How to Conduct a Problem Interview

How to Conduct a Problem Interview
December 18, 2023

How to Conduct a Problem Interview

Far too many entrepreneurs and corporate innovation teams fall in love with their solution, instead of the problem they’re solving or the value they’re supposed to be creating for customers.

Oftentimes, they jump to conclusions and then blame the market for not being ready for their product or being too archaic or not knowing what’s good for them.

The reality is they didn’t do the work to figure out what customers really want and what they are willing to pay for.

If you’ve read Steve Blank’s Startup Owner’s Manual or Ash Maurya’s Running Lean, you should be familiar with the Problem Interview (if you haven’t, you should, along with these 18 other innovation must-reads).

The problem interview is step one in the process of finding a problem worth solving.

The interview focuses on three things:

  1. Problem
  • What do you think the problems are
  • How do customers rate and rank these problems out of 10
  • What other problems do they have that you’ve missed
  1. Alternatives
  • How do customers currently solve this problem
  • Are they more or less content with the existing solution
  • How do they feel about switching to a new product that they had to pay for?
  1. Customer Segments
  • Which customer segment resonates with this problem the most?


Step 1: Collect Demographics (Test Customer Segment)

First, as with a lean canvas, you want to start with the customer segment.

Factors you might consider:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Occupation
  • How they make decisions
  • Where they hang out online
  • Where they hang out offline
  • Etc.

A word of caution on demographicsWho am I?I am a male.I am very wealthy.I was born in 1948.I grew up in England. I am a successful business person.I have been married twice.I have two children.

Any guesses?

Well, I could be Prince Charles…

..but I could also be Ozzy Osbourne.

Step 2: Context

Set the context by telling a story.

You might walk the customer through your typical customer journey.

For example, “oftentimes, travelling freelancers find themselves struggling to find a place to work effectively. They go from cafe to cafe, using free wifi, if lucky enough to find it and until the staff give them disapproving looks, and they move on.

What’s your experience of being a freelancer on the road been like?”

Step 3: Problem Ranking

Ask your customer to rate (out of 10) and therefore rank, the top 3 problems you’ve identified.

For example:

1. Lack of permanent, flexible and affordable workspace

2. Lack of wi-fi

3. Lack of network connections

4. Which problems have we missed?

Step 4: Alternatives

1. How do you solve said problem(s) today?

2. How do you feel about switching to a product that solves the problem for you (describe how) for a price?

Step 5: Close

Ask them for their contact details (so you can invite them to try the product once it’s ready) and ask if they know anybody else you should speak to.

Final Thoughts

You’ll note that throughout the interview I’ve proposed open-ended questions with a focus on learning, not selling (do your best to avoid confirmation bias). You should also make every effort to probe and drill deeper whenever your customer says something that piques your interest. Remember that magic word…”why?”.

This is by no means a perfect process, but by conducting enough problem interviews with questions that aim to get you learning, you’ll start to identify patterns and themes that run across most customers in the same segment.

These patterns represent your opportunity.

Innovate or die.

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Steve Glaveski

Steve Glaveski is the CEO and Co-Founder of Collective Campus which he established to help companies and their employees to create more meaningful impact in the world in an age of rapid change and increasing uncertainty. Steve also founded Lemonade Stand – a children’s entrepreneurship program, wrote the Innovation Manager’s Handbook vol 1 and 2, hosts Future², an iTunes chart topping podcast on corporate innovation and entrepreneurship and is a keynote speaker. He previously founded HOTDESK, an office sharing platform and has worked for the likes of Westpac, Dun & Bradstreet, the Victorian Auditor General’s Office, Ernst & Young, KPMG and Macquarie Bank. Follow him at @steveglaveski and Book a free 15-minute call with Steve to talk through your innovation objectives.

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