Solve for X

An Analytical Approach to Experience Design

Challenge: Solve the following equation without googling…

Were you able to do it?

Did you cheat?

Did you just keep scrolling and assume that I would eventually show the answer?

Well if you did attempt to solve the equation, there’s a good chance that at some point you rearranged it to look something like this…

If you remember anything about algebra, you might recall that the goal when attempting to solve an equation is to consolidate the things that you know and isolate the one thing that you don’t know: X.

Combining “like terms,” going through the order of operations, all that fun stuff you probably thought you’d never have to hear about again. And yet here we are.

The interesting thing about equations is that if X wasn’t there, this problem would be easy. All you’d have to do is add, subtract, multiply, and divide. But when you throw an unknown in there… now you have a mystery. Now you have to do some work.

And if you’ve done your job correctly, and X is properly isolated. Then, and only then, are you able to just do math (X equals 3, by the way… lazy bum).

When we do this, when we consolidate the things that we know and we isolate what we don’t know, what we really have is a “Solution Space” and a “Problem Space.”

Our answer is X. But our problem is the unique combination of numbers and operations on the other side.

The same is true in Experience Design. The solutions that we craft are born directly from a unique set of people, roles, workflows, environments, dependencies, constraints, technologies, etc.

This is chaos when you first enter a new environment as a designer or design researcher. But through careful investigation and discovery, you begin to uncover something. You start to see patterns, relationships, priorities. You start to uncover a unique equation.

This is the first step in Experience Design; stepping into the chaos and working to uncover the equation. We can’t even begin understand the problem until we first uncover the equation.

Uncovering Equations

So what does that look like in real life? Obviously the equation metaphor is meant as an illustration, but you might be surprised at how well it holds up when we take it a little further. For example, there are two different types of numbers in algebraic equations and they both appear in the original example from before.

Coefficients and Constants; numbers which multiply the unknown, vs. numbers that stand on their own. These are strikingly similar to what I would consider Direct Actors and Indirect Actors in an environment or workflow. Like Coefficients, Direct Actors play an active role in the equation. They have a direct relationship with “X.” Indirect Actors on the other hand play a passive role. Like their mathematical counterpart, they still have an impact on the unknown, just indirectly.

Take Uber for example. Some Direct Actors in that equation might be the driver, the passenger, the credit and bank card companies, even the dispatching logic. But there are also some Indirect Actors that can impact the “Uber Equation.” Traffic Patterns, road closures, weather. Even businesses; the open hours of common destinations, perhaps. Uber has no control over these factors and yet they still have a major impact on the kind of solution that Uber needs to deliver.

When we identify these elements during discovery, we begin to uncover the unique equation of the opportunity before us. It might seem like total chaos at first, but that’s the point. We have to first step into the chaos before we can begin to make sense of it.

Framing Problems

So let’s say we’ve uncovered our equation and we’ve rearranged it to isolate “X” from the things that we know. We have our Solution Space and our Problem Space.

Here’s the critical takeaway… What happens if I change the 7 to a 2 in this equation?

Does X still equal 3? No! We should get a completely different answer for X now.

This is crucial, don’t miss it: Our solutions, whether in algebra or Experience Design, are ENTIRELY dependent on our understanding of the problem. With algebra, our success depends on our ability to break the equation down accurately. The same is true for framing the problem in Experience Design. Our solution is meaningless if we’re not solving the right problem. It sounds silly to point out but it’s so easily missed.

A problem is “A perceived gap between an existing state and a desired state.” In the equation, our “desired state” is one in which the left side is equal to the right. We know it’s possible, it’s just a matter of determining what X needs to be in order make it work. In order to cross the chasm and get to our desired state.

So after we’ve uncovered the equation, that’s when we really get to work. We interview various roles in the context of their workflows. We observe. We analyze. And we do this because we know that there is something missing. There is a solution lurking somewhere in this equation. A new X-perience that will bring balance (tacky, I know. But you’ll remember it). And we draw it out by framing and understanding the problem.

Designing Solutions

Once we’ve clearly framed our solution space and our problem space, the process of actually designing a solution isn’t as black & white as algebra. Instead what you find is that each time you solve for X and you plug it back into the equation to test it, you learn that there is actually more to the equation than you originally thought or observed. And here is where the true maddening beauty of Experience Design lives.


