A Minefield of Assumptions

Designing for real problems without creating more of them

“We need an app!”

These can be complicated words to hear from our clients. Substitute “app” for brand, website, billboard — you name it — and it doesn’t get less complicated.

As designers, we often create a problem in the way that we respond to this declaration. Our gut response to this statement is often, “Well, when do you need it?” Or, even worse: “What’s your budget?”

But the right response is so simple:

“What do you need it for?”

We should make our phrasing a bit more professional than that, but the heart of the matter lies in that question. To succeed in building a product that solves our clients’ problems, we have to know what their problems are.

It seems so obvious, yet time and experience in the field often lead us to comfort and complacency. I’m afraid that our industry has become far too complacent. Perhaps this comes from our desire for approval from our peers or from an overemphasis on aesthetic impact. I fear that we often glamorize the design process — a process that at times looks quite ugly and chaotic. Case studies can create an echo chamber of success stories rather than demonstrate the actual hard work of design. By whitewashing the dirty work, we can create the illusion that design is always easy, sexy, and frictionless. Regardless of the contributing factors, those Instagram shots of whiteboards and sticky notes are only as useful as the work they are doing to solve actual problems for real people.

Many of our clients come to us with amorphous, abstract ideas. Many more come to us with detailed ideas about how to solve a problem that is a moving target itself. I’ve come to learn that the value a designer brings isn’t aesthetic or even strategic: We bring the value of designation. It’s where our title comes from. Helping our client make critical decisions about what they are trying to achieve with their product is our key role. The process of fulfilling this role will naturally meander through strategy and aesthetics, but the role itself is primarily one of designation.

There are thousands upon thousands of apps, websites, and consumer products promising to make our lives better. But have we ever stopped to ask ourselves: Are they solving a real problem or creating one to solve?


A love/hate relationship

Designers love to hate problems. They also hate to love problems. But we’re in the problem business: We’re paid to solve them. Most of us have some buttoned-up version of this statement in our job descriptions. Whether the language involves “innovative solutions” or “problem-solving ninja skills,” the equation is easy to formulate:

Client + Problem(s) + Designer = Solution(s)

We typically know a little bit about problems at the start of a project. We use language like “discovery” or “kickoff” to denote the phases in which we explore what exactly that problem is. These phases can be challenging for designers because of our eagerness to start on the visual design. At other times, because of our experience, we may think we already know the problem. Assumptions in the beginning are like landmines we’re waiting to discover later. Although the equation above is quite simple, the approach to arriving at the solution can be quite complex.

Who can be blamed for the complexity? The harsh reality is that it’s often designers who are responsible for making the process complicated. Although it’s convenient and fun to point the finger at the people we’re serving, it is far more difficult, humbling work to acknowledge when we’re creating the very problems we’re trying to fix.


Is this problem real?

There’s no shortage of problems to be solved. However, when these problems become so detached from the people impacted by them, we are in danger of creating our own problems to iron out. Even worse, we can project artificial predicaments onto our clients when we lack the proper posture.

Helping our clients refine and then describe the problems they are seeking to alleviate is the most important aspect of our jobs. I’d argue that we’ve utterly failed if we implement a vision that has no focus. Detailed focus should always include who the product is serving and what we’re helping them do.

In a market saturated with seemingly infinite ideas, it is tempting to fabricate new problems rather than truly hear from the folks most affected by the hardship. As designers, we often have an inherent restlessness: We’re desperate to improve the world around us; we have hypersensitivity to the processes at play. These are important characteristics for our work. This disposition often fuels innovation, but it can also tempt us to invent roadblocks that real folks aren’t experiencing.

I’ve found myself becoming a grumpy designer when I encounter tech that just makes things more complicated. At a recent Airbnb stay, I quickly became frustrated with the app, which was intended to control the lock to the front door. Although this software solution promised ease, security, and fewer spare keys for hosts, for the user, it created another barrier that could have been alleviated by having a physical, tangible solution (a key). Standing in the cold rain while holding my daughter and trying to get the app to load wasn’t exactly an ideal scenario. Too often, I cling to technology that promises to keep me more connected, organized, and rested. Instead, these high-tech solutions often just cajole me into rejecting the quicker, more efficient, and more satisfying analog option.


