Problem Definition to Business Drivers

This is part 1 of (unknown) of my elaboration on the UX evolution post I wrote a few days ago.

Traditionally, designers tend to obsess over problem definition (or at least should- I am always pained when a design candidate jumps to the solution without framing the problem in an interview). When asked to design for an experience- travel planning, e-commerce checkout, reminder system, email, CRM- the infinite screens and experiences humans have to navigate in today’s times; the one fundamental question the design team should be asking itself is — what are we solving for? In other words, what’s the problem?

Because framing the problem is key. If we don’t ask the right questions, we are likely to solve the wrong problem.

And thus starts the design journey of trying to define the problem. We get initial inputs from our stakeholders- product management representing business, user researchers, and engineers to kick things off. Typical problems have many (now standard) categories- acquisition, conversion, awareness, adoption, navigation, scaling- ultimately boiling down to saying something like we know users today see X but don’t take action Y. We want to change that because it drives business. Sure. But, is it a business driver?

An example would be, we know today users today add items to their bag but can delay checking out for as long as a year. Conversion problem that is supposedly solved with an email reminder solution. So we purchase an email campaign solution that sends out such reminders, design the email template & copy, start firing off these emails and measure the sales numbers. This might “drive business” because there’s a 2% lift in checkout. But is this piece actually a business driver? This solution is under the assumption that this will solve the bag to checkout problem. There might be an uptick but it doesn’t solve for the real customer behavior. We havent’ defined what the problem is here in terms of the customer behavior, only what competitors do. What if customers actually don’t notice these emails that their gmail account files under the “promotions” tab? What if it actually turns off your about to convert customers because they liked your no-pressure site experience? I digress. There are plenty problems with simply going after a number that indicates more sales because it “drives more business”- its a quick fix and misses the opportunity of understanding how customers like to consume the value your business is trying to deliver to them.

Back to the problem definition- design team has its inputs and they typically generate a bunch of questions. We formulate a research agenda, look at past data, examine competitors, get educated on the technical limitations we have on hand, create prototypes or A/B tests or both- all in an effort to understand real life behavior and answer the primary question of — is this a real problem?

Great if we have the time and resources to establish that. Not so great if the team is ordered to just solve it. Either way, the design team will then typically formulate the problem statement, and state the objectives, the constraints and identify themes the solution candidates should adhere to. All this happens under the assumption that solving this problem helps the business. We haven’t even gotten to the divergent-convergent (or double diamond) sketching/solution exercises, stakeholder reviews, testing and iteration piece of the process.

All of it is hard work. To get to an elegant design solve which delights customers and meets the business needs.

But what if it this human centered problem definition process was applied to the actual business driver of selling products online? What if the business is a high end furniture retailer where customers only typically buy one item at time. What’s the point of having a shopping bag at that point, why not purchase straight from the product page? But before we go there, what really is the business driver here?

Let me be bit more clear on what I mean by a business driver. These are fundamental levers that a business has which helps it grow, earn revenue or stay relevant/current. Drivers further the core value proposition of a business. From my own experience, business value propositions tend to be things like exclusivity, savings, assortment, convenience, efficiency etc. These words could mean very different things depending on the company and the industry- exclusivity might mean proprietary innovative solution in the enterprise software industry (Splunk, Docker, VMWare etc.) or it could mean differentiated/uniquely branded offerings in the luxury retail industry (Barney’s NY, Net-A-Porter, Saks Fifth Avenue). Each of these businesses will actually do all they can to uphold this exclusivity value proposition. And from there will be born there business drivers. These drivers will really depend on the founder, their philosophies and the culture they’ve created which determines how they “play the game”. For instance, one business may look at being exclusive by selling clothes only from niche or brand new designers whereas a competitor could be playing exclusive by having exclusive partnerships with established designers. In the former case, a business driver could be discovery & on boarding of up and coming designers, in the later case the driver could be a bi-annual showcasing event.

As costs of starting a new business fall, capital backing new business models increases and the sheer number of new, competing business models increases, the established players have to work harder in maintaining their value propositions or effectively counter the contemporary ones; the new players have to work harder to differentiate their own new models. Just how can businesses on either end of the spectrum do that?

Back to my earlier point of designers helping frame the problem first. Picking a business direction, discovering a value proposition or delivering the value proposition in quality are all essentially a problem of framing and foresight. Both of which, qualified and quality designers should be great at.

Designers going forward need a deeper understanding of where business drivers originate from and what directions they can be taken in to. Both questions have similar traits to how a problem should be defined or framed. Start with the customer and apply more of the “what if’s?” , the “how might we’s?” and the “why’s?” to truly understand your businesses value proposition and drivers first (and often) instead of building or executing expensive operations/logistics/acquisition/technology/business processes/hiring/re-structuring activities. Those are questions we use to formulate research agendas, inquiry through prototypes etc. Which means the landscape of problem definition needs to expand wider and in some cases deeper.

Involve your design team to apply customer centered processes in discovering or defining your business driver in the larger context. It will turn out to be cheaper, smarter and most critically- usable- both by your staff and your customer.

Product and Design in San Francisco. Creator of design led feature film @fhtgmovie . Now streaming netflix.com/title/80176707.

Product and Design in San Francisco. Creator of design led feature film @fhtgmovie . Now streaming netflix.com/title/80176707.