Are you solving the right problem?

By Pelle

We all come across different situations that we interpret as a “problem to solve”. But how do we know that it is a real problem? And how do we know we have understood the situation correctly? Is it such a big deal how we define the problem? Does it really matter to the solutions? I argue that how we define the problem is key. That it makes the whole difference in order to come up with solutions that works. Let’s see if I can convince you.

The ability of solving problems seems to be hard-wired into our brain, in our biology. It is something we all know how to do. It is fantastic and has led to many innovations over the years. By identifying problems to solve, we can come up with solutions to overcome the problems. This leads to development of new ideas that solves the problems and this makes our lives easier. It is all good and a real superpower we have. However, the root cause of the problem is not always what we may believe at first sight. And that can make a whole difference to our abilities to solve the problem.

Someone who believed this, was Steve Jobs who claimed that you cannot ask your users what they need, because as a user you don’t know what you need until you see it. This may be controversial and to some extent it is, but I believe he has a point. Why? Because as humans, we tend to see problems through the lens of what we know of today. Most often, we do not have the ability to think of solutions that go beyond this space. And to find the true solutions, this is what is needed. Let me give you a historic example.

When the high-rise buildings were built in New York in the early 20th century a manager of such building started to get complains from the tenants about the elevators. People said that the elevators were riding too slow. At peak times it took forever to get up and down from your floor. This was unacceptable. The tenants of the buildings were threatening to move out. Clearly this was a massive problem for the business and something had to be done.

The manager went to the engineers and asked them to find a way to speed up the elevators. The engineers looked for solutions but found none. The only alternative they could see was to replace them with completely new ones, but this would be too costly and was not an option at the time. What to do? The manager gathered his team and among the staff was a recent psychology graduate. The graduate looked at the situation and found it interesting that people were complaining about the speed after waiting only for a short time. Why, he asked? After conducting a small study he came up with a solution: Install mirrors.

This was a very different idea and quite odd at the time. But it was a quick and cheap solution and it was put to test. Mirrors were installed next to the elevators and inside the cabins. What happened? The complaints from the tenants suddenly stopped. People were now happy with the elevators! It turned out that people had been bored waiting for the elevators and had nothing to do while waiting. The mirrors solved this issue and people no longer perceived the elevators as too slow. So by defining the problem differently, a cheap solution was found and the business saved. Cool, don’t you think?

Mirrors inside an elevator – a result of defining the right problem

Clearly, how you define the problem is key to finding the solution. And we often have a tendency to fast-forward this part of the problem solving, believing that our first interpretation of the problem is correct. And this can be a big risk. We humans seems to be programmed to look for solutions in the “box” of where the problem is defined. And once we’ve got our minds started in that problem space, it is very hard to get out of that “box”. The solutions we come up with will not solve the problem. It may take a lot of resources in terms of time, people and money, and still take us no further. Such a waste. And yet, I think we all have experienced it, right?

If so, before you start digging too deep for solutions next time, make sure you have really understood the problem. That you have examined it from all aspects and asked all questions. By doing so you can be sure that you are addressing the root cause of the problem – not the symptoms. And once you are confident with getting the problem right, you can safely proceed with generating solution ideas.

Learning how to master the art of problem definition can make a whole difference for you and your career. It can lead to saving valuable resources for you and your business. It can lead to the development of radically new ideas. Actually, how you define the problems may be in the end decide the fate of your career. If you master this skill it might even be you who creates the next big company or even a unicorn.

Think of this when you look in the mirror of an elevator the next time.

Need a UX partner?

Feel free to reach out. I’m always up for a chat.

Per Fossum
UX freelancer
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