I’m thirsty vs. get me some water

The cognitive challenges of thinking in requirements, needs, outcomes and benefits vs. solutions

I’m the lucky father of two young boys. Milo is 6 and Luca is 4. Watching and helping them grow is a fascinating exercise as a human and as a designer.

One of the most poignant observations occurred to me a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been reflecting on it ever since.

The designer dad dilemma — give them water or probe them on their needs and desired outcomes?

Luca, the 4 year old, screamed out:

‘i’m thirsty’.

To which my wife and I’s usual response would have been:

‘So what do you want (us to do about it)?’

Or

‘why don’t you just ask for some water?’

Or

‘and so?’

And then I realised...

Although we were trying to instil some self sufficiency. We were also teaching our sons to think in, and demand solutions. Rather than express their needs, their desires or the underlying requirements. Or dare I say it, the outcome they wanted to achieve.

Which is fascinating to me as I’m in an industry that is pedantically and persistently trying to do the opposite.

Describe the outcome. Distil the need. Focus on the impact. Capture requirements not solutions. Focus on benefits not features.

It’s my hypothesis that doing any of these acts is hard for us as humans. And I think our upbringing and our education contribute to this difficulty.

I’m not sure how divergent you could be with possible solutions that fulfill the need of being thirsty. Or if there may be more efficient ways to fulfill thirst with less resources. But if you introduced different solutions to the ‘user/customer/kid’, I’m sure you’d get clearer requirements out.

Fancy a slush puppy? No, takes too long, too sweet. A bath? Not yet. I’m eating. An orange juice? No, too sticky. A pint of lager? No way. No beard for me (Milo calls beer ‘beard’). What about ice cream? Definitely. But I’ll still be thirsty.

Or at least a clearer solution.

No, thanks. I just want water please. Why’s that? I like water, and I just want to quench my thirst as i’m drying up. I don’t want anything fancy yet, but I might do. I also haven’t tried all the other things you mentioned and although I’m sure they are nice for adults. I know you like beer daddy. But I don’t feel like I need so many options right now.

Apart from the fact that there’s no way I’d be able to entertain a conversation like the above with my 6 year old. Let alone my 4 year old. It’s just not the sort of thing we’d be able to cope with in our lives if we had to do it throughout our day. It would be exhausting.

Thinking in solutions, sticking to brands, copying others ideas. It’s easier. It helps us through the day. It’s what comes naturally to us as we try to shortcut the potentially paralysing complexity of choice we’re confronted with.

And so we have to appreciate this when working with people who aren’t well versed in re-framing, abstracting, reflecting, describing. It’s hard. It’s unnatural. It’s exhausting.

And we have to appreciate the power of a solution, or articulation to shortcut this. These shortcut decisions help us get through the day. They helps us cut through the ambiguity. They may distill tens or hundreds of layered or meshed needs. Many contextual considerations. And translate them to something actionable.

But yet, the shortcut action. That obvious thing to do. The fast follow of a competitor. That often isn’t the best thing for a business developing new products and services. We want to get to the abstraction and the framing. So that we can expand our range of possibilities. To find more effective or efficient ways to solve the underlying need. I believe that, as designers, consultants or product people, our rapid development of — or reference to — other solutions is valuable to the innovation process.

I believe that it can help us better uncover the needs, preferences, experiences, requirements and desired outcomes of those we are designing for.

So I think we need to know when to stop with the rhetoric and start making. Recognising how difficult it is as a human to think in the abstract framing that is valuable to innovating. And get to the point of quenching people’s thirst in new ways without being so pedantic about language. Let’s spend the energy elsewhere. It’s tiring for others and ourselves.

And to all the other industry dads out here, be a dad first, a pedantic outcomes focused designer/consultant/product person second.

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