Big Ideas come from Problem Finding not Problem Solving

I attended another really interesting SCPD featuring Bill Burnett from the This time about problems and prototyping. The issue of problem solving is an interesting one. If someone comes to you and want the software to include 100 pieces of data rather than the current 10 – you may have to be creative to solve the problem but it is unlikely it will lead to a revolutionary innovation. But if you went back to the customer and asked why they needed the extra data – that’s where the magic could happen.

Design Thinking, according to Burnett, works bets on open-ended human centred problems. Problems where:

  • Users can’t tell you what they want
  • Users explain their problems based on what they think is possible
  • Users change their minds
  • Users do not want the innovation they demand (at first)

When I hear about these problems I think this quote from Henry Ford describes the dilemma:

“If I  asked people what they wanted they would have asked for a faster horse”

And it is true – we cannot ask for something that is beyond our worldview. The market was not screaming out for mobile phones but it turns out it is exactly what people wanted.

So how do find out what people want when asking doesn’t give us the right answers. This is where empathy comes in. We have to stop looking for problems and start looking for needs – getting beyond what people say and do and get to what they say and feel. (I find an empathy map can help).

Some needs are apparent – these are explicit needs and can be found through direct techniques such as surveys, interviews etc. . But implicit needs come from stories because people cannot always say directly what is important. There are many ways we can uncover stories to get to implicit needs – facilitating storytelling with games and observation are just some examples. But if we really try to get at people’s needs we can get unique insights and big ideas. As an example – the iphone was developed with the knowledge that technology at the time made people feel stupid because they found it hard to use. Apple took away the technology that made people feel stupid and gave them something that made them feel smart.


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