Product Anti-patterns: Lack Of Problem-Solution Fit

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Krystian Bergmann

Mar 8, 2023 • 16 min read
growth_strategy

Why shouldn't you neglect product-solution fit? Because a product is only successful if your solution solves customers’ problems in a unique way.

It all started with a post on an industry forum for product managers: The author summarized that since he stopped conducting the discovery process, he's happier and a more effective product manager.

The organization was dead to their target customers’ problems – they didn't want to understand them or create unique value propositions. Overall, it was easier for product managers to deliver everything the stakeholders asked for and politely collect their salary, making product-solution fit a waste of time.

Sounds reasonable, right? After all, everyone's met a strong leader or business owner who knew better than everyone else. In that case, all you have to do is follow that person's intuition and obediently produce more products.

Unfortunately, I have bad news for you that's reiterated in a previous anti-patterns post: When it comes to building a product, problem-solution fit, a unique value proposition, and product validation should be firmly on your agenda.

Indeed, the main reason for building and selling any product is to solve customers’ problems and pain points.

As part of that, product managers help you to come up with the right business idea and possible solution.

Illustration: 8 Things to Help You Avoid Biggest Product Anti-Patterns

What is a lack of problem-solution fit?

Achieving problem-solution fit is all about focusing on potential customers’ problems and understanding their needs and desired outcomes.

It involves solving the right problems, creating a unique value proposition that addresses their needs, and then validating your product. When these don’t occur, there’s a lack of problem-solution fit.

The key to understanding a lack of problem-solution fit is cognitive bias – essentially an aggregation of many other biases. It was categorized perfectly and described in Daniel Kahneman's book "Thinking fast and slow", among others.

Cognitive biases are deeply ingrained in our consciousness and can affect our daily actions extensively.

Anyone who’s created a product or service has probably been under pressure from internal stakeholders who believed they knew the target customer well and were aware of the optimal solution fit to their challenges.

solve the right problems graphic

From the internal stakeholders' biased perspective, it's not worth getting wrapped up in market or user research, wasting time on analysis, and expensive validation - necessary steps of building actionable product strategy. It's better to get to work right away and fix the problem their way – the user will understand.

If you've encountered the above statements, then you've fallen prey to a fallacy commonly referred to as stakeholder bias. It’s a cognitive bias that’s one of the strongest and most impactful, leading to a product that doesn’t solve the target market’s problems.

In my opinion, lack of problem-solution fit is the biggest threat to growing organizations, and it’s the product manager’s role to counter it effectively. A product is only successful if your solution solves customers’ problems in a specific way via a unique value proposition and product validation.

The difference between the issue and the solution builds real value! And that’s what your user cares about the most.

What causes a lack of problem-solution fit?

So, allow me to introduce you to the five most serious symptoms of cognitive biases that lead to a lack of problem-solution fit, and briefly summarize how to deal with them.

Symptom 1 – confirmation bias

“The most important customer is the business owner; we don’t need to solve client problems, but our CEO’s problems”

According to modern psychology, we can categorize this issue in terms of several cognitive biases, but the strongest influence is confirmation bias. This manifests in the tendency to favor information that confirms our existing hypotheses.

For problem-solution fit, it means that since you’re convinced of something (for example, as a business owner), you want to prove it at all costs.

No one’s in the habit of assuming they’re wrong. Unfortunately, as practice proves, this greatly disturbs the decision-making process.

You begin to ignore premises that don’t agree with your thesis, and are blind to the risks and being stuck in a mistake.

This aspect is also impacted by the sunk cost effect. It means people tend to follow decisions they’ve made, even if they turn out to be unfavorable, as long as they’re associated with costs incurred or considerable effort.

In the history of product development, there’s a range of examples where organizations stood on the edge of the abyss, mostly because strongly established problems of the owner or CEO were unassailable. A single decision causes a domino effect, with consequences that are difficult to quantify when the scale is large.

