PRODUCTHEAD: Playing Whack-a-mole with symptoms

PRODUCTHEAD: Playing Whack-a-mole with symptoms

PRODUCTHEAD is a regular newsletter of product management goodness,
curated by Jock Busuttil.

how can you product sure?


Treating symptoms may provide short-term relief but does not alter the status quo

Root cause analysis helps us to systematically prevent future issues or to repeat successes

Impact maps help to connect what we choose to build and why we choose to build it

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every PRODUCTHEAD edition is online for you to refer back to


A particular challenge I come across is when people invest more time and effort into treating symptoms than the causes of those symptoms.

Running to stand still #

It tends to crop up when people are thinking about what metrics they’re trying to move — and so the actions they need to take — or when thinking about longer term goals as part of a their product strategy.

The thing about treating symptoms is that, while doing so may provide short-term relief, it does nothing about the thing that’s causing the symptoms in the first place. In time the symptoms simply reoccur.

Instead, it’s more effective to treat the underlying cause. However, diagnosing the root cause (or causes) of symptoms is harder work. It’s not always obvious what is causing what, and figuring it out will require some research and experimentation.

When people set themselves a strategic goal to reduce customer churn or increase revenue, in my view they’re focusing on symptoms, not causes. As a consequence they end up making interventions to reduce churn or increase revenue that provide short-term relief, but don’t actually address the underlying causes.

They’re trying to move the needle on the wrong metric and so they end up running just to stand still.

Conversion drop-outs #

Let’s look at the people who drop out at some stage of their customer journey before they achieve their goal or complete their transaction. A good example of this is when e-commerce users abandon their shopping cart before paying for their order.

This means that users aren’t getting to the point where they’ve extracted the full value from that product or service. It also means in turn that the organisation providing that product or service fails to unlock the value associated with the user completing their journey: in this case, the revenue from the user’s abandoned order. Meanwhile the organisation still has the associated costs (advertising, provision of service, and so on) of getting the user to the point at which they bailed out.

A user can exit your workflow at any stage, for any number of reasons. Certain groups of users may drop out for very different reasons to other groups. The drop-out rate is therefore a symptom of a potentially large collection of underlying causes.

Some of these causes may be within your team’s direct control, such as product design. Others causes may not, such as when a user is distracted from completing their task because of external factors like having to take a call or go to an appointment.

The only real way to reduce the drop-out rate is to understand as specifically as possible what’s causing it, then to try to do things differently so as to remove those underlying causes. The difficulty is that it’s not always immediately obvious what is causing people to drop out. So we need to conduct user research and run experiments to understand how things are connected causally.

Customer churn #

Customer churn, when people stop using your product or service permanently, is a symptom. A number of contributing causes could factor in any user’s decision to stop using your product.

They could simply have completed the tasks they were using your product for, and have no further need to keep using it. Or they could have found a cheaper / easier / simpler alternative that allows them to do the same thing. Or your corporate stance on something could conflict with their personal values, so their decision to cut ties with you is a moral one. There’s a vast range of reasons.

Certain user segments may churn for different reasons to others. You can only reduce churn for a particular segment if you understand why it’s churning, and rectify those causes.

There’s always the temptation to treat churn directly, perhaps by offering enticements to the user to continue using the product or service. The problem with treating the symptom in this way is that the only reason why the user continues to use your product becomes that incentive. Take away the incentive and there’s no longer any reason for the user to stay. And the incentive will lose its potency over time. Users will build up a resistance, meaning you have to increase the size of incentive, or try other incentives instead.

Instead, you should be focusing on the underlying reasons why the user is planning to leave in the first place. Sort these out, and the user will again have a better reason to keep using your product.

Churn is also a classic lagging metric — you only know it’s happened after the fact. So it’s even more important to identify and tackle the contributing causes that would typically lead to a customer churning at some point in the future. That way you stand a chance of doing something about it before it happens.

Revenue #

I would argue that revenue is also a symptom.

To generalise slightly, it’s the result of a combination of causes: market demand; having product-market fit; successfully engaging with the target market; and delivering quality product and service to the customer in exchange for payment at the right price point. Some of those causes are more in our direct control than others.

In contrast with conversion drop-outs and customer churn, when we’re thinking about revenue as a symptom, we want to understand and trigger the causes so that we get this particular symptom to occur more, not less.

Interventions such as increased advertising and special offers to increase revenue may provide short-term relief, but ultimately only last as long as the intervention is in place. And again, they lose their potency over time. A item that’s on perpetual special offer ceases to be special after a while — it just become the regular offering, and you cannot easily go back to the original price point.

However, if instead you realise that market demand is decreasing, or that your product’s drifted out of product-market fit (or never really had it to begin with), or that your product quality’s taken a nose-dive for some reason, or that your price point is wrong for the market conditions, then you can direct your efforts more effectively. Sort out the underlying causes and revenue should result.

Final thoughts #

I often observe product people running to stand still. By this I mean, when product managers are working flat out with their teams to deliver lots of good product, but not actually making any headway.

More often than not, this is because they’re expending all their effort playing Whack-a-mole with recurring symptoms rather than the underlying causes.

When thinking about the things you want to move the needle on, try to get past the observed symptoms and look at the underlying causes. The causes are what you’re actually trying to influence.

Speak to you soon,


what to think about this week

Root cause analysis explained with examples and methods

The easiest way to understand root cause analysis is to think about common problems. If we’re ill and throwing up at work, we’ll go to a doctor and ask them to find the root cause of our sickness. If our car stops working, we’ll ask a mechanic to find the root cause of the problem. If our business is underperforming (or overperforming) in a certain area, we’ll try to find out why.

Getting to the “why”


Cause & effect and product risk

When deciding how to invest in your product, you need to take into account the risks that your investments will not return the outcomes you desire. One class of risks is business risk, and in product management we can influence the business risk of invalid intentionality – what I could call “building the wrong thing.”

We build things we believe will lead to outcomes

[Scott Sehlhorst / Tyner Blain]

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PRODUCTHEAD is a newsletter for product people of all varieties, and is lovingly crafted from trays of leftover jam sandwiches.

Read more from Jock

The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a product management and leadership coach, product leader and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, X (formerly Twitter) and LinkedIn.

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