What is the CIRCLES method? Examples and Alternatives from Senior PM

Imagine stepping into the world of product management with a product vision, secret formula and one particular feature that the industry’s luminaries use to transform raw ideas into gold consistently.

That formula exists, and it’s called the CIRCLES method.

Ready to see your ideas soar? Let’s unravel the magic of CIRCLES together.

What is the CIRCLES framework (AKA CIRCLES method) in Product Management?

CIRCLES is a widely used framework for product managers, initially introduced by Lewis C. Lin in his book “Decode and Conquer” in 2013.

It serves as a valuable tool for tackling product design questions in PM and product interviews too, but its applications extend to enhancing product features.

Product managers are responsible for resolving user problem -> and user stories, making effective product design crucial.

The CIRCLES method provides a comprehensive checklist of stages for product managers to craft thorough solutions to product design problems

7 stages of the CIRCLES method

CIRCLES acronym is expanded into the following 7 steps:

  1. C → Comprehend the situation (What? Why? Who? How?)
  2. I → Identify the Customer
  3. R → Report the customer’s needs
  4. C → Cut, through prioritization
  5. L → List solutions
  6. E → Evaluate tradeoffs
  7. S → Summarize recommendation
circles method

Let’s decode these steps in detail in the following section. 

C – Comprehend the situation

This step enables the product managers to have a holistic view of the problem landscape with maximum context & thus address the problem with a more nuanced, detailed & comprehensive approach.

PMs can leverage various techniques in this step to get a strong grip on the problem statement.

However, it is often recommended to ask yourself 5 W’s & H questions. They are:

  1. What is the situation?
  2. Who is it for?
  3. Why does that person need it?
  4. When is it available?
  5. Where is it available?
  6. How does it work?

Among the above 6 questions, the top 3 W’s & H are the critical ones to ask as they provide abundant clarity about the objective & limitations around the problem statement.

Let’s understand this with the help of an example:

You are asked to “Design Netflix for senior citizens”.

The first step in addressing this problem statement is to ask clarifying questions:

  1. What is the goal of the product? – Increase engagement 
  2. Is there any specific geography to be targeted? – All geographies 
  3. What’s the definition of a senior citizen? – People with age >60 years 
  4. Should the solution be disabled-friendly? – Yes 
  5. Do we need to create a separate website/app or use an existing one?- Not necessary 

I – Identify the customer

Product managers begin by thoroughly studying their target audience and users to empathetically grasp their needs and preferences, a crucial step in addressing problem statements.

They employ tools like user personas to encapsulate user characteristics, requirements, and aspirations, emphasizing demographics and distinctive behaviours.

Additionally, user empathy maps offer a visual insight into user attitudes and behaviours, aiding product managers in gaining a profound understanding of their users.

Continuing with our example, based on the previous step, we know that we need to build disabled-friendly Netflix for Senior citizens who would be more comfortable experiencing Netflix on a bigger screen with the availability of voice commands. 

R – Report customer needs

To distil your user’s personality traits, characteristics, and desires into a single customer segment of needs, the product manager will create concise solution based on use cases or user requirements, aligning with their preferred format and length.

Some PMs may opt for detailed paragraphs, while others favour brevity with one or two sentences to capture user will.

The ultimate aim is to transform customer insights into succinct descriptions that precisely articulate user persona and their requirements, potentially employing the user story template for this purpose.

As a <type of user> I want to < perform some task > so that I can < achieve some goal >.

Let’s articulate the user needs in a user story template for our example:

As a Senior citizen, I want to access Netflix to watch engaging content.

C – Cut, through prioritization

In real-world scenarios, the prioritization matrix optimizing resource utilization is crucial, with PMs relying on various prioritization frameworks like RICE, Impact vs Effort, and custom models with prioritization criteria tailored to their organization’s needs.

This approach enables PMs to identify and focus on high-impact user needs, considering factors like revenue potential, execution cost, tech debt, engineering resources, UX, and feasibility, ultimately delivering a solution works has significant value to their target users.

