GUIDE 2024

What is the CIRCLES Method?

Interested in learning what the CIRCLES method is? Well, you’re in the right place!

Today, the CIRCLES method has become the go-to framework of choice for product managers looking to resolve the challenge of building successful product designs. 

The data speaks for itself. According to data from Hubspot, as many as 66% of customers expect companies to fully grasp their needs and propose real solutions to their pain points. 

Since product design plays a pivotal role in resolving a customer’s pain points, the burden falls on product managers to create those experiences for their target audiences.

The CIRCLE method is one such framework that guides the decision-making process for product managers during the product lifecycle and increases the likelihood of building a successful product design. 

In today’s article, we define the CIRCLES methods, explain its importance for product managers, and elaborate on some of its additional functions, not only as a tool for product design but also as a tool when answering product interview questions. 

Let’s dive in. 


What is the Purpose of the CIRCLES Method?

The CIRCLES Method is a framework that aids product managers in devising concise and comprehensive responses to product design questions. In doing so, the framework provides a structure that product professionals follow to approach problems that crop up in product design and find consistent, adequate solutions to each one. 

The CIRCLES Method is an acronym whose letters represent the total process that product managers go through when employing the framework. The process consists of the following seven principles: 

  • Comprehending a given situation
  • Identifying the customer at hand
  • Reporting that customer’s needs
  • Cutting down to what matters most
  • Listing possible solutions
  • Evaluating potential tradeoffs
  • Summarizing the recommendations put forward

Let’s take a closer look at each of these principles in detail. 


Essential Elements of the CIRCLES Method

Let us proceed to break down each of the steps in the CIRCLES method.

  1. Comprehend a Given Situation

This step allows product managers to contextualize a scenario and form an understanding of the various elements at play. In a product management setting, this question helps you gauge a situation and lay the foundation that allows you to come up with plausible solutions to possible problems. In the context of a product manager interview, this question enables you to approach design questions from a level-headed, logical point of view.

There are various techniques that product managers employ during this initial step to gain a better understanding of a given situation. However, one of the most popular ones is to ask yourself the ‘5 W’s and H questions.’ These are as follows: 

  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? 

Of these six questions, the most pertinent ones for product managers to answer are the ‘why’, ‘who’, ‘what’, and ‘how’ questions. These questions tend to provide the most context when it comes to defining constraints and goals for a given project. 

2. Identify the Customer

In this step, product managers seek to discover as much about their target audience as possible. This is a crucial step since product managers must have a clear understanding of who they’re selling to before they even pitch a product design.

Once again, product managers rely on various tools to frame their understanding of their target audience. 

User personas are a popular tool since they allow product managers to create archetypes that represent the needs, expectations, and wants of their users. Each user persona represents a specific subset within a market segmentation so allow PMs to differentiate between different market needs. 

An empathy map is another tool that product managers leverage to gain a deeper understanding of their users. 

These 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. 

3. Report a Customer’s Needs

Once you’ve identified your customer’s personality traits, characteristics, and desires, it’s now time to translate them into customer needs. This process results in the creation of use cases or user requirements, both of which are high-level product documentation that dictates what the user needs in a simple, straightforward way. 

It is up to the product manager to decide the format and length of how they document a customer’s needs. Some PMs prefer longer, more detailed sentences or paragraphs while some prefer to keep it to a maximum of one or two sentences. 

All in all, the end goal is to translate your knowledge of your customer into concise insights that describe their needs in the clearest way possible. 

4. Cutting Down to What Matters

This step is all about focusing on what truly matters for product development. In doing so, it involves studying the customer needs you’ve identified and singling out those that your team must prioritize during the design and development processes. 

Each PM has its own method of determining what to prioritize. However, most times, they balance factors such as revenue, cost of execution, user experience, and feasibility, among others, in order to determine where they must focus their energies to deliver the right solution to their target audience. 

5. List Possible Solutions

This step in the CIRCLES method aims at identifying possible solutions for the prioritized customer needs. 

Here, product managers come up with a minimum of three possible solutions to satisfy the customer’s needs. 

There are a plethora of methods that PMs use to come up with those solutions. Brainstorming is one of the most common ones that PMs resort to in order to help them generate possible solutions. 

6. Evaluate Potential Tradeoffs

Each solution you come up with has its advantages and its drawbacks.

At this stage, product managers scrutinize these advantages and drawbacks to determine which one is the best one to get the job done from an objective point of view.

Summarize Recommendation

Once you’ve identified the solution, the CIRCLES method calls for you to recap the process you’ve gone through and restate the solution you’ve proposed. 

Reviewing your process in retrospect gives you the opportunity to judge whether the conclusions you drew are sound and justify the recommendation you’ve put forward. 


What are the Benefits of Applying the CIRCLES Method in Product Management?

The CIRCLES method is applicable to any design and improvement task.

Here are some of the key benefits it provides:

  • Gives PMs an organized framework for addressing product design 
  • Offers product managers a structured way of evaluating the context of product design, its constraints, parameters, and requirements 
  • Minimizes the likelihood of a PM missing an important product design detail
  • Helps product managers stay focused on user needs and prioritize  product features in line with them
  • Allows product managers to take into account all critical factors in product design, compare potential solutions, and identify the best option that matches all specific requirements


The History of the CIRCLES Method

Author and product leader Lewis C. Lin developed the CIRCLES Method and included it in his book The Product Manager Interview released in 2017.

That said, in an earlier Impact Interview released in 2016, Lewis had already documented the CIRCLES method, presenting it as a product design framework that helps PMs approach design-related questions the right way in interviews. 

At the time, he expounded on the meaning of each step within the seven-step process, emphasizing that the ‘comprehending the situation’ phase required a three-pronged approach: 

  1. Clarifying the end goal: Here, PMs must relate the need for a change in product design to an outcome, be it increased market revenue, greater customer engagement, or higher client retention, among others.)
  2. Understanding the constraints: This step involves figuring out the length of time you have to deal with a problem, the number of resources available to you, and the limitations or setbacks you have to face during the project lifecycle. 
  3. Understanding context: The last task in this initial step is to gain as much relevant knowledge of the project as possible. This includes clarifying validating or debunking any assumptions you already have to gain a clear and objective understanding of the situation at hand. 

Since its introduction to the product management world, PMs have embraced the CIRCLES method as a useful tool to approach product design questions from a clear and objective vantage point. 



The CIRCLES method is a popular framework that PMs use to approach product design from a concise and objective point of view. 

Since its introduction in 2016, candidates applying for a position as a product manager use it to increase their chances of providing the right response to product design questions in product interviews. 

As product management continues to evolve, new and innovative frameworks emerge. 

However, the popularity and the success of the CIRCLES method thus far suggest that it is here to stay on the product management scene for a long time. 



What is a product management framework?

A product management framework is a methodology that details the steps a company must follow to approach a given product management phase. PM frameworks serve to reduce the time it takes to deliver high-quality products.

What is a prioritization framework?

A prioritization framework is a method that provides standardized criteria that allow product teams to prioritize or rank features based on value. Prioritization frameworks help you make better strategic decisions, reduce bias, and eliminate analysis paralysis.

What is the CIRCLES Method?

The CIRCLES method is a comprehensive approach to structuring your thought process so that you create the best design solutions possible. It offers an exhaustive set of steps leading to understanding the context, constraints, customers, requirements, and prioritization criteria. 

Josh Fechter
Josh Fechter
Josh Fechter is the co-founder of Product HQ, founder of Technical Writer HQ, and founder and head of product of Squibler. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.