How to Define the Category Problem (+ 9 Acceptance Criteria)

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Category design has one fundamental rule: you need to solve a new problem, or you need to solve an existing problem in a new way. That means that the problem your company chooses to address will serve as the foundation for all your category design efforts. Much of your product, marketing, and strategy decisions will hinge on this decision.

Play Bigger (the first book written on category design) basically says, “Buyers assume that the company that describes the problem the best is the company with the best solution.

The better you describe the problem you solve for buyers, the more business you’ll attract.

But coming up with the right problem definition is easier said than done. The words you choose can have a major impact on whether your audience responds or not. Get it right, and you’ll have potential customers begging you to help them with a solution. Get it wrong, and you’ll be met with blank stares.

In this post, I’ll walk you through a process you can use to define your category problem yourself. I’ll also provide nine criteria to help you judge whether your problem is defined correctly.

Step 1: Ask Customers How They Define the Problem

The best place to start when defining your category problem is to start with your customers. Problems don’t exist in a void; they have to be experienced by real people. It’s best to begin by understanding the problems your customers have hired you to solve.

There’s two ways I recommend getting started.

Use Survey Data As Your Starting Point

The first is to survey your customer base directly. You can ask them, “What problem did you expect our product to solve for you?” Keep your questions open-ended, as you don’t want to influence their answers. You’ll need some more context for these answers, though, so consider asking these questions, too:

  • On a scale of 1-5, how well does our product solve this problem?
  • What is your industry?
  • What is your role?
  • How long have you been a customer?
  • How likely are you to recommend us to a friend?

What you’re looking for is information on how your best customers view the problem. Discard any responses from people who had the wrong expectations or who are dissatisfied with your solution. Since you’ll be dealing with open-ended questions, you may want categorize your responses around the common themes that emerge.

For example, when we ran this survey at BombBomb, we saw three themes come up over and over: (1) BombBomb helps people stay in touch with their customers, (2) it provides a more human way of communicating, and (3) it allows salespeople to to “meet” prospects before setting an appointment.

If you don’t have customers yet, no problem. Simply run these exercise with potential customers in your target market.

Your Team Is a Gold Mine for Further Insights

The second thing to do is to talk with your sales, customer success, and customer support teams. Since these folks have conversations with customers every day, they can provide insights you won’t get through surveys.

We set up separate interviews with each team (about 5 at once is plenty) and asked for their take on this same line of thinking. Here are a few questions you can ask:

  • How do our best customers describe the problem we’re helping them solve?
  • What views, beliefs, and attitudes do our customers have?
  • What is one thing that our best customers “get” that others don’t?
  • Why do customers get excited about working with us?
  • What would our customers do if they lost access to our product?

At this point, you’re not trying to nail a specific problem definition. It’s too early for that. You simply want to see what main ideas emerge to guide your discussion.

Step 2: Brainstorm and Discuss Problem Definitions

Once you’ve documented the main themes that have emerged, brainstorm a list of problem definitions. If you have a category design “task force” (which should include your CEO), ask everyone come up with a definition for what they think the problem is. When your task force meets together, ask each person to share his or her definition, and why they came up with it.

While you might be hoping that you can land on a clean definition after a single discussion, that’s not likely to occur. Here’s what will happen instead. Michelle will come up with a definition that she’s sure she nailed, and a few others will share her enthusiasm. But then Rob will point out a fatal flaw, and you have to scrap it. Cyrus will share what sounds like a thoughtful idea, but by the time he’s done explaining it, no one is quite sure what he’s talking about. On and on it goes. You can spend an hour having a discussion like this and feel like you are getting no where.

This is exactly what happened to use at BombBomb, and it’s perfectly normal. Everyone interprets information differently because we all have different experiences with the world. Getting alignment on your problem definition is going to take time, so give yourself a few weeks to work through this if you need it.

But what you don’t want to happen is for the loudest voice in the room to be the one that decides what the problem definition is. You want your decision to be based on an objective standard. That’s why we came up with nine acceptance criteria to judge whether your problem definition is one you can move forward with.

Step 3: Use These 9 Acceptance Criteria To Land on a Problem Definition

Once you have come up with some promising candidates, run them through these acceptance criteria. This will help you see if you’ve hit upon something you can put to use.

1. It should generate a “that’s right” response from the person hearing it.

If you have to teach your audience about a problem you have, or explain your way around the idea, then you’re creating too much mental work for them.

2. It needs to identify the problem itself, not a symptom of the problem.

If you merely speak to the symptoms, you don’t put yourself in a position where you will been seen as having a meaningful, lasting solution. Category designers treat the brain tumor, not the headache.

3. It must always be a villain. It cannot be a “good guy” in other contexts.

You can’t have it both ways. Either the thing your category solves is a bad thing or it’s not. Otherwise, you just create conflict in the mind of your buyer.

4. It must not be so broad that it feels vague, abstract, or unsolvable

The problem definition has to have clear edges to it. Your target customer should immediately be able to think of a specific situation when they experienced this problem.

5. It must not be so specific that the resulting TAM is too small.

If you make your message too specific, then you may not find enough people who experience that problem. Later, you may struggle to grow the category.

P.S. Most companies don’t fall victim to this and are more likely to be too broad

6. It should be described in the way your customers (not you) talk about it.”

In other words, if you have the right problem identified, but you don’t use words your customers can relate to, they won’t respond.

7. It must be a problem you can actually solve.

Setting your sights high is a good thing to do, and the right thing to do. But, if you set them so high that you audience doesn’t believe you can pull if off, your position as a category king will never materialize.

8. The problem must cause your customers significant pain.

If your problem doesn’t speak to a major pain point, then the buyer won’t feel any urgency to hire you to solve it.

9. Existing solutions must be incomplete or non-existent for your customers.

If acceptable solutions already exist, then you’re not designing a new category. It’s as simple as that.

Expect to make a few passes through these criteria before you land on something that passes them all. Remember, your category problem is going to be a north star for much of your company’s efforts (more on that here). Don’t rush through this process if you get impatient. It’s worth taking the time to get it right.

Once You Have Defined Your Category Problem, What’s Next?

If your category design task force has landed on a problem that you feel good about and that meets the criteria above, congratulations. You’ve made it through one of the major hurdles of category design. Once you’ve reached this point, though, your work is still just beginning. Your next step is to work on a “Point of View” (POV). The POV is narrative that connects the problem you solve with the solution you’re building as the category leader (more on this here). That’s the topic of a future post, so to find out when that’s live, subscribe now and I’ll send you an email when it’s ready.

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About the Author

John Rougeux

John Rougeux is a Partner at Category Design Advisors. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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Get the newsletter that will help you become a better category designer.

About the Author


John Rougeux is VP Marketing Strategy at BombBomb. Connect with John on LinkedIn.

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