problem in a way that aligns with the user’s mental models?
  4. How can the product be improved/what does the future of the product look like?

To start, I explain what we are trying to achieve in that particular section. I will use the first section “what problem is this product trying to solve” as an example. We want to understand the different problems our product caters to, and what we provide solutions for. Essentially, what is the product doing for people? Why would someone use this product? How is the product making anyone’s life easier?

Once I introduce the concept, each person gets 5 minutes to write as many problems the product is trying to solve as possible on post-it notes, one problem/idea per post-it note. Thereafter, everyone puts their post-its on a wall, and the team groups similar ideas into clusters. The clusters with the most post-it notes in them are the most important ones to discuss, and I usually pick the top three ideas with the most post-its.

I then have a 20 minute discussion on the different ideas the team came up with, spurring discussion with questions, such as:

  1. Why are these the problems we are trying to solve?
  2. Do these problems make sense?
  3. Does the product actually solve these problems?
  4. How does the product solve these problems? Does the solution make sense?

An example for a product problem would be something like this:

Product: A ticket comparison platform, such as Skyscanner

Problems being solved through the platform:

  • Allowing people to compare multiple flight carriers in one place
  • Enabling people to compare different prices and dates to find the best combination
  • Discovering new flight carriers previously unknown
  • Helping people travel more by offering a greater selection of budget airlines

After defining these problems, the team would discuss whether or not these problems make sense, why the company is trying to solve this problem and if the current product actually supports solving these problems.

I repeat this exercise for each of the four sections mentioned above. It can be quite a long day, but is worth it when you think of the outcome: really tangible ideas on what your product does, who it is helping, how it is helping and direction on how it can be improved in the future.

I highly recommend taking a day (or even two!) for this exercise. It is extremely valuable, and leads naturally into the next step, which is speaking with users. This Internal validation and alignment is a crucial step to making sure your product is actually solving a real user need, and gives a solid foundation for a successful company mission and vision.

Sample agenda:

  1. Introduction (5 minutes)
    1. Why are we doing this? What is the purpose of this workshop?
    2. What is the expected outcome?
  2. Pre-brainstorming activity (15 minutes)
    1. Aka: Word association game. Name a word, the person sitting next to you says the first word he or she associates with the word. Repeat until the ‘word’ comes back to you. List the first and the last word associated and try to think of a logical scenario connecting the two.
  3. Framing the problem (5 minutes)
    1. Aka: What problem is this product trying to solve?
  4. Brainstorm ideas individually (5 minutes)
  5. Put up post-its (5 minutes)
  6. Cluster post-its (5 minutes)
  7. Discuss the different ideas (20 minutes)
    1. Why are these the problems we are trying to solve?
    2. Do these problems make sense?
    3. Does the product actually solve these problems?
  8. Lunch break (45 minutes)

*Repeat for the remaining sections*

  1. Coffee breaks (15 minutes each)
  2. Next steps and closing (5 minutes)


  1. Build on each others’ ideas. It’s easy to kill an idea, so especially in the early stages, systematically follow up ideas with, “yes, and” instead of shooting them down with “no, but” comments
  2. Generate lots of ideas. At this point, quantity is more important than quality, so really let loose. Time to grab a pile of sticky notes or your favorite note-taking app. The best way to have a great idea is to have many ideas
  3. Illustrate. Pictures are usually louder than words and harder to misinterpret.
  4. Defer judgment. Don’t judge ideas in the midst of brainstorming (remember Rule #1) but let them grow so you can build on them and iterate

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