How to Ace Your PM Interview with the CIRCLES Method

5 min read

Learn how the CIRCLEs method allows you to answer product design questions more thoughtfully and impress interviewers.

Frank L.
Frank L.
Published October 1, 2021

The role of a product manager is to identify user needs and prioritize features in the product that will meet those expectations. It’s why companies that are recruiting will ask you design questions during PM interviews to test your ability to solve challenges, pitch a solution, and bring a product vision to life.

The CIRCLES method ensures that product managers don’t jump straight to solutions before fully understanding the problem of a product design question. It does so by helping you take into account the context of the question, potential obstacles, your user’s needs, and identifying solutions to meet those expectations.

What Is the CIRCLES Method?

Circles Method in a Nutshell

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The CIRCLES method is a framework that product managers can use to respond thoughtfully to any design question. It’s a method developed by Lewis C. Lin. CIRCLES is an acronym in which each letter stands for the first word of the step and explains what you should do to answer the question posed to you:

  1. Comprehend the situation
  2. Identify the customer
  3. Report the customer’s needs
  4. Cut through prioritization
  5. List solutions
  6. Evaluate tradeoffs
  7. Summarize your recommendations

According to Allen Yang, former PM at Google, interviewers use product design questions in PM interviews to “gauge your ability to think about a new or potential products critically — about who its target users are, about what needs those users have, and about how the product satisfies those needs.”

How to Use the CIRCLES Method To Answer Interview Questions

During PM interviews, companies want to see how well you can articulate a product vision, prioritize use cases, and overcome limited resources. The CIRCLES method gives you a framework that allows you to showcase all these traits by taking the design question into full context. Here’s how to think through an interview question using the CIRCLES method:

1. Comprehend the Situation

A product manager should seek to gather as much information as possible about a design question. During this stage, it’s a good time to ask as many questions as you want to understand the context better: Who is the product for? What problem is the product trying to solve?

Let’s say you have to answer the following product design question: "How would you design an accommodation-rental app such as Airbnb?” Here are some questions you can ask the interviewer to comprehend the situation:

  • What is the average age range of the customers we’re targeting? What is their income?
  • Why are they looking for this type of alternative booking platform instead of traditional hotels or hostels?
  • What process will our customers go through to book their accommodation via our platform?

If for whatever reason, the interviewer doesn’t answer your questions, you can make assumptions instead. Even if they disagree, it’s the start of a conversation to better understand the product.

2. Identify the Customer

The next step is to identify the customer you want to reach. That’s going to consist of finding information such as their demographics, challenges, goals, income level, etc. For example, here’s what our ideal customer will look like for our accommodation-rental app:

“We’re targeting tourists and travelers from the ages of 18 to 60 who want to experience a new country in a unique way by living like a local. They travel around three to five times per year and are either middle class or upper class.”

3. Report Customer’s Needs

“Report customer needs” means to identify what the customer wants to achieve with your product and the problems they want to solve. You can use the user story format to detail this information as follows:

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*“As a [type of user], I want/need to [perform an action] so that [the intended result].”*

In the case of our accommodation app, we can say that our customer’s needs are: the ability to book a rental based on specific limitations, a way to book rentals in other countries without speaking that country’s language, and viewing previous reviews on an accommodation.

4. Cut Through Prioritization

To cut through prioritization means to rank which user need you want to solve first in the product roadmap. You can prioritize user stories based on their impact on revenue, customer satisfaction, and how hard it will be to implement features that meet those needs.

To prioritize your user stories, you can use a grading score from A to F to rate them and a GPA as an overall score. For example, here’s how we can prioritize the user stories that we listed above for our accommodation rental app:

Cut Through Prioritization

Sometimes, you won’t have the time to go through each user story during the interview. In this case, you need to discuss only the top priority stories you listed.

5. List Solutions

Start listing solutions for each user story you created. These solutions must be features you can include in the product that will solve your customer’s needs. For example, here are the solutions that we can propose to meet the user stories of our accommodation-rental app:

List Solutions

Keep in mind that it’s possible to list more than one solution for each user story. It all depends on how complex the customer’s needs are.

6. Evaluate Tradeoffs

After listing your solutions, evaluate the tradeoffs of each solution. It involves thinking about the benefits of each solution, along with the potential constraints that could get in the way of building this solution.

For example, including a rating system as part of your accommodation app allows users to look at reviews from previous guests on a booking so they know what to expect. However, it could lead to cases where users drop dishonest reviews to claim refunds or hurt the reputation of a host, which comes with the need for a moderation feature.

7. Summarize Recommendation

The last step is to summarize everything you discussed during the interview. During this stage, Lin recommends simply telling which features you think are best for the product, how it solves the user’s needs, and why you’d prioritize them over others.

Are There Other Times When the CIRCLES Method Is Useful?

Next time you confront a complex product design question during a PM interview, you can use the CIRCLES method to clearly explain your case. That said, there are other situations where using the CIRCLES method will be helpful as well.

For example, part of a product manager’s role will be to engage with stakeholders and explain the reasoning behind each of your product feature ideas. The CIRCLES method allows you to explain why a specific feature can improve the product experience and help achieve company goals.

If you and your team are feeling lost over which features to prioritize during development, you can go back to the CIRCLES method. It avoids wasting time on unimportant tasks and helps you deliver value to the customer much faster.

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