Frustration―Not All Pain Is Created Equal


An Actionable Definition for “Frustration”

Frustration is when …

Someone has a very important goal that needs to be achieved, or task that needs to be accomplished.  But there is one or more barrier(s) to them achieving their goal which they feel is out of their control.  This results in a combination of helplessness and anger, which we recognize as frustration.

So how do you act on this?  You should set out to understand your customers’ specific goals.  You also want to find out what they see as barriers to achieving those goals.  Eventually, you want to provide a solution that eliminates any feelings of helplessness and instead makes them feel empowered.  We will touch on learning about goals and barriers in this blog post, and save empowerment (and it’s actionable definition) for a later post.

Being stuck in rush hour traffic is a great example of a frustrating situation that most of us can relate to. Have you ever been in the situation where you needed to make an important appointment and you thought you left enough time for the drive? But once you got on the road, you found an infinitely long barrier of cars between you and your destination.  All moving at a pace that was certainly going to make you late.  Breaking it down:

  • Goal: get to important appointment on time
  • Barrier: slow pace due to road being clogged with too many cars
  • Helplessness: there is little you can do to move all those cars out of your way
  • Anger: let’s do our best to keep road-rage in check

Why Is Frustration So Important?

Your end goal is to deliver successful products that your customers love.  This requires deliberate effort on your part from start to finish.  Identifying customer frustration is the first and arguably the most important step in this process.  The success of everything else that you will do is dependent on you getting this right.

The best emotional reaction your customer can have for your solution is limited by their emotional reaction to the problem it solves.


Be aware that if you do a fantastic job of solving a problem that customers really don’t care about, they probably won’t even notice.  But if you solve one of their top-of-mind frustrations, you’ll be their hero.  So if you want customers to rave about your solution, it is a requirement that you uncover their real frustrations.  And as you can see in the graphic, an inconvenience is not a frustration.  It might even be helpful to put the customer pains you know about on the scale shown in the graphic.  It would be even better to have customers put the pain points on the scale for you.


How Do You Uncover Your Customers’ Frustration?

Just ask. You need to get out there (or at least on the phone) and talk to your customers.  Surveys might be useful later, especially when you want to validate what you have learned from interviews.  But in this discovery phase, not only do you want to hear their words, but you also want to experience any emotion in their voices, facial expressions, and body language.  During your interviews, you aren’t necessarily looking for the things that are most frequent.  You are instead looking for strong emotional reactions, both good and bad, to anything being discussed.  This is when you need to pay the most attention.

Interviewing: This is a huge topic that entire careers are dedicated to.  I want to touch on some high-level tools you can use to have a good and productive conversation with customers.  You want to understand their goals, needs, processes, and frustrations.  That’s a lot, but you will benefit from having as many interviews as possible with different customers.  

  • Start with really easy questions for them to answer.  “How long in the job?”; “Products they produce?”; “Typical tasks they perform?” This gets the conversation rolling in an effortless way.
  • Keep it very open ended, at least in the beginning.  Let the customer talk about what is important to them before you direct them to talk about what is important to you.
  • Listen, listen, listen!!! When you are done, not only do you want to understand your customer’s needs and frustrations, but you also want them to feel listened to. You can’t listen when you are talking.  It is NOT important that you demonstrate your understanding of their industry, job, or problems.  Please keep the need to do this in check.
  • Try to capture actual customer quotes. This helps to make the information you capture and later present more authentic.
  • Give them permission to talk about things seemingly outside your area of interest.  Being thoughtful, customers will typically just talk about the things that they think are relevant to you.  You can sort out the relevance later.  You should explicitly invite them to broaden the scope of what they are talking about.  We are starting out by casting a wide net.

Example interview questions. Note that these are phrased for a business context, but they are just as applicable for a person’s personal life.

  • “What is the most frustrating part of your job? Are there daily, weekly, and/or monthly events that you just dread?  Please elaborate.”
  • “Is there any part of your job that you wish you could eliminate? Why?”
  • “What are the most important things you must accomplish and/or deliver? Pleas elaborate on the tasks. What goes well and badly during the process?”
  • “What are the things that get in the way of you accomplishing your important goals and tasks?  How do they get in your way?  Which of these do you have control over, and which of these do you not?”
  • “What is the best part of your job?  Please elaborate?”
  • “What tasks do you wish you could do more of as part of your job?  Why?”

These last two questions are focused on helping you to understanding what the good things in their job look (and feel) like.  You may use these insights to help set the bar for your solution.  A bar that you will not only reach, but hopefully exceed.


Wrap up with an elevator pitch

Frustration = Opportunity.  Given the frustration you have identified and your understanding of your customer, can you create a two-minute or shorter description of the opportunity you have uncovered?  This will be helpful as you try to sell the idea to your management, recruit potential product team members, and establish early team alignment.  Try to identify who has the frustration, what the frustration is, the cause, and the situation in which this occurs.  Try to keep this high level, and not focused on a specific function or task.

Do NOT get into a description of the solution yet.  If you do this, you run the risk on only seeing incremental solutions and missing any real opportunity for innovation.  More on this in a later post.

When we first uncovered the frustrations that led to the SolidWorks eDrawings product, the elevator pitch could have gone like this …

“Communicating their designs is one of the top responsibilities all engineers have.  But they get very frustrated when they attempt to send design files to other engineers, especially those who work for other companies.  The problem is that different companies use different CAD systems or different versions of the same system.  This makes their design files incompatible.  CAD files are also typically too large to email over typical internet connections.”

It was this understanding that led to a product that customers used and shared with great enthusiasm for over a decade.  

Now it’s your turn …

  • Do you agree or disagree with this approach?
  • Do you have a relevant experience to share?
  • Can you identify any important frustrations in your space?
  • Do you want to take a stab at an elevator pitch for a frustration/opportunity?
  • I want to hear what you really think!


[Editor's note: This was originally posted on Rick's peronal blog, Absurdley Ideal. Rick will cross-post entries to the SolidWorks blog from time to time.]

25+ year veteran of the CAD industry. Helped conceive and deliver DS SolidWorks products such as eDrawings, FeatureXpert, FilletXpert, DraftXpert, Sustainability, and Augmented Reality in eDrawings. My mission is to come up with new product ideas which are inspired by needs that REALLY matter to technology users.