“The Ultimate Answer to Life, The Universe and Everything is…42!”
― Deep Thought, in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
As human beings, we like solutions. Solutions are fun – they feel like accomplishments. They are neat and tidy. They make us feel smart. Unfortunately, problems are just the opposite. They feel unfinished. They’re messy and complicated. They make us feel dumb. As a result, we often find ourselves running straight towards “the answer” without taking a moment to consider what the question was.
Creating a solution without first defining problem leads to a great deal of rework and failed projects. And yet we still do it. In large part because we don’t know how to go about defining problems.
So how do we approach problem definition? At it’s simplest, a problem lies in the difference between the CURRENT state of a system and the DESIRED state of a system. The details of that difference may manifest in things like:
- Low-skill, high-frequency tasks
But how do we uncover these things? And once we uncover them, how do we define them? To create good problems, you can follow these simple steps:
It may be tempting to assume we “know” them based on our own experiences, but personal experience is anecdotal at best and not a substitute for real observations. To find out what problems might exist in the space you are exploring you must do (cue ominous music) RESEARCH. Through interviews and observations you must gather data, on what your user is experiencing.
Some tips for interviews:
- Assume nothing! The key to a good interview is OPEN – open-ended question, open minds.
- Do not start to formulate a solution or hypothesis.
- Be friendly-neutral. You are gathering information, not giving it. Do not talk about yourself or your product.
- Dig. Be prepared to ask why (or a form of it) five times. “Tell me more about that” and “Help me understand why that…” are both good phrases to use.
- What is happening that is not ideal?
- When is it happening?
- Where is it happening?
- Who is involved?
- What do you think causes this to happen?
- What does “ideal” look like?
- “That’s interesting” makes your subjects feel like rock stars. Everyone loves to be listened to.
- Include observations of their emotional reactions in your notes along with their words. Were they frustrated, laughing, sad, apathetic, angry?
- Use at least 2 people – 1 to take notes, and 1 to run the interview.
Once you have your data, it’s time to examine it. By breaking it apart, you can start to look for patterns and commonalities. Remember, even though we are looking for patterns, do not start to formulate a solution or hypothesis. Trying to leap to a solution before you’ve analyzed the data will cause you to ignore or overlook items in the data. Things to identify during analysis include:
- Context -When/where/under what circumstances does the action happen? It is outside or inside or both? Do the participants walk or run during this activity? Do they sit? Is their environment noisy or quiet? Are they trying to do other things at the same time? Is this activity confined to a short period of time – if so what triggers it?
- Motivations/interests -Why do people do this activity? What leads them to it and what benefit do they gain from it?
- Definition of success -In a perfect world, how long does this activity take? What things should come out of this activity (what results)? How accurate should it be?
- Severity -For the pain points within the activity, how bad are they? Is this a stubbed toe or a broken bone? Are we losing hundreds of dollars in contracts in a million dollar business or tens of thousands of dollars in a million dollar business?
- Impact -What impact does this pain have on the business? How about on the efficiency and effectiveness of the user? What does that translate into in business terms? Are we losing conversions, revenue, time, etc?
- Variables -What changes or can be changed? What do we need to account for that might not hold steady from day to day? How much do they change?
- Constants -What can we count on to remain constant and steady?
Finally, it’s time to create your problem story. Remember this is still not a solution! Take the items you’ve identified during your analysis and use this template:
When CONTEXT, ACTOR wants/needs to ACTION for RESULT but they are prevented by BARRIER which causes IMPACT that SEVERITY. CONSTANTS remain steady. However, VARIABLES changes DELTA.
Here’s an example:
When on the high seas, Bluebeard wants to attack ships filled with gold doubloons, but is prevented by poor visibility into the cargo holds of target ships which causes him to attack less desirable ships leading to wasting 20% of his overall attack capability on ships with plastic children’s toys. The number of doubloon carrying ships and Bluebeard’s capacity for successful attacks remains steady. However, toy carrying ships increase to 75% of total mercantile shipping during November and December.
Notice, we still haven’t come up with a solution yet. However, we’ve identified and quantified the problem sufficiently when we create a solution, we should immediately be able to see whether it will be successful and how we can measure that success.
Problem definition is key in reducing time and costs, and is the critical first step to effective product development. Without problems, we end up creating solutions in search of a problem. And that’s a problem.