Let’s say I’ve come across this great design opportunity. I just met someone who is in dire need and she says…

“I need something that I can fill with liquid and drink from.”

Simple enough problem space, right? Container. Liquid. Drink. In the back of my mind I might even have a rough idea of what “X” might be …

But I want to understand a little more about this problem. So I say, “Tell me more about this. What kind of things are you going to be drinking? Water? Milkshakes? Tea?”

“Well… I need it for drinking coffee.”

The problem is starting to change a little bit. So my rough idea of X changes with it.

I keep going. “How will you be using this? Just around the house? Or taking it with you when you walk the dog, perhaps?”

“Well… I need it for my hour long commute into work, so I’d like it to keep my coffee hot for a good while.”

“OK… what about volume? Will one cup be enough for your commute? Should it hold more? An hour long commute is a pretty long time…”

“Now that you mention it… It should probably hold about 2 cups.”

I say, “OK I think I have enough to get started. Let me take some time to synthesize this into a prototype and get your feedback.” I return a few days later and present her with X1

And I say, “I think I’ve got a great solution for you. It’s a metal thermos that will keep your coffee hot for hours. It holds 2 cups and it’s also got an easy sip lid, good for using while driving. Just what you need, right?

“Well… I should have clarified. It has to be microwave safe. My Keurig has a tendency to make some lukewarm coffee so I like to microwave my coffee right before I leave.”

The equation just changed. It’s not terribly different but I have to think about my solution a little differently now, don’t I? I begin to solve for X again based on what I now know.

I show her X2. “How does this work? It’s ceramic and completely microwave safe. And I’ll tell you what, how about you take it for a test run in your car and see how it feels. Maybe we can get some deeper feedback that way.”

She returns from her test drive. I ask her how it went.

“Hmm… I forgot to mention that the cupholder in my car is a little small and this unfortunately doesn’t fit. Also my hands were slipping on the ceramic. I’m afraid I might drop it…”

Slight adjustments to the equation but we’re getting closer…

Enter X3. “Ok I made the shape taller and skinnier. I also added this rubber sleeve for extra grip.”

“Great! This is perfect! It’s just…”


“I hate purple.”

What happened there? Did we ever take a drastic turn away from the original equation? No, we refined our understanding of the problem and at the same time we refined our solution until the two were balanced…

Now here’s where things start to get interesting. Which of these would you say is the MVP in this example?

As a designer I would argue that X3 is our MVP. Our client doesn’t need the color change in order to start using this solution, realizing it’s value, and providing feedback. But the iterations prior to X3 wouldn’t have solved her problem adequately.

Interestingly though, when I originally gave this talk at a ProductTank Meetup, many of the Product Managers in the audience leaned toward the initial three mental concepts that precede X1. One PM in particular made a strong case for the Yeti.

Who’s right? Both roles can undoubtedly make strong cases for their respective selections. So where does that leave us?

Partnership and The Deliberation Space

How many meetings have you participated in where the Product, Technology, and Design teams were in complete agreement? None? Yeah, same here. And we shouldn’t expect anything different. These are very different disciplines with very different perspectives on the solution being built. It takes balance between these disciplines in order to develop products that are meaningful, marketable, and memorable.

There is never going to be a definitive right answer in these kinds of discussions. There are priorities to be weighed and constraints to be considered. That is why I call this “The Deliberation Space.”

We’ve narrowed our focus and now it’s a matter of making a cross-functional decision as a team. This is hard. And the only way to do it effectively is if there is balance and mutual respect between disciplines.

When there isn’t balance, that’s when things get ugly…

Product + Design without Technology is Vaporware. We have a great idea and people seem to want it. But we can’t build it.

Design + Technology without Product is a Hackathon Project. It looks great and it’s even fully functional, but there’s no market for it.

Product + Technology without Design is an Office Printer. The necessary evils of the world that are completely at risk of being disrupted by a customer-centric innovation. Think Netflix, Airbnb, Uber again (man it would be great if someone created the “Uber of Printers”).

Alternatively, when there is balance between all three disciplines, that’s when you get amazing stories of success.

It’s not easy. It requires a lot of work and even more humility. But it should be the top priority of any product team. That’s where magic happens. That is how you solve for X.