I rolled out of bed and joined my design thinking class over zoom, the new tri-weekly routine as a college student in 2020. My professor starts talking about our team’s goals for the week as I rub the sleep out of my eyes. “Finding balance in student’s lives” was the first thing that stuck in my newly waken brain. My team’s Slack thread suddenly blew up with questions, and hands were raised all around asking the professor to expand on the new, vague topic. He left us with a smile and off we were. I talked to Ben Willis, a SR UX designer and my biggest mentor, and we got talking about the most important parts of the design process. He explained a situation he had at one of his UX team’s big design blitz’s, where everyone was so willing and excited to get creating, they forgot the biggest step in the creative process: Identifying the problem. He explained that there were so many ideas tackling so many problems that collaboration and framing the design challenge became nearly impossible. Identifying the main problem in a design challenge is the most important part of good design. It saves time, money, and promotes healthy collaboration within design teams.
As the project progressed, miro boards were made, and the work got started. At first, we filled to board with sticky notes saying, “how might we create a tool that can balance student’s lives”. Another read, “how might we create an educational experience that is anxiety-free”. While these sounded great, they seemed so incredibly vague. Meetings later, thinking of everything we could, we finally decided that the anxiety isn’t our problem here. We were looking to solve a completely different problem that was causing anxiety in students. By finding the root problem, we were able to come up with a permanent solution. Hours of zoom calls later, and many discussion boards, we finally used a problem statement to keep our team on the same page, developed an idea for a solution, and ended up very successful in this exercise. I know that my little college class experience isn’t anything profound, but it’s a great example of how identifying the problem can save so much time. The time we spent talking about the solutions without seeing the root problem was minutes and hours we could’ve used to work on prototyping or fleshing out ideas that can improve our solution. Albert Einstien once said,
“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions” -Albert Einstien
Solving the wrong problems can be expensive. If you’re chasing a solution while looking for a problem, you’re going to stray from the focus of the challenge and produce a product without a buyer. In an article written by Dwane Sprawlin for Harvard Business Review, he talks about how crucial it is to solve the right problem. He states,
“How many times have you seen a project go down one path only to realize in hindsight that it should have gone down another? How many times have you seen an innovation program deliver a seemingly breakthrough result only to find that it can’t be implemented or it addresses the wrong problem? Many organizations need to become better at asking the right questions so that they tackle the right problems.
Mr. Sprawlin gives the numbers on how implementing this problem-defining process has improved his success rate at his company. From 2006 to 2011, InnoCentive has had a success rate of 34% grow to 57%. This further proves that inviting teams to focus more on defining problems will bring more profit to the organization.
How many times have we all been to design conferences and hear all these principles of creating and ideating solutions, only to go to the design activity and have twice as many different solutions appear as designers participating? If these conferences had a higher focus on identifying and defining problems, we would all be able to come up with similar solutions, as we’re defining the same root problem. When every designer can individually come up with a similar solution, it validates the solution’s chances of success and proves that the whole team is all working on the same page. When designers are trying to solve two different problems at the same time, we see a conflict of interest and miscommunication. If a team is trying to embrace ambiguity without a clear definition of the problem, the solutions and ideas are going to look like a jumbled mess of half-baked thoughts and tangents. The true way to have the healthiest collaboration and valid ideas is to take time to clarify the problem.
“Great designers don’t fall in love with their solution. Great designers fall in love with the problem” -Jared Spool
All of this talk is great, but let’s cut the fluff. How do designers implement this new problem-definition routine? Through qualitative and quantitative research data mixed with a healthy dose of ethnography. This formula guarantees confidence to proceed with low risk and high reward. Start with a solid problem statement.
By putting oneself in the shoes of the persona their designing for, one can gain more empathy and comprehend all aspects of the design challenge. From there the designer can use the Five Why’s of their process to encourage a deeper level of thinking that allows for a better understanding of the problem. Finally, the designer will take data from research they’ve conducted to validate their own ideas and provide a basis to build a solution.
Engineers used this same process in WWII. They wanted to increase the success rate of bomber planes coming home. They started by mapping out a plane that had returned and marking where there were bullet holes. After doing this to multiple planes, they concluded that the planes with the least damage to the engine bays and the cockpit were more likely to return home safely. From there those critical areas were reinforced, and the success rate went up. As designers, it’s crucial to identify the “bullet holes” in a design challenge so the critical areas can be reinforced and supported.
“If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution” -Steve Jobs
As this quote perfectly explains, the more time spent on understanding the problem, the closer one is to a solution. By implementing a problem-defining process, organizations will see the time saved, money made, and happier teams. By creating a problem statement, supporting it with deep questions and solid datasets, better solutions can be created and innovation can thrive.