Working backward to solve customer problems

Thom Bartsch | May 17, 2022
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Have you ever been in the situation where you spent weeks building a feature one of your stakeholders requested, just to find out that your customers neither needed nor understood it? Welcome to the reality many product managers face these days. 

From multinational organizations to startups, product teams of all shapes and sizes admit to being increasingly overwhelmed by requests that start off like, “Could you just…” or, “Why don’t we add this…” which keep them from building digital products that fulfill their purpose: solving customer problems—and hopefully, in the process, making them happy.

Fathy Abdelmonam, Product Manager at Zalando, recently presented at E-Commerce Expo Berlin and shared some interesting insight on how his team stays focused and productive in a multi-layered work environment.

Abdelmonam began his talk with some battle-tested strategies that many teams rely on, such as keeping the customer at the center of everything your team does and ensuring teams understand the problem they’re trying to solve—before tackling the solution.

But what really caught my attention was Abdelmonam’s practice of working backward to achieve the desired results using an approach popularized by Amazon, called PREFAQ. Here’s how it works.

Starting at the end

The concept, in general, is to essentially visualize the end result of your team’s product development efforts. Imagine what your team would say in a press release, or how you’d answer frequently asked questions (FAQs). Imagine that the product is already built in exactly the way you aspire it to be, then start building out your responses to these questions and what you’d say about the problems the product will solve for your customers. The results from this exercise will give your team a roadmap for where you’d like to end up, enabling you to work backward into creating that product. 

Here’s how Abdelmonam’s team does this.

Mock up a press release

Instead of shipping the product feature and then thinking about how to sell and market it, you visualize your dream outcome by writing a press release about it. 

This process allows you to flesh out the big idea and different pillars that will make the project stand out. Imagine happy customers, revolutionary design, and ground-breaking new technology and draw an engaging, colorful picture for it. You should be able to write up everything relevant on roughly one page. The release should be sharp, concise, and comprehensive for anybody, even for people who are unfamiliar with your company or services. 

Draft external FAQs (aka PREFAQs)

The next stage is designing your external FAQs. Imagine you’re releasing your product and inviting journalists to a media event. What questions would you expect them to ask? What would the readers of the articles they publish afterward be interested in? 

This emphasized focus on your target audience allows you to break down the problem before diving into internal processes and feasibility studies. Don’t hesitate to actively involve external stakeholders in this process by running a quick remote focus group study or asking current customers a few simple questions. Like the press release, your external FAQs should fit on more or less one single page to help keep things tightly focused on the problem you’re trying to solve. 

Loop in stakeholders

Only when you’re satisfied with this outcome, do your internal stakeholders get in the mix and you create your list of ‘internal FAQs’. This document can be a little more extensive, Abdelmonam recommends going for two to three pages. 

At times, you might not actually get to this stage as the prior two stages might make you realize that the idea does not serve a customer-centric purpose. 

Reversing the process and working backward is an extremely efficient exercise when you’re looking to sharpen your team’s focus and create products that actually matter to your clients. 

Why don’t you give it a try for your next product? As Steve Jobs once put it, You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backward to the technology. You can’t start with the technology then try to figure out where to sell it.”  

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About this author:

Thomas works with CX professionals across industries, helping them bring their customer experience initiatives to life through the UserTesting platform.