For instance, in our Netflix problem statement, let’s assume sign up &  discovery of the content for the Senior citizen is the biggest pain point & we plan to address that in terms of priority.

L – List solutions

The 5th step of the CIRCLES method talks about finding probable best solutions for the prioritized user needs.

The reversal method, SCAMPER  & Attribute method are a few popular brainstorming frameworks used by PMs in order to devise innovative solutions to user needs.

It is recommended to have at least 3 possible solutions to cater to the user’s needs.

For our scenario, the possible solutions could be :

  1. Voice search
  2. Senior recommendation engine
  3. Facial recognition for signup & login

E – Evaluate trade-offs

In this final step, Product Managers conduct an objective analysis of previously discussed solutions.

They create pros and cons lists for each solution, critically evaluating them based on criteria such as revenue potential, user satisfaction, and ease of implementation.

This process ist solutions that showcases the PM’s analytical and objective assessment skills in the right solution for addressing the product design problem statement.

In our example, we can categorize the solutions based on the below matrix:

Solutions ImpactEffortPriority ( P0 or P1 )
Voice searchHigh MediumP0 
Senior – AI recommendation engine HighHigh P1
Facial recognition for signup & login High HighP0

S – Summarize recommendations

The penultimate step involves summarizing the final recommendation or product proposal and providing convincing reasons for its adoption, ensuring a coherent and persuasive presentation.

This reflection offers a comprehensive view of the problem and quantitative approach to its solution, addressing any potential gaps in the approach.

Let’s apply it to our example:

Senior citizens can access Netflix on TV or tablet by seamless login using facial recognition & enhanced voice search to discover relevant content.

This will help them to engage with content on Netflix in a swift & flawless way. 

Seamless CIRCLES Integration: Daily Actionable Steps for Product Managers

It’s my favourite section. Let’s break down the CIRCLES method into more actionable, day-to-day tasks that PMs can seamlessly integrate into their routines:

1. Comprehend the situation

  • Daily standups with cross-functional teams: Use these quick meetings to keep a pulse on what’s happening, what’s changed, and what’s challenging. 
  • Customer Interactions: Regularly join customer service calls or discussions to get first-hand experience.

2. Identify the customer

  • Customer Persona Board: Have a board (physical or digital) dedicated to your customer personas. Regularly update this with findings from customer interviews, surveys, etc.
  • Regular “Customer Day”: Dedicate one day a month to deep-dive into the world of your customer. This could involve anything from visiting their work environments or having a virtual coffee chat with a customer.

3. Report customer’s needs

  • Feedback Loop Integration: Make providing feedback as easy as possible within your product. Integrate quick surveys, use net promoter score (NPS) queries, or have direct lines of communication open. 
  • Weekly “Voice of Customer” Meetings: Have a set time each week where the team gathers to discuss customer feedback.

4. Cut, through prioritization

  • Interactive Roadmap Sessions: Hold regular sessions where team members can add, remove, or comment on product roadmap items. 
  • “Three ‘Must-Wins’”: Each quarter, identify three ‘must-win’ areas based on the company’s strategic goals and what you’ve identified as key customer needs.

5. List solutions

  • Brainstorming Hours: Utilize techniques like crazy eights, mind mapping, or even role-playing scenarios to encourage out-of-the-box thinking.
  • Prototype Days: Regularly set aside days where the team focuses solely on creating prototypes of potential solutions.

6. Evaluate tradeoffs

  • Solution Showdowns: When considering different solutions, have a fun, engaging “showdown” where each solution is pitched, and the team votes considering the tradeoffs of each.
  • Customer Scorecards: Use a standardized scorecard that includes key criteria (cost, impact, effort, etc.) and have actual customers (if possible) or team members role-playing as customers to score potential solutions.

