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A Less Linear Approach to CIRCLES for Product Design Questions

A common open-ended question used for product manager interviews is: How would you improve a particular feature or create a new product?

The interviewer is not necessarily looking for the "right" answer but looking to see how you think and your approach to problem-solving.  A popular method that product managers use to respond to this question is the CIRCLES framework.  As shown in the diagram below, CIRCLES encourages the candidate to go through seven stages.

Source: Impact Interview

Using such a framework to prepare for interviews is a great way to condition yourself to not go straight into solution mode. Additionally, it can help ensure that your response encapsulates essential aspects of product management such as problem definition, user empathy, and prioritization in a more structured and thoughtful way as opposed to blurting out a stream of consciousness.

Like all frameworks, though, CIRCLES is not a one-size-fits-all and should only be used in the proper context. If you rely on it too much during your preparation, you could fall into the trap of following the method too linearly, which is a bit ironic given the shape that represents it.  Candidates should recognize that in interviews, it is not necessary to go through each step of the framework explicitly—at least not right away.  In doing so, you can hinder your ability to show that you can be succinct in your communication, adaptable, and engaging.  Instead, you can distill the framework into three core steps as a starting point when you respond:

  1. Understand the problem (I.e. C)
  2. Define and evaluate the options (I.e. IRCLE)
  3. Recommend a solution (I.e. S)

To help illustrate how you can use this leaner approach to CIRCLES, let's use a hypothetical product-design question:

Our e-commerce application enables greater product discovery by quickly loading recommendations for what shoppers would like to browse, based on their shopping behavior. What's the best way to improve this feature to boost customer satisfaction?

Understand the problem

Seasoned product managers will be able to quickly identify that "boosting customer satisfaction" is intentionally vague. To help narrow the focus area, ask questions like:

  1. How do you define customer satisfaction?
  2. Is there a specific customer segment where satisfaction is lagging?
  3. What attempts have you already made to solve this?

Asking these types of questions provides a clue to the interviewer that you understand that the problem is multi-faceted and requires a more granular break down to determine what the actual problem is. It also allows you to engage with the interviewer to seek additional information that will help you formulate potential options.

Define and evaluate the options

While clarifying the situation in the first step, you should have been able to align on the actual problem and just as important, surface things that are top of mind for the interviewer, which will help you outline options and evaluation criteria that will resonate with the interviewer.

If in step one, you determined that “not having relevant recommendations for the different segments” is the main problem, proceed to outline some options and highlight the salient pros and cons based on what you previously uncovered:

Make a recommendation

By now, the option you will recommend should be obvious, and it is just a matter of clearly stating the recommendation. In this scenario, you can say:

Based on the analysis, option 2, while more complex to implement, would provide us with the ability to provide better customer satisfaction and opens us up for other streams of revenue growth.

To show that you are proactive and are already thinking about execution, drop in a nugget about the first step you would take to implement the recommended solution.

This three-step approach gives a higher-level starting point for your answer that shows you can communicate clearly and be flexible while maximizing the time you have for meaningful two-way dialog.  When you prepare for the next PM interview, practice playing out product design scenarios using this abbreviated method to become more comfortable and dynamic throughout your discussion.

Edward Yu

Edward Yu

Director of Product @ Toronto based Enterprise B2B Software Scale Up

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