Have you ever experienced one of those reality-shifting, earth-shattering moments that change how you perceive a given subject? For example, it’s the moment in which you discover sprinkling breadcrumbs on top of your macaroni and cheese, or when you first discover how much easier life is using SASS to write your CSS. Occasionally, these realizations happen upon us in the most unsuspecting times, and it’s possible that their timing is what makes them so memorable. Within the last few months, I’ve had one of these moments. This particular moment stands out from the ordinary medley of learning opportunities I tend to find myself involved with because it very simply flipped my entire perception of design on its head.
If we backtrack for a moment, let’s review the definition of design I had settled on in my prior article, Reclaiming Design:
“Design is the intentional conception and/or iteration of an idea that prioritizes user needs in order to facilitate meeting a defined goal.”
— Reclaiming Design
Design is a tool, a way of thinking that helps humans adapt to their environment and facilitate their actions. However, design relies on a single element in the human condition: that we have a problem. Without the problem, design is rendered impossible. Without the problem, we cannot establish a goal towards which we work. It is design that allows us to manipulate the variables of this problem to craft or improve upon an idea or process that alleviates some of the pain it causes. Until this point, design was about solving this problem. Solutions were the foundation upon which I saw myself building a career, because solutions were what realized my passion for helping the people around me.
So, during my Human-Centred Design course (held through Acumen and IDEO, here), I was unaware that this way of seeing the world of design was holding me back. It was during this course that I stumbled upon an obscure line in some ethereal article that fractured my faith in the path I was walking. It read: “Fall in love with the problem.”
It seems obvious, right? Truth be told, it might very well be. From my limited experience however, designers, especially those at my own age, are very keen on finding solutions. They aspire to impress and succeed because they want gratification and validity that their design held true. This typically narrows their vision and creativity, limiting their execution to what they know best and the assumptions they have validated previously. The reason that this simple little phrase had such a tremendous impact on my way of thinking was because I suddenly realized that my designs are entirely irrelevant if I don’t have a thorough understanding of the problem that they are trying to solve. As a designer, I now believe that success is dictated by how intimately you know the problem you’re trying to design for. The skill of designing is one that is learned and honed, and my executions can and always will be improved upon, but it is the acts of discovery, immersion and empathy that really showcase a designer’s true talent and passion for their craft.
When a designer gives him/herself to a problem, they are provided the opportunity to adopt that problem as their own. Through research and physical/mental immersion, they learn to appreciate the pain points experienced by the people suffering, and by doing so, open their eyes to an entirely new perspective and approach. This broadens the designer’s grasp on the problem and allows them to manipulate ideas that might not have ever entered their head while sitting at their desk back at the office. It allows them to ignore a finite solution and address the very nature of the problem itself.
Problems are tricky things. They vary from simplistic to indescribable and this can create discord for a designer when they are first asked to take on a project. As humans, we immediately want to jump to the solution that makes the most sense to us upon hearing the problem for the first time. This solution, while backed by our gut instinct, is often misinformed and incomplete. The first step that should be taken in this process is to note down the gut reaction and then completely discard the information until it can be drawn upon when the designer has a much more thorough understanding of the problem at hand. My personal dilemma with problems is that they are often poorly defined, misinterpreted entirely, or surprisingly non-existent. Addressing this can be difficult, but Tomer Sharon points out the importance of doing so:
“There are hundreds of thousands of apps out there today that are solutions looking for problems. It’s a waste of blood, sweat, tears, energy and money when you try to perfect and execute the wrong plan. So don’t design a beautiful app no one needs.
My view is that you need to look at a problem and find out if it’s real. Do people have this problem? Do they care about this problem? You need to apply research techniques to figure out if there’s a market, if enough people really care.
Then, and only then, should you start thinking about a solution.”
— Tomer Sharon
The fact of the matter is that the problem must be discovered, discussed and researched in order to inform the design of a solution. During this research, you might discover that the original qualm might actually stem from something larger, or perhaps that your users are expressing the problem in a way that you misunderstood. It is only through listening to and observing the people who have this problem that the designer can fully appreciate the journey they are about to take.
Once your problem has been defined, exploring solutions can begin. Thinking outside the box, while cliche, is so important during the design process. The situation that really opened my eyes to this accompanied this shift in thinking about problems. During a brainstorm, I decided to listen to my team suggest ideas about how we might be able to solve a given problem surrounding feedback. Immediately, I began to notice a trend. Site. App. Script. Interface. Every single idea that was put forth appeared to be contained within this invisible bubble that pressed itself in on our suggestions. The expertise of our team was centralized in web and application technologies, and it was very apparent that this expertise limited our sight when it came to suggesting solutions. It was at this moment that another one of my team members spoke up: “What about a suggestion box?” The rest of us were stunned. The discussion that followed really helped emphasize the idea that in order to address the problem, I was indeed required to learn how to take a step back to observe the whole picture.
Solutions are all fine and dandy, but the attachment we develop to our own ideas will almost always blind us to a better option. As a designer progresses through their process, it is incredibly crucial that they learn how to pivot their ideas as they learn about and adapt to their given problem. Being flexible and willing to throw an entire prototype into the garbage is something that I believe everyone will find difficulty doing. Falling in love with the problem, however, is what really shines at this point in the process – the designer has a passion for the problem, and this passion should always outweigh the ownership and pride that accompany any given solution. By adopting this way of thinking about design, solutions become a means to an end and prototyping can happen fluidly because critique and feedback from both clients and users becomes an invaluable asset to solving the problem. Discovering that your prototype doesn’t work is presented as an opportunity for learning instead of a failure or a bruise to an ego. Failure means one step closer to relieving that pain point, and this is something that should be cherished.
Falling in love with the problem can actually be far more difficult than it sounds. When you start to approach problems critically, you begin to realize that most of them are inundated by obscurities or misinformation. Couple this complexity with your own bias and tendency to favour your own expertise and suddenly you can’t help but submit to solutions that appear to be “correct”. What should really be emphasized in the industry is that the discovery of the problem is an activity that designers should actively fight for. This opportunity to ask why and to observe the problem within its natural context is so valuable to the process, and I believe that this direct involvement creates a unique bond between the designer and the problem.
To summarize, when you suddenly observe the world from the perspective of problems to be tackled as opposed to solutions to be found, your ability to design more accurately skyrockets exponentially. You begin to question a problem’s distinct nature and whether or not that problem is well defined or existent at all. Your subsequent designs become dynamic and adaptable, ready to be discarded, changed or built upon in order to facilitate your passion for the problem at hand. You ask questions and observe, immersing yourself into the world in which the problem exists in order to test your prototypes against every assumption you make. It is this exact quality of the design process that I’m falling harder and harder in love with. The potential that exists to tackle real problems is tremendous, and I hope that this knowledge propels my ability to address design at every opportunity.