How to avoid confirmation bias in terms of product-solution fit

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does your company owner and the real customers really have the same issues when using the same product?
  • Are they using the same product?

Symptom 2 – fundamental attribution error

“I’m the person for whom I’m making a product. I know how to solve someone's problem”

This is another trap, where people assume a given product or service is used by every person in a fixed and similar way. You don't consider external factors, conditions, or the complexity of the situation in which someone uses your solution.

A situation like that is well described by the fundamental attribution error – the tendency to explain the behavior of observed people in terms of internal and fixed causes.

You then simplify the possibility of other variables. For example, you assume your application always runs on the most powerful hardware and under ideal conditions.

You don't consider potential customers may use the product in a certain situation, under a heavier hardware load, or using external integrated services.

For problem-solution fit, it means your perfect solution may not be ideal for customers who use your product in different ways and other conditions. For them, the context of using it is just different.

How to avoid fundamental attribution errors in terms of product-solution fit?

Ask yourself:

  • Are you or your CEO really your users?
  • How close are you to understanding your target markets’ problems?
  • Are they using your product the same way as you?

Symptom 3 – instant gratification error

“We love solutions, not problems”

Falling in love with your own solutions is a natural mechanism among people solving complex problems.

Unfortunately, there’s a trap here called the instant gratification error.

According to Kahneman:

"Nothing is as important as you think it is when you think about it"

As such, you prefer solutions that are only exciting at the beginning, and don’t analyze them according to the long run.

In terms of product-solution fit, finding the right problem costs you more energy than focusing only on the solution. Of course, this has negative consequences. Your product may not meet user expectations, or they don’t find the solution valuable, which is a result of lack of product-market fit.

How to avoid the instant gratification error in terms of product-solution fit?

Ask yourself:

  • Did you properly validate the customer’s problem?
  • Is that problem the most important one?
  • Is it worth investing in solving it?
  • Will my user pay for the solution?

Symptom 4 – mere-exposure effect and the law of small numbers

“After all, I've tested it with power users”

In psychology, the mere-exposure effect means the power of repetition. If you have a community of users you interact with frequently and willingly, the high frequency of those interactions disrupts your decision-making process.

The fact a particular group mentions a feature or problem doesn’t necessarily mean it’s important to everyone. This is related to the law of small numbers, because people tend to believe a small observation reflects well on the entire phenomenon.

Thus, you’re “infected” by the possibly trumped-up opinions of a particular group, falsely thinking they’re the most significant.

Not communicating with an array of customer types leads to a lack of product-solution fit.

In my opinion, this is one of the most popular anti-patterns.

Validating the product without statistical significance leads to an incomplete solution. Moreover, different users may have varying needs, so you must be sure which exact users you’re solving a specific problem for.

How to avoid the mere-exposure effect in terms of product-solution fit?

Ask yourself:

  • Am I designing this solution for the most important user group?
  • How big is that group?
  • Am I certain this problem should be my main priority right now?

Symptom 5 – status quo bias

“Product-solution fit is expensive and unnecessarily delays our project”

Anyone who’s heard the above statement has probably encountered status quo bias. This is the tendency to reject unknown assumptions if they somehow bring unpredictable solutions and are associated with additional effort.

In practice, this means that we underestimate the actual working time in many projects. We are also reluctant to estimate risks.

Even though the product development workload may be less than you assume, and testing hypotheses actually saves you additional investment in the long run, you’re reluctant to go down that route.

How to avoid status quo bias in terms of product-solution fit?

Ask yourself:

  • Is my solution SMART enough (specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, and time-related)?
  • Did I identify all the implementation risks?

5 best practices to prevent a lack of problem-solution fit

According to Kahneman's theory, there are two thinking systems – fast and slow – and parts of the decision-making process take place in the subconscious.

The fast system allows you to make decisions instantly, but they can be fraught with plenty of errors. It’s quick and emotional, whereas the slow system is more logical and deliberative.

