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Problem & Solution Spaces
The tools I use to work in both spaces
I was watching Marc Fonteijn’s Service Design show about the overlap between UX & Service design. He mentions that one way to compare the two is how both design disciplines can sort their activities in the problem or solution space. I loved the way he simplified the process, which inspired me to write down some thoughts and tools for both spaces.
The problem space
“A problem well put is half solved” - John Dewey
Designers often label themselves as problem solvers. I don’t think designers can solve the most wicked problems by themselves but I do believe that they should be on and maybe even leading the team that solves the problems that need solving. Design is good at providing structure, process, and creativity to things and these are all things that are needed to first find a good problem to solve and then to solve it.
I don’t only think that problems need design, but designers need problems. We need constraints, we need a reason to go through the processes we’ve learned to create something. I tend to struggle the most on a project when I don’t have a clear understanding of what problem we’re trying to solve, or worse we’re not really solving any problem at all. All too often design is still used as a vanity exercise to improve the aesthetic of something rather than improve something in a way that solves a problem for somebody.
We can’t measure our success and determine our value if we aren’t working towards solving a problem.
These are some of the tools I use to find a problem:
Stakeholder Interviews - I think the art of talking to a client or stakeholder about the real reasons they are approaching you, a designer for work is criminally underrated and often not easy to do. While I feel like I have gotten better at this, I feel like I still struggle with getting to the root problems when I’m meeting a client for the first time. I like to start with Chris Do’s 3 golden questions and Mule’s list of questions and I suggest you do the same, especially if you’re uncomfortable with really communicating with your clients or stakeholders.
Discovery Workshop - Not surprising to anyone that knows me, but I often use workshops as a way to surface problems to work on. I like to run these workshops for several reasons but a couple of big ones include providing a real space for thought and reflection in ways typical meetings can’t provide and giving someone who doesn’t have a loud voice in a typical meeting a chance to write down their view of a problem on a post-it note. Finally, I feel that a workshop is a great way to both prioritize and align on the right problem(s) to solve.
Human Experience Research - Before you ask “What is human experience and why isn’t he just using the term UX?” I’ll state here that I am trying to avoid the term “user” moving forward in my practice. Letting you know why will take another article to explain. Let’s just say that I don’t think we should be calling our fellow humans “users” when we are asking them to use or participate in working with a product or service. I went through this rabbit hole for a reason because I don’t want my research or your research to focus on a user but on a human being that is trying to figure out how to solve a problem (heck sometimes they’ve already solved the problem in a way that we can riff off of!). There are a lot of different tools and methods you can find to learn and work with the people you are trying to help, I’ll just say that I personally prefer focusing on qualitative research instead of quantitative research as that is what works best for me. So y’all that love to dig through lots of data to find some problems to work on, I think that’s great and needed so don’t hate on me, I just prefer the in-person face-to-face methods when trying to find a problem to solve.
These are essentially the 3 things I try to do to find a problem to solve. I rarely do these things alone and I often rely on great research and design minds to help me get to a good problem, but if I have done this well then I will almost always be working confidently when entering the solution space and less so if I haven’t done this well.
Speaking of which, here are a few tools that I use to start solving a problem that’s been found.
The solution space
Whatever the problem is, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. - Tina Fey
Synthesis - Another criminally underrated practice, it’s vital that anyone setting out on solving a problem combine their ideas into a few ideas or theories to test, and synthesis is the best way to do this. There’s a variety of ways to synthesize research but of course, if you’re working with me then a workshop is going to be involved!
Design/Co-Creative Workshops - Yes that’s right another workshop! I promise that not everything I do is workshop related, just most of it. The reason why this is so is that I simply believe that people working together to solve a problem is a lot better than one person working alone to solve a problem, and I think workshops provide the best environment and structure for that collaboration to take place. This doesn’t mean that “everyone’s a designer” or that a designer doesn’t get to really design, what a good design workshop does is help a designer and the rest of the team align on the best solutions to try and design.
Prototyping - Prototyping can be done in a lot of ways, it can have a focus on screens, spaces, services, physical products, etc. They can be high-fidelity, low-fidelity, and everything in between. To me, a good prototype is anything that can be made in the least risky and lowest effort possible to test the validity of a solution. Of course, the final execution of a solution might take more effort and have more risk which is all the more reason I want to validate an idea prior to implementation with the least amount of friction possible. Also, prototyping and prototype testing won’t always guarantee the success of a solution but they should help you at least get on the path of success.
These are core tools I use to work and move back and forth from one space to another. It isn’t always pretty, in fact, it’s often quite messy. I’m not always successful at using these tools and I acknowledge that there are some other ways to work in both spaces. This is just what generally works for me. In short, when you have great research to work with, a set of workshops to utilize, and the means to create low-cost prototypes, you can weave your way through the problem and solution spaces within design with a good amount of confidence.