Moving from problem to solution

May 12, 2021

Service design, as human centred design, is focused on two things:

1. Understanding the root-cause of user problems;

2. Developing solutions together with users.

Point 1 takes invariably less time than point 2. However, that doesn’t mean that it is less important. The opposite in fact. As Einstein pointed out, if you have one hour to solve a problem, spend 55 minutes to figure it out correctly because then you can solve it in 5 minutes. The usual methodology seems to be, however, that we spend about 5 minutes deciding what the problem is, 45 minutes trying to solve it only to discover, that the solution doesn’t solve anything. The last 10 minutes are spent in panic trying to figure out a work-around. And there is nothing more wasteful, that fixing the wrong problem right.

Understanding root-causes

Understanding root-causes requires us to look beyond data to see people. However, in organisations everywhere, from private sector industrial companies to government ministries, there is an inherent resistance to seeing people. Nevermind that looking at data and aggregated numbers only provides an overview of what has happened in the past, but in most cases doesn’t explain at all, why it happened. Whether that was making purchasing decisions about milk or not participating actively in middle-school math class. 

Teasing out the motivation behind individual human behaviour allows us to interpret the aggregated data better. Understanding why people make purchasing decisions, what triggers certain actions and how people see different chocolate brands in the store, allows brands to develop more relevant product lines and packaging. Understanding why some students lose their motivation for learning in their mid-teens, how their world looks like and what stimulus they are reacting to, provides more insight to the data that declares, “we have a problem” because it may also point out concretely, where the problem lies for the student.

However, there is a great reluctance on the side of industries and public services to go “out in the field” and talk to people. There is fear of the customer, because speaking directly and personally removes any and all power dynamic. Having a conversation with the actual customer will also reveal the relative irrelevance of most products and services within the customer’s daily context. Most of all it seems quite ridiculