An Event Apart: What’s Your Problem?

by April 3, 2012

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

Understand the problem

  • 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.
  • It may seem that defining the problem takes time away from your project work. But there are a lot of benefits to the approach. You can create agreement within your team, focus on the right activities, and create a higher quality experience.

Leave the desk

  • You can’t understand people’s problems unless you leave your computer and talk to them.
  • Strategic design has to balance project goals and user needs. A lack of understanding of business goals can lead to miscommunication. Talk to people. Talk to the right people.
  • To determine project goals: find stakeholders, ask questions, listen closely, write it all down, paraphrase it to confirm understanding.
  • To determine user needs: find the right users, ask questions, listen closely, write it all down, paraphrase it to confirm understanding.
  • You want to learn where the finish line is: what are overall objectives? how will the project be accessed?
  • Learn about the audience: who are the primary user types? what do we know about them?
  • Current state: what will make the greatest impact? What needs to be maintained? Who are the competitors? What are their strengths?
  • Always close with: what else should I know, who else should I talk to? This ensures you meet all the people you need to get information from.
  • Summarize and document what you heard: vision, strategy, audience, goals, etc.
  • 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.
  • In user research, you should be aim to create a direct connection with people. Let them lead and show you what is actually important to them.
  • 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.
  • The point is not to ask questions about your organization but to get to know people: to understand what their needs and goals are.
  • 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. See Dave Gray’s Game-storming book for more details.
  • 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.

Specialize in the Problem

  • Be the person who can see the problem.
  • Look for underlying causes.
  • Assumptions are statements without proof. We need to limit our use of them.
  • Strive to be more ambitious. Instead of optimizing local maximums, look for new opportunities.
  • 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?