To solve the right problem, Focus

Why defining a problem for everyone is a solution for no one. The power of personas, experience maps, and insight synthesis in understanding the best problem to solve for users.
Photo by Octavian Rosca on Unsplash


Hustle has been romanticized to an extent where busyness is considered the equivalent of getting important work done. Only, it's not true. Pure "more" isn't the answer. You don't do bigger or better things just by throwing more fuel into the tank and never taking your foot off the pedal.

There will always be more problems than we have the resources and capabilities available at hand to solve - and that's true with user research too.

In the discover phase of the designing thinking process, I realized that people will tell you a lot of things. The things they think are the problems and sometimes, even the things they don't consciously realize are problems.

Along the way, you notice the problems they don't say too.

Themes start to emerge. A reluctance to waste resources (and guilt if they do). The desire for affordable goods without sacrificing quality.

And all of a sudden, there's twenty problems waiting to be solved.

It can be tempting to want to solve everything. The more problems you solve for everyone, the better the product right?

Except when trying to solve every problem means your resources are spread too thin to truly understand and solve one problem well. Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, suggests that "The Way of the Essentialist involves doing less, but better, so you can make the highest possible contribution."

Similarly, moving forward in the design thinking process involves a bit of stripping down, especially if the goal is to innovate and not just create another (average) variation of a pre-existing solution.

There are four elements that qualify a solution as innovative:
  1. It's valuable (people actually want it)
  2. It's responsible (the solution takes into consider positive social and environmental values)
  3. It's feasible (the solution is reasonably possible)
  4. It's viable (the solution makes sense for the business)
If the goal is innovation, we can't solve every problem. Instead, we have to identify the best problem that - when solved - fit the above criteria.

How do we do that?

a mile in your shoes

Design thinking is human-centric. To combat the natural tendency of placing yourself as the main beneficiary of the problem you're solving, we can create a user persona. This doesn't just move the focus away from what you'd like to see in the solution ⁠— it helps you visualize and relate to all the data gathered so far.

A face - even an imaginary one - helps reframe the problem solving approach in the persona's perspective. And it makes sense to be solving problems for people, not bullet points and data.

But a persona isn't just a picture layed on top of your interview notes. It also isn't a caricature or stereotype. A good user persona has to be believable and real (this makes it relatable), and relevant to the context and goal of the project.

Personas really become more powerful than a name and a short bio when developing an empathy map, where interview notes can help describe the needs and expectations of a persona in a particular context. By considering how they currently experience things (thoughts and feelings), along with what they see, hear, say, and do, we can get a little bit of a glimpse into a different perspective.

putting it together

With a better understanding of what the target market (as represented by the user persona) experiences, we end up with some decent problems to solve. But just like how the question you ask affects the answer you get, the problem you solve affects the impact you make.

If, like me, you find interviewing didn't help unearth as many insights as you would have liked, you may notice the problems don't seem particularly compelling. It'd be nice to go back and interview more, but if that's not possible, extrapolate. Intuition can go a long way.

Powerful problems are focused on an appropriate persona relative to the context, a desirable need (e.g. resolving a pain point or benefiting from a gain), and a strong motivation. The more intense and non-obvious these elements are, the greater the impact of the problem statement - and the more likely people are to get behind your idea.

Sometimes, innovation isn't about volume — it's about focus.