Finding Customer Problems – Problem Analysis in New Product Development

by Maximilian Claessens

For the development of new products, it is crucial to understand what problems current customers have with existing solutions. Finding customer problems is key to developing the right solutions!

General Approach for Finding Customer Problems

There are several variations in problem analysis. However, the general approach for finding customer problems looks like this:

General Approach to Problem-Analysis - Finding Customer Problems - Problem Analysis in New Product Development

General Approach to Problem-Analysis – Finding Customer Problems – Problem Analysis in New Product Development

This article focuses on finding customer problems. Therefore, we are going to focus on step 3 in the process of problem analysis: gathering a set of problems from heavy users. For this, we have to study the entire system of product use or activity.

However, it takes much more than just asking customers to list their problems. Customers often do not even know the problems or are not able to describe them. Therefore, let’s take a look at the different methodologies available for finding customer problems.

Methodologies for Finding Customer Problems

How to gather the list of customer problems we need for the development of new products? Although many methods are available, the task is more difficult than one might think. The customer or user often does not perceive problems well enough to be able to describe them. And, if the problems are known, the user may not agree to verbalize them (for many reasons, for instance being embarrassed). Therefore, we are going to introduce an array of methods to deal with these problems.


A classic method for finding customer problems is going to the experts – using them as surrogates for end users based on their experience in the category under study. Such experts can be found in different places: in the sales force, among retail and wholesale distribution personnel, and in professionals who support an industry (architects, doctors, accountants, staff of government bureaus and trade associations, and so further).

Published Sources

Published sources are another classic method for finding customer problems. They are often useful: industry studies, the firm’s own past studies on allied subjects, government reports, investigations by social critics, scientific studies in universities and much more.

Stakeholder Contacts

Customer problems can best be identified at their source. Seeking out the voice of the customer (VOC) is the most productive method for finding customer problems. This means asking households or businesses directly, for which an array of different methods is available. Not all of them work in all situations – as mentioned earlier, customers often do not really know their own problems or are unable to verablize them.


The most common method is direct, one-on-one interviewing. Sometimes this is a full-scale, formal and scientific survey. But it can also take other forms, such as a discussion with lead users. Lead users often are the first to sense a problem, therefore it may make sense to start with them. Still other times, it may be no more than conversations with some key customers at a trade show. Even if a problem comes from only one customer, it may be very important for the firm. Phone interviews are also a quick and effective way to get useful new product ideas.

Focus Groups

Focus groups can be very helpful in studying customers for finding customer problems. The focus group is designed to yield the exploratory and depth-probing type of discussion required, and it can be easy and inexpensive to establish and use. Keep in mind that focus groups are not there for seeking specific facts or conclusions, but rather genuine problems. The focus group does also work well in that it stimulates people to speak out about things they may be reluctant to mention in one-on-one interview situations. It is much easier to talk about one’s problems when others in the group have the same problems.


The observation method for finding customer problems is rooted in sociological studies and involves watching customers (or non-customers) using products in their own environments. As mentioned earlier, customers often do not even know their own problems or are not able to verbalize them. Therefore, observing customers may be key to finding customer problems. Video cameras or photos are sometimes used to record observational data. A team observes the data for actions, body language and so further. Then, customer needs and wants can be identified, and new product ideas that might satisfy these needs.

Role Playing

Role playing is another method for finding customer problems. However, there is little evidence of its successful use in generating ideas for new products. It must be assumed that it is most valuable in instances where product users are not able to visualize or verbalize their problems. By confronting them with certain situations, one can, however, find out what problems actually exist. It should also be valuable where consumers are emotionally unable or unwilling to express their views, for instance in areas of personal hygiene.

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