Created by Lewis C. Lin, Circles Method is a framework that product managers can use to develop comprehensive & thoughtful solutions to product design questions and challenges. To give examples, these product design questions could be anything from redesigning the Facebook newsfeed to improving Pinterest.
The Circles Method helps product managers cover all major bases of a unique product design problem using seven steps, which together form the CIRCLES acronym:
Step 1: Comprehend the situation
Step 2: Identify the customer
Step 3: Report the customer’s needs
Step 4: Cut, through prioritization
Step 5: List Solutions
Step 6: Evaluate tradeoffs
Step 7: Summarize your recommendation.
Let’s look at each of these steps individually to understand the correct manner in which a project manager should approach each of these steps.
Comprehend the Situation
The first step to solving a problem is to understand the problem correctly. To fully ‘Comprehending the Situation,’ project managers need to use the following three steps: clarifying the goal, understanding the constraints, and understanding the context.
When it comes to clarifying the goal, project managers need to understand the end goal they are trying to achieve, consisting of objectives like increasing revenue, market share, or engagement.
The second part of comprehending the situation is understanding the constraints under which one is supposed to operate. To explain this using an example, a famous Microsoft interview question for project manager candidates is, “How would you design an Airport?”. Many candidates directly jump to answering the question with common answers like the airport will have X number of terminals, gates, & food courts, etc. However, a few minutes later, the interviewer interrupts the candidates to inform them that they forgot to ask how much land is available for this project, and in this case, we have only 5000 square feet. At that point, candidates have to reevaluate their plans entirely. The whole point of this question is to check whether the candidate considers constraints or not before proceeding to find a solution to the given challenge. In the case of a typical software tech setup, constraints could include things like time or the number of engineering resources available.
The third step of comprehending the situation is about understanding the context. For example, if someone who has never used ‘Google Scholar’ is asked to redesign it, they should not make assumptions but ask questions like “What is it?” and “Who is it for?” to build a foundational understanding before trying to improve it.
Identify the Customer
Once a project manager has comprehended the situation, the next step is to identify the customer. If one does not know who exactly it is they are building for, making a product can often waste time. Generally, it is almost always good to design a product for a small set of people instead of targeting everyone at the beginning itself. Even if a project manager were to make the next Facebook hypothetically, they should not make it for everyone. Because even though every type of person out there uses Facebook today, it started by catering to a small group of college students.
Report the customer’s needs
The third step of the CIRCLES method is to report the needs of the customer. To understand these needs, project managers can create what is popularly called a user story. The goal of the user story is to convey what the end user would want to do in simple everyday language.
To make things simpler, here’s a user story template: As a <role>, I want <goal/desire> so that <benefit>.
Here’s a user story example for a project management software using the user story template shared above:
As a manager, I want to understand the progress made by my colleagues so that I can report our project completion rate.
Cut, through Prioritization
Once we have the requirements, the next step is prioritization. Product managers have to prioritize what to work from a long product backlog most of the time, with it being one of the most critical aspects of their job.
To decide which specific project or feature to prioritize, project managers can use the following criteria: customer delight, technical feasibility, strategic importance & maybe a rough estimation of revenue impact.
For each project or feature, project managers can rate the criteria above’s on a scale of one to five and then sum these up to come up with a number and see what project/feature bubbles up to the top.
The first step of the CIRCLES method is to list down the solutions. The more solutions listed, the better. Once you have a sizeable number of solutions, you can choose those that would be most appropriate.
For example, if we were to design a solution to reduce junk mail, here’s what it would look like:
- A Global do not mail list which consumers can sign up for as a signal that they do not want to receive emails. Companies can periodically check this list and remove customers who have signed up to this list from email campaigns.
- An SMS feature using which customers can opt-out of junk mail by sending an SMS with a special code.
- A junk mail warning application that alerts about the likeliness of getting junk mail from a particular website when you are about to share personal information
Once you’ve come up with a list of solutions, the next step is to evaluate the tradeoffs of each one. To do this evaluation, one first needs to define tradeoff criteria. For this, you can use factors like customer satisfaction, implementation difficulty, and revenue potential.
Once you’ve done this, you can analyze each solution using a pros and cons list to arrive at the solution that should be implemented.
Summarize your recommendation
The last step of the CIRCLES method is to summarize your recommendations, which can be done using the following three-step approach.
- Write down the product or feature you recommend.
- Reiterate what it is & how it will prove beneficial to solving the problem.
- Repeat why you preferred this particular solution amongst all the ones you listed.
Last but not least, the CIRCLES method, like any framework, is not one-size-fits-all and should be used in the proper context. It is a helpful method for answering product design interview questions and solving product challenges, but you should not restrict yourself to one particular methodology. Feel free to make changes in the framework as and when required or even use a different one if needed.
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