The first step is admitting you’ve got a problem.

So, how do we decipher whether we’re designing for real-world problems or creating them out of thin air or laziness?

Here are some tips to point us toward asking the right questions at the beginning of a project, leading us and our clients in a better direction.


TL;DR

  1. Start with the hard questions: Have courage; attack these first.
  2. Make time for real talk with real people: The final product will impact real people in real places, so the best approach is always to hear directly from them.
  3. You cannot solve what you do not know: Embrace research; allow all solutions to form from your deep familiarity with context.
  4. The solution may not be sexy: Opt for the correct solution over the sexy one; rejoice when those two things are the same.

1. Start with the hard questions.

When we begin a project, our default attitude is often to go after the low-hanging fruit. While starting with the small things can check off a lot on our to-do lists, it can easily turn into us punting the hardest questions for later.

Instead, start off with the big, difficult questions. There may be a proposed solution embedded in our clients’ requests, but don’t assume it’s foolproof. Before any tactical work is done, don’t be afraid to ask:

“Is _______________ the right solution for this problem?”

If the answer is a resounding “no,” don’t freak out. We’re now in an excellent position to guide clients to the right solution and allow them to collaborate in the design process.

Tangible exercise #1: Try identifying the hard questions as a means for collaboration with your clients at the very beginning of your design process. It’s perfectly OK to tell them that’s what you’re doing. As Brené Brown would say, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.” There’s no weakness in asking difficult questions, only maturity.

2. Make time for real talk with real people.

The final product will impact real people in real places, so the best approach is to hear directly from them. It seems so obvious, but this step often becomes a neglected approach because humans can be quite inefficient creatures.

Don’t allow focus groups and hearing from the audience to become another passive project milestone. Spend time thoughtfully processing the outcomes of these meetings. We can often be surprised by solutions that are right under our noses. I’ve spent many an hour dreaming up the perfect solution that a real person reacts to with: “Yeah, that’s great, but I really just needed _______________.”

Tangible exercise #2: Talk with as many people as you can. At the beginning of the process, let the client guide you in identifying who those folks are. Get excited by responses like, “Oh, you should talk to Susan about that…” Those who are affected directly by the product are a wellspring of feedback that can and should direct your ideation.

3. You cannot solve what you do not know.

Take the time to research with and on behalf of clients. This can sound like a tired refrain from the analytical mind to the aesthetic one, but it’s true. We cannot accurately approach a problem we do not understand. Don’t stop with learning everything you can about the organizations you’re serving: Go further, and learn everything you can about their audience. Quality research makes the user profiles we create exponentially better than the assumptions we bring to the table.

Tangible exercise #3: If research isn’t your strong suit, learn from someone who has a knack for it. As designers, we will always feel most comfortable with the visual aspect of our discipline; it’s most likely what got us into it in the first place. But we must learn how to research well. This will take time, and yet there’s no better time to start exercising this muscle than at the start of a project.

4. The solution may not be sexy.

Are you sitting down for this? Sometimes the sexiest solution isn’t the right solution. The problem itself is usually not cool or fun, but remember: That’s the work. It is tempting to inject our deepest dreams and desires into the design process: that new illustration style, our favorite color pairing, that fresh typeface we’re into. Always check these temptations against the project’s goals. Sometimes the paths of sexy and correct will organically converge, but when they just don’t fit, that’s OK. Opt for the correct solution over the sexy one, and rejoice when those two things are the same.

Tangible exercise #4: Be mindful of the inspiration you digest while preparing for a new design exercise. Inspiration is a crucial aspect of design, and it’s necessary to evaluate the landscape and pull from proven paths. However, sometimes we can latch onto ideas that are perfect for another application but not the one in front of us.

A better way is possible. It will take more effort. It may not be as efficient. It may even cost more money. However, it could lead to a more focused, rich collaboration with the people we are serving. Responsible design teaches us that there are real people in real places in real time behind everything we create.

Let’s strive to solve real problems — not create new ones to solve.


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