Thus, you may get the impression that the work of a product manager is about coping with an irrational environment. Fortunately, it’s not so bad. Although cognitive biases are called “errors”, they’re an important evolutionary element that allows you to survive.

Being aware of these limitations, you can figure out how to deal with them and improve your product-solution fit.

Below are five practices that will help you utilize slow thinking.

Provide multiple perspectives within the team

The biggest threat to an organization is a team who thinks in the same way. Make sure your product team includes people with different styles (Gallup tests are helpful here). Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo (or be challenged). Create a platform to share opinions and talk about optimal solutions in a larger group.

Diversity is the biggest driver of creative action. As such, homogeneous teams are more prone to similar cognitive biases. They’re reluctant to change their opinions because there’s no one around who thinks differently.

More diversity (gender, cultural, competence, etc.) means a greater likelihood of broader perspectives and less chance of cognitive errors.

Confront your product and team with real customers

In terms of neglecting product-solution fit, lack of exposure to customer interviews and feedback is a reason for failure.

Notice why startups succeed in the initial phase. In general, it's because they have faster contact with customers and their target market, meaning better problem-solution fit.

Over time, as the organization grows, new people come in and the feedback loop gets longer. It may even break entirely. Decision makers then lose touch with the customer and stop understanding what’s essential to them.

Remember:

As a product manager, you’re in the business of creating solutions, not products. It's your responsibility to advocate for the customer and be guided by their best interests.

If you see your stakeholders don’t want to understand that, confront them with your customers.

Show supporting data, organize joint workshops, take stakeholders to industry trade shows where they can meet potential customers, and create a forum on social media where users can freely exchange opinions.

Use data insights

Data is the most powerful weapon in the fight against inaccurate problems (but beware of falling into biases here, too).

Regardless, the more data you acquire, the better your solution. That’s especially true when you're operating on larger user sets where nothing supports your decisions better than data-driven development and quantitative research.

Data is also an ally in cases of strong stakeholder bias. So, master your product's core metrics, know your north star metric, and regularly study where your users spend the most time. Back up your strategies and decisions with data-driven feedback.

Use your product regularly and let others use it

The easiest way out of a mistake? Get in touch with reality, and quickly.

A true product manager uses their product regularly. Here again, we return to the genesis of startups. Such companies are often founded because they’re trying to solve their own problem.

But as the organization grows, the perspective of these problems change and complicate significantly. Employees fall prey to perceptions about their problem-solution because they simply don't use the product.

With that in mind, hold regular product testing sessions and invite stakeholders to hackathons so they understand what your user experiences. Play secret shopper and invite key stakeholders to the session.

I assure you, their perspective will change and your solution will better fit product problems.

Challenge the status quo; question even your opinions

One of the main tasks of a good product manager is to frequently ask "why?”.

Therefore, it’s useful to question your opinions and challenge yourself. Ask:

  • Where did this problem actually come from?
  • Is the fact we’ve thought this way so far correct?
  • Why do we continue to think this way?
  • Why does everyone have this opinion?
  • Where does this certainty come from?

Check your assumptions regularly, confront your users frequently, and observe how they actually use your product. The more often you ask "why?", the easier it is to avoid cognitive biases.

Learn to avoid the lack of problem-solution fit

As you can see, a lack of product-solution fit is caused by evolutionary defense mechanisms and a natural consequence of “thinking fast”. That “system” allows you to accelerate key decisions.

You use it readily because it involves less effort. However, it’s not a product manager's best advisor. For important, long-lasting product solutions, it’s better to use “slow thinking”, a more rational and data-driven solution. Every time you ask “why?”, that’s slow thinking in action.

Now you’re aware of this mechanism, it’s easier to manage and achieve problem-solution fit, and you won't assume quick resolutions are optimal for your users. Indeed, a product is at its best when you understand the customer’s problem better.

For more information on managing products, check out our product management services page.

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Krystian Bergmann

AI Consulting Lead at Netguru

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