7. Summarize your recommendation

  • Storytelling Wrap-ups: At the end of the week, have a session where key decisions and recommendations are shared through storytelling. 
  • One-Pager Summaries: Create concise, visually appealing one-pagers that summarize recommendations and can be easily shared and referred back to. 

As we can notice that, the first 3 steps in the CIRCLES method involve understanding the customer issues in depth.

Remember, the key to managing day-to-day challenges is consistent communication and a strong connection with the customer, and to achieve this, it’s always recommended to deploy customer happiness surveys. 

Let’s dive deep into that in the next section.

How to effectively collect customer feedback to master the CIRCLES method and customer satisfaction?

I have been searching for an effective tool that help me to collect these customer feedbacks seamlessly, and I came across Usersnap’s Customer Satisfaction Survey.

Usersnap provides an impeccable list of survey templates that are a must for PMs to try. 

I have recently deployed this customer happiness survey to understand the early feedback about my new feature, which simplifies the user onboarding journey by removing friction across one key step. It’s simple and easy to use. 

Let’s understand with the help of the use case which I was solving a few months back. 

The problem statement involved building the onboarding journey for low end devices having poor RAM

We deployed the CIRCLES method to our problem statement and the most challenging part was to gather customer feedback once we deployed our MVP. 

We spoke to users about their pain points. However, to gather a substantial amount understand user feedback at scale, I relied on Usersnap’s Customer Satisfaction Survey.

I created the below survey, and I was able to capture some actional feedback from the users across different cohorts.

We realized that users are usually facing problems while uploading their documents.

This helped us to go back to our drawing board and build a more customized journey for such users where we can optimize the document upload flow for the users. 

customer satisfaction survey Usersnap

Usersnap’s Customer Satisfaction Survey is a vital tool for product managers, enabling the seamless collection of user feedback.

This template allows for quantifying user behavior and experiences, a key element in ensuring customer satisfaction, which is crucial for successful product management

In a real-world example, it helped streamline the onboarding journey for low-end devices, demonstrating its effectiveness in pinpointing and resolving user pain points.

Semi-CIRCLES – an alternative approach to the CIRCLES method

All methods or frameworks come with their pros & cons and the CIRCLES method is not immune to this.

However, since it’s highly sequential in nature, it can result in robotic responses with ample emphasis on memory aid to remember the 7 steps. 

Alternatively, the CIRCLES method can be distilled and reduced to 3 simple stages which can help to crystalize & document the response in a much more engaging, flexible & innovative manner. 

The CIRCLES method can be refined into 3 major steps (a.k.a Semi-CIRCLES)

  1. C → Analyze & understand the problem statement 
  2. IRCLE → Elaborate & assess solutions 
  3. S → Propose a solution 
Semi-Circles method / framework

This 3-step, method is a framework that provides a condensed, overarching edge for your solution approach.

Key Benefits of CIRCLES method in Product Management

Let’s understand the key benefits:

  • Equip PMs with an organized & structured method for problem-solving.
  • It motivates PMs to be observant & patient while working through the framework’s steps rather than focusing entirely on the solution approach. 
  • Provides product managers with a standardized method of evaluating the context of product design, including limitations, goals, target users and requirements.
  • The exhaustive nature of the method ensures that PMs don’t omit any critical aspect.
  • It helps PMs train themselves to focus on user feedback,  product features, execution, prioritization, and the product roadmap.
  • It contributes to the PM’s skillset of managing and understanding the diverse set of stakeholders & recommending a solution in a coherent & persuasive manner. 

Also Check: Product Roadmap Presentation: Examples and Templates


The CIRCLES method, favoured by product managers, prioritizes user-centred product design to bridge the organization-user gap.

It streamlines product development into manageable phases, enabling comprehensive exploration and risk reduction.

It ensures that you aren’t rushing into solutions & giving due justice to the approach as well.

Capture user feedback easily. Get more insights and make confident product decisions.

Microsurveys by Usersnap

Getting feedback has never been easier and we hope you’ve realized that after reading this article. Let us know what you think, your feedback is important.

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