An Event Apart: What’s Your Problem?

by Luke Wroblewski August 26, 2012

In her What’s Your Problem? Putting Purpose Back into Your Projects talk at An Event Apart in Chicago, IL 2012 Whitney Hess outlined the value of learning about opportunities directly from customers. Here's my notes from her talk:

Process: Define the Problem

  • When P&G tried to enter the floor cleaning market, they started with looking for solutions in the form of stronger cleaning solvents. When they looked at how people actually cleaned their floors, they ended up with a very different but hugely successful product: the Swiffer.
  • Design is problem solving.
  • Understand the problem before designing the solution. Ask why before you figure out how. There is no universal solution for all our projects, we need to determine which practices are “best” through our understanding of problems.
  • Our reliance on best practices is creating a world of uniform websites that solve no one's problem.
  • What is a problem: not everything you think is a problem actually is one. An actual problem is a gap between current and desired state. AND the problem owner has to want to do something about it.

People: Ask Questions

  • You can’t understand people’s problems unless you leave your computer and talk to them. The problem is out there not at your desk.
  • It may seem that defining the problem takes time away from your project work. But there are a lot of benefits to the approach.
  • Market research is used to determine what people like. It is usually gathered through focus groups. User research on the other hand, is more one-on-one. It tries to understand what people actually do.
  • Common forms of User Research include: Interviews, Observations, Surveys, Card sorts, Diary studies, Etc.
  • If you are not conducting user interviews, you are working with your hands tied behind your back.
  • Set the schedule yourself: this puts you in charge of the process and starts things off with a direct connection to customers.
  • Be casual and conversational: ask questions based on what people just said not based on a script. Aim to create a direct connection with people. Let them lead and show you what is actually important to them.
  • Ask open-ended questions: nothing that can be answered with a yes or no. Focus about behaviors not feelings.
  • Ask the question, then pause: sometimes people need a moment to gather thoughts or think things through.
  • Play dumb: get people to explain process from their point of view. Don't judge what people tell you -you're there to learn.
  • Lifestyle questions: find about a bit about people, get to know them. People readily know the answers to these questions.
  • Context questions: help you to understand people’s relationship to a product or service.
  • Influence & social questions: what are all the inputs coming into people’s lives and how are they communicating with others? This also illustrates the ecosystem of touch points for a product or service.
  • Familiarity questions: what will make the greatest impact? What needs to be maintained? Who are the competitors? What are their strengths?
  • Web Use Questions: What other websites do you frequent? What social networking sites do you use?
  • Synthesize your research and consider using personas to capture your data in way people can relate to.
  • Empathy maps are another tool you can use to capture people’s experiences and to find common themes. You can visualize people's pains, gains, and more.
  • 5 Whys is an approach to digging deeper into the root causes of behavior. Keep asking why until you get to the real reason people do things. A fishbone diagram can help you visualize these dependencies. Draw lines for each cause creating an effect.

Purpose: Be Obsessed with the Problem

  • Be obsessed with the problem, not the solution.
  • More often than not, we're striving for a local maxima. Instead consider there may be bigger opportunities. Looking at problems let's you find these options.
  • Craft a problem statement: who needs what because why. Your research work will help you fill this information in. Don’t start working on solutions until you get buy on this problem statement.
  • To specialize in understanding the problem we need to work on our soft skills: listening, empathy, connection, facilitation, persuasion, and patience. These are great skills for every designer to learn.
  • Ask: how can I help you be more successful? Not how can I solve this problem and look smart?
  • Life is too short to waste it solving the wrong problems.