Chronic vs. Acute Pain Points

Assessing Pain Points

The product manager’s quest to build what users need is centered on understanding their pain points. These pain points are experiences which motivate users to use your product. The pain of moving from point A to point B motivates a user to take an Uber instead of the bus, while hunger and convenience motivates users to get take-out instead of cooking their own groceries. Day-to-day product management is usually more granular, but the general ideal holds. You study the pain point, become an expert in the targeted use case, build a viable solutions to the pain point, then market your solution.

It’s never really that simple and one of the toughest parts of product strategy is analyzing pain points to understand what value can be gained from solving them, then applying this insight to product strategy. One of the first categorizations you can assess when looking at pain points is the duration of the experience. Short, infrequent but severe pain points can be labeled as acute. Frequent or constant low-grade pain points are chronic.  

A representation of how acute and chronic pain points are experienced across time. 

Pain Point High-Level Pain Low-Level-Pain
Constant Chronic
Occasional Acute

Chronic pain points will often be described as little annoyances. I’ve heard users start describing pain points with “You know what drives me nuts?…” then point out a situation that is frequent enough that they have noticed it multiple times, but not so bad that they’ve adjusted their workflow. Acute pains are the answer when you ask your users “what keeps you up at night?” (in the context of the problem your software solves, of course). A common example from enterprise software is often data validation and quality assurance – your users may someday be held personally accountable for their decisions based on your product.

If you have a constant, high-level pain point expect great success if you solve it. However, these are usually tough problems and there are either workarounds that are good enough or people simply don’t attempt them. An example I put in this category is user authentication. It is an ubiquitous and constant pain point which can be fairly high-level. However there are good-enough solutions such as single sign on, password managers, and bog standard password reset which alleviate most of the pain.

Prioritizing Chronic and Acute Pain Points

When Apple announced the iPhone 7 would have no headphone jack it caused consternation (and memes). Much of the technology press explained the change as a way to sell more expensive bluetooth headphones by eliminating the use of cheaper wired headphones except through an adapter, or as a beneficial innovation that would improve sound quality (Forbes, 2016).

However, product managers know these decisions are not clearcut and involve tradeoffs. While I have no special insight into the decision making process in Cupertino, from the outside it appears that Apple’s iPhone product management is prioritizing chronic pain points when it comes to headphones. While tangled cords and sound quality seem trivial, they’re chronic pain points the user experiences on every single use. The pain points associated with wireless headphones – the need to recharge the batteries and expensive replacement costs –  are acute.

Regular Headphones High-Level Pain Low-Level-Pain
Constant Tangled cords, wrapping cord for storage, worse sounds quality
Occasional No batteries, inexpensive

Wireless Headphones High-Level Pain Low-Level-Pain
Constant No tangled cords, quick storage, improved sound quality
Occasional Need to recharge batteries, expensive

This acute-chronic dichotomy doesn’t have a “right” solution in every case. Instead it is an important component to understanding pain points and through user feedback, testing, and experimentation the best strategy for your product can be determined.