The idea validation method Stripe uses for building new products

80% of products and features are rarely or never used. Why? Because they're solutions for problems customers don't care enough about.

I spent over a year doing 100+ customer discovery interviews only to follow the wrong problem. I've also spent 5+ years as a Techstars Community Leader and Global Facilitator helping hundreds of early stage entrepreneurs from around the world to validate their ideas and build first-concept products. If there is one thing I've learned, it's that validation is hard.

At the end of March I came across a thread by Twitter-wizard and Stripe product genuis Shreyas Doshi describing a validation method called Customer Problem Stack Ranking.

I used the method on our own startup and the problem that we spent 7 months of discovery reseach crafting came dead last with PMs.

Dead. Fucking. Last.

We learned more in 2 hours using stack ranking than we did in 100+ customer discovery interviews.

So, I've taken my idea validation experience and built a tool for Customer Problem Stack Ranking that helps you to validate ideas, find product-market fit and build solutions that customers love.

To explain how Customer Problem Stack Ranking works, I'm going to take a startup idea that I've heard at countless hackathons; an app that makes it easier for a group booking their holiday to split the cost of accommodation and activities. We can call this hypothetical app Splitzies. Ok, lets jump in.

Customer Problem Stack Ranking

What is Customer Problem Stack Ranking?

Customer Problem Stack Ranking (CPSR) tells you how important your idea is compared to the other problems your target customers experience. It's a simple data-driven approach to understanding whether your idea solves a burning pain point 🔥 or just a mild inconvenience 🙄

Step 1: Write Your Question

Customer Problem Stack Ranking is a type of survey so it needs a question, which usually goes along the lines of "What is the most frustrating aspect about ____ ?". Your CPSR question should be broad enough that it allows your participants to explore all the problems associated with an activity rather than just the specific problem that you're trying to solve.

For our imaginary app Splitzies, our 'activity of focus' is booking a group holiday so our question is: What is the most frustrating part of booking a group holiday?

Step 2: Turn Your Idea Into A Problem Statement

Asking target customers to rate your idea is a bad idea. As Rob Fitzpatrick's book The Mom Test explains, if you ask people about your idea they'll just tell you it's great so that they don't hurt your feelings. Instead, we need to turn our idea statement into a problem statement so that we can compare it to the other problems that customers face in our 'activity of focus'.

For Splitzies, our problem statement could be: "Dividing the cost of a hotel booking is frustrating and complicated when planning a group holiday." You can create multiple problem statements to explore the different pain points your idea might solve and the different words your target customers might use to talk about the 'activity of focus'.

If you're not convinced about the need to use problem statements, here's a short video from a serial entrepreneur. If you're struggling to write your own, here's a quick how-to video on problem statements.

Step 3: Create Peripheral Problem Statements

Brainstorm problem statements that fall under the same 'activity of focus' but aren't related to your idea. These can be informed by a handful of interviews using open-ended questions or by reading some "pain points" related blog posts/forums. Don't worry if you feel like you've missed some peripheral problems. Stack Ranking tools let participants add new problem statements to cover areas you miss.

Lets have a go at writing some peripheral problem statements for Splitzies:

  • Keeping a list of potential Airbnbs and hotels turns into a giant messy spreadsheet.
  • Agreeing on dates that suit everyone is a pain!
  • It's difficult to plan activities when I haven't organised a transport method like car rental or public transport.
  • It's hard to find out how expensive a destination is for general things like food and transport.
  • Some destinations are very different depending on time of year but good information on seasonality is hard to come across.

Step 4: Send Your Stack Rank To Target Customers

Send your stack rank survey link to target customers. Pick one specific segment rather than a generic demographic to avoid noisy data. For example, if I send my Splitzies stack rank to both young parents planning a family holiday and student backpackers, they're going to have very different priority problems and our data will get all messed up.

If you haven't got a pre-release waitlist, hit people's DMs on online communities, forums and social media. We joined a few Slack communities for Product Managers and got +25% response rate on a couple hundred messages for a Customer Problem Stack Rank we did on our own startup (this outreach only took a couple of hours one evening).

Step 5: Iterate!

