User experience, Product management


An acronym for a method of problem-solving that stands for Clarify, Investigate, Respond, Check, Evaluate, and Share.

Relevant metrics: Learning and Satisfaction

In this article

What is the CIRCLES Method?

The acronym “CIRCLES” represents the seven steps that one must follow to provide thorough and considerate responses to product design questions. The steps are as follows:

  1. Comprehend the Situation
  2. Identify the Customer
  3. Report the Customer’s Needs
  4. Cut through Prioritization
  5. List Solutions
  6. Evaluate Trade-Offs
  7. Summarize Recommendation

The method offers a well-structured approach not only for formulating insightful product design questions but also for answering them with confidence.

Where did the CIRCLES method originate from?

The CIRCLES Method can be traced back to its creator, Lewis C. Lin. He first introduced the CIRCLES Method in his book “The Product Manager Interview” which was published in 2017. The method received further recognition when it was mentioned in another one of Lewis’ books, “Decode and Conquer.”

Exploring the exercise in detail

Product management is a complex and dynamic field that requires a range of skills, techniques, and tools to achieve success. One such tool is the CIRCLES method, which provides product managers with a structured approach to designing and improving products. In this post, we will break down the steps of the CIRCLES method and examine its benefits.

Step 1: Comprehending a Given Situation

The first step in the CIRCLES method is to comprehend the scenario at hand. This step is crucial in allowing product managers to form an understanding of the various elements involved and to lay the foundation for developing plausible solutions to potential problems. One popular technique used by product managers during this step is to ask the “5 W’s and H” questions, which include:

  • What is the situation?
  • Who is it for?
  • Why does that person need it?
  • When is it available?
  • Where is it available?
  • How does it work?

Of these six questions, the “why,” “who,” “what,” and “how” questions tend to provide the most context when it comes to defining constraints and goals for a given project.

Step 2: Identifying the Customer

The second step in the CIRCLES method is to identify the target audience. Product managers must have a clear understanding of who they’re selling to before they pitch a product design, making this step a crucial one. Two popular tools that product managers rely on to frame their understanding of their target audience are user personas and empathy maps.

User personas allow product managers to create archetypes that represent the needs, expectations, and wants of their users, while empathy maps are organized visuals that allow PMs to define certain characteristics of their target audience and examine each one from a stand-alone point of view, as well as from its individual interactions with other user elements.

Step 3: Reporting Customer Needs

Once the target audience has been identified, the next step is to translate their personality traits, characteristics, and desires into customer needs. This results in the creation of use cases or user requirements, both of which are high-level product documentation that dictate what the user needs in a simple, straightforward way. The product manager decides the format and length of how to document the customer’s needs, with the end goal of translating their knowledge of the customer into concise insights that describe their needs as clearly as possible.

Step 4: Cutting Down to What Matters

The fourth step in the CIRCLES method involves focusing on what truly matters for product development. This step involves studying the customer needs identified in the previous step and singling out those that the team must prioritize during the design and development processes. Product managers balance factors such as revenue, cost of execution, user experience, and feasibility, among others, to determine where to focus their energies to deliver the right solution to their target audience.

Step 5: Listing Possible Solutions

The next step in the CIRCLES method is to identify possible solutions for the prioritized customer needs. Product managers come up with a minimum of three possible solutions to satisfy the customer’s needs, relying on techniques such as brainstorming to help generate possible solutions.

Step 6: Evaluating Potential Trade-Offs

Each solution has its advantages and drawbacks, which must be scrutinized by product managers to determine the best one from an objective point of view.

Step 7: Summarizing Recommendation

After evaluating, you summarize the recommendations by selecting the best solution and listing out the steps required to implement it. This step is important because it allows you to finalize your decision, prioritize the steps required to implement it, and be prepared to present your solution to others. The goal of this step is to provide a clear and concise plan of action that can be easily understood and executed.

Unlocking the Power of the CIRCLES Method

The best solutions come from a combination of different perspectives and ideas.

The CIRCLES Method is an iterative process, meaning that the team can go back and forth between the brainstorming and evaluation stages as needed. This allows the team to refine their ideas and come up with the best possible solution.

It encourages team members to think outside the box and come up with innovative solutions. It also allows the team to evaluate each solution and make sure that it is the best possible option. By using the CIRCLES Method, teams can come up with creative solutions to complex problems and make better decisions.

Relevant questions to ask
  • What are the potential risks associated with using the CIRCLES Method?
    Hint Potential risks associated with using the CIRCLES Method include the potential for groupthink, the risk of overlooking important details, and the potential for bias.
  • How will the CIRCLES Method help me achieve my goals?
    Hint The CIRCLES Method can help you achieve your goals by providing a structured approach to problem-solving. It can help you break down complex problems into manageable parts and develop creative solutions.
  • What resources do I need to successfully implement the CIRCLES Method?
    Hint To successfully implement the CIRCLES Method, you will need a facilitator, a whiteboard or flipchart, and a set of markers. You may also need additional resources such as a laptop or projector.
  • How will I measure the success of the CIRCLES Method?
    Hint You can measure the success of the CIRCLES Method by assessing the quality of the solutions developed, the level of engagement of the participants, and the amount of time it takes to complete the process.
  • What are the potential challenges I may face when using the CIRCLES Method?
    Hint Potential challenges you may face when using the CIRCLES Method include difficulty in getting everyone to agree on a solution, difficulty in getting everyone to participate, and difficulty in getting everyone to stay focused.
  • How will I adjust the CIRCLES Method to fit my specific needs?
    Hint You can adjust the CIRCLES Method to fit your specific needs by customizing the process to fit the problem you are trying to solve. You can also adjust the process to fit the size and composition of your team.
Relevant books on the topic of CIRCLES Method
  • Product Manager Interview by Lewis C. Lin (2017)
  • Decode and Conquer by Lewis C. Lin (2022)

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