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Analyzing Customer Interviews with the Pain and Frequency Matrix

Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy
This was written as part of the rough draft for Deploy Empathy, a practical guide to interviewing customers.
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One of the most memorable lessons I had in elementary school was about how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
(Humor me for a second.)
The teacher put a loaf a bread, a knife, a jar of peanut butter, and a jar of jelly on a table.
She then told us she wanted us to show her how to make a PBJ.
Smirking and confused, the group of 11 and 12 year olds gamely said “alright.”
We told her told her to pick up the bread.
She picked up the whole loaf of bread. In the packaging.
“Noooo, we meant you should get a slice of bread,” we clarified, laughing.
She poked at the packaging, trying to pull the slices out of the sealed bag.
Starting to get the idea, we told her to put the bag down. To take her right hand and untwist the tie. To then hold the bag with her left hand and use the other hand to take out two slices (skipping the heel of the bread).
We told her to place them on a plate.
She put them down, stacked on the plate.
We then told her to put peanut butter on it.
…so she took the entire jar of peanut butter, still sealed, and put it squarely on top of the two pieces of bread.
(I think you can see where this is going, so I’ll stop here.)
My point is that a lot of daily tasks are really packages of tasks. They are processes.
Understanding that all tasks are processes is key to creating something that solves something for someone else.
Sometimes people think they need to solve the entire process in order to create something worth using. This is sometimes the case, but due to the complexity that goes into even “simple” tasks, solving just one step can make a huge difference for people.
Think about the kitchen utensils company Oxo’s entire strategy. Their original product was a potato peeler, designed for people with arthritis who found it difficult to use a conventional peeler.
They didn’t try to solve the whole process of “making mashed potatoes” for people. They solved just one step, and that led it it being sold for $273 million in 2004. Yet they deeply understood that particular step, allowing them to build a fervent following among home cooks.
I want you to think about some common tasks for a moment:
  • Doing laundry
  • Filing taxes
  • Making coffee or tea in the morning
Chances are, these things show up on your mental to-do list as one item, but like making a sandwich, they’re really a combination of tasks rolled up together. Each one is a process. And those sub-tasks take different amounts of time, require different tools, and have different amounts of complexity.
Compared to each other, those tasks all have different frequencies too. Doing laundry is much more frequent than doing taxes. Making coffee is more frequent than doing laundry.
Bringing this around to analyzing interviews, what I’m getting at here is something called the Pain and Frequency matrix. It’s a mental model for understanding the how much someone might be willing to use a new solution for something based on how frequent and painful something is for them.
It’s based on a framework promoted by Des Traynor, co-founder of Intercom and Jobs To Be Done advocate. His blog post on it is one of my most-recommended blog posts. I’ve probably sent it to people thousands of times over the last few years.
It’s similar to charts you may have seen from the Lean UX world.
He graphs problems by Big vs Frequency, but I prefer to use “pain.” I generally call it the Pain and Frequency matrix, and you can also think about it as a Complexity and Frequency, or Time and Frequency matrix – whichever clicks with you.

Des Traynor's Problem Size/Frequency Chart
Des Traynor's Problem Size/Frequency Chart
Practice this now
Grab a piece of paper and a pencil.
Draw a 2x2 grid, and label one axis with Pain and the other with Frequency.
Then, plot the following tasks:
  • Doing laundry
  • Filing taxes
  • Making coffee or tea in the morning
  • Making dinner
Now, dive into the steps that go into one of those tasks, and plot each individual step. For example, laundry:
  • Sorting laundry into lights, colors, and delicates
  • Figuring out what the laundry care symbols on garments mean
  • Putting away laundry in drawers
  • Hanging up clothing
  • Switching a load from the washer to the dryer
  • Selecting and measuring the right kind of soap
  • Line-drying sweaters and delicates
  • Cleaning the lint filter
  • Removing a stain
In the first exercise, I’m willing to bet your sense of time was more expansive. Filing taxes only happens once a year, so perhaps your mental sense for the maximum time was a year, with filing taxes going in the “low frequency, high pain” category.
In the second, we’re looking at a task itself that happens much more frequently. The longest tasks might be putting away laundry (which can take a few hours), so perhaps that was the upper limit for time in this case.
The point here is to understand tasks relative to one another, and understand that there is complexity within tasks. Time and complexity are all relative.
It’s also worth noting that one over-aching task can be very different from person to person and organization to organization, and is also context-dependent.
Coffee is a particularly good example, because it can differ wildly from person to person, or even day-to-day based on how much time someone has. People might have a variety of situational substitutes based on different conditions they may be under.
For example, “making coffee” could be:
  1. Locate a mug.
  2. Select a Keurig pod.
  3. Put the pod in the machine.
  4. Put the cup in cup area in the machine.
  5. Press down the handle.
  6. Take coffee.
All of those steps are simple, so let’s look at another way of making coffee:
  1. Select beans
  2. Determine the right amount of beans to use
  3. Measure out the right amount of beans
  4. Grind the beans
  5. Boil water
  6. Place the dripper on top of a carafe
  7. Put a filter into the top of dripper
  8. Wet the filter in the dripper
  9. Pour the ground coffee into the dripper
  10. Place the apparatus on a kitchen scale and zero the scale
  11. Determine the right amount of water to pour
  12. Pour water
  13. Let sit for the desired amount of time
This process has a lot more complexity, and some of the steps have sub-steps on their own (like determining the amount of coffee and water).
I think you get the point now:
Every task is a process.
Every process is situational.
Using this to analyze interviews
The underlying assumptions of this model are:
  • People are more willing to pay to solve problems that are frequent.
  • People are more willing to pay to solve problems that are complex, time consuming, or otherwise time-consuming or frustrating in some way.
When I do an interview, I’m building a mental model of how they approached something. The scaffolding of this model is:
  • All of the individual steps
  • The pain/complexity/time involved in each step
  • The frequency of each step (does this step happen every time? just sometimes? just once? how often?)
When someone is describing a process, you want to use the Pain and Frequency Matrix from two perspectives. I suggest using a different piece of paper for each of these:
1) To compare different processes to one another (filing taxes vs doing laundry)
2) To granularly understand the complexity of each step
When I’m doing this kind of analysis, I find it helpful to look at the customer’s problem set both linearly as a step-by-steep process, and also as a matrix. Using those tools together can help give you a more complete picture of what the problem is/are and how critical they are to a customer.
If you want to go one step further and validate your guesses about the complexity of problems, you could do card sorting activities with customers.
[Note: I’ll definitely have more images in this chapter in the book.]
What this model tells you -- and what it doesn't
The Pain and Frequency Matrix will tell you what problems are frequent and painful for people, and are thus the things they’re most likely to be willing to buy.
I also want to make it clear what this model won’t tell you. It won’t tell you how to get to market, how to sell, what price to choose, or any of those other things that are key to building a product.
To take the Oxo potato peeler example above, it wouldn’t have told you how to find the right distribution partner or the total addressable market for kitchen utensils. Those kinds of things need to be determined with supplemental research.
Yet what it will tell you is which problems are the most acute. That can help you weed through the many different possible problems you could pursue.
If you’ve ever felt like you didn’t know which ideas to choose, perhaps this is something you could try.
To start, try to notice how often you do particular tasks, and how much they annoy you or have complexity. Try to get used to working with it in your daily life, and then apply it to how you think about business.
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Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy @mjwhansen

A practical guide to interviewing customers

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