You start to see priorities emerge very quickly once votes start rolling in. As participants add their own problem statements, you'll also learn about new pain points you hadn't known about. Use these learnings to inform new sample problems and continue pushing your link out to participants.

Step 6: Results

Sort all the problems by highest or lowest importance to stack rank your statements. In one click, you'll know how important your value proposition is compared to the other problems your target customers face.

Relative Importance

Like I said, the results of our own stack ranking experiement showed us that the value proposition we had spent 7 months building through customer discovery research came dead last for our target users. What was surprising though, was that our stack ranking helped us realised the big picture problem we were interested in was actually really important to our target customers, but they were using a completely different vocabularly to us. The words we were using couldn't have been resonating less.

So, we took the top 6 most important problems from our stack rank results and rewrote our entire landing page and onboarding experience.

Step 7: Go.

The best time to do Customer Problem Stack Ranking was yesterday. Whether you've got a killer idea for a startup or you're trying to align your existing product with problems that your customers actually care about, Customer Problem Stack Ranking is a versatile and flexible solution that's ready to help.

We used our own tool OpinionX for our Customer Problem Stack Rank experiment (it's free to use). Also, I'm happy to jump on a call with you to help you create your CPSR if you'd like a hand.

Let me know what you think or if you have any startup validation/customer discovery horror stories ✌️

  1. 3

    This is so obvious and yet... new to me.

    Great stuff 🤘

    1. 2

      Same here man. Glad to help raise some awareness of it!

  2. 2

    Took notes on all of this. Great read!

  3. 2

    This is so good. I feel bad about how I've spent the past few months now...but better to find this late than never!

    1. 2

      I literally felt the exact same thing. When I saw the first results of this when I did it myself, it was one of those "laugh or cry" situations. I picked laugh :)

  4. 2

    Daniel, this is excellent. Thx for the link to the tweet thread and for your free tool. Been using user validation and problem statement tools at 4.0 for years, but haven't thought about formalizing the stacking of multiple ps'. Thanks!

    1. 1

      Thanks Matt! Yeah it's definitely a different approach but makes total sense considering the importance of the problem :)

  5. 1

    Excellent post Daniel- really helpful. Thanks!

  6. 1

    Ads getting smarter :p

    Jk, good stuff will def check this out.

  7. 1

    Super cool. Going to apply this next.

    Noticed your mention about DM on slack groups. One of the problems I faced with direct reach when the target is not on slack. Say banking or healthcare or education. Actually everyone else other than developers and PMs from tech industry. Have been working on linkdra.com to have a direct reach option and OpinionX with Linkdra's DM reach can turn in results super quick. Thinking aloud here. What say?

  8. 1

    That was an good read, interesting approach and a cool looking product. Nice work Daniel. Is OpinionX profitable for you yet?

    1. 2

      Thanks Dave! Not yet; as I mentioned in the article, we carried out extensive customer discovery that led us to this product but we picked up the wrong messaging along the way "Discover your users' biggest unmet needs". Very similar message but it ranked last in the CPSR we ran recently for User Researchers and Product Managers, who we thought was our primary target market.

      We've only recently used the results of those stack rankings to realign our own messaging which is getting infinitely more traction. We raised a pre-seed in 2020 though so we have some runway to help us iterate towards profitability yet. We're well on our way!

  9. 1

    Really fascinating. I just finished reading The Mom Test and have been validating a product idea for over a year. This is going to help me get feedback so much faster!

    1. 1

      Good to hear Dustin. I really think The Mom Test is an incredible resource, but without somthing like Customer Problem Stack Ranking, it's so easy to follow the wrong thread. CPSR is a solid approach to anchor yourself to validated customer priorities that you can then dig deeper into with a smaller set of more focused customer discovery interviews.

      Feel free to give me a shout at any stage if you want to talk through your discovery so far!

      1. 2

        For sure! Was considering using OpinionX to do the CPSR.

        1. 1

          Lovely stuff Dustin. Here if you need a hand :)

  10. 1

    damn. very cool.

  11. 1

    This is awesome! I'd love to chat if possible.

    1. 1

      Hey @prateekrmathur - absolutely! Just dropped you an email to the address you have on your profile.

      1. 1

        Looking forward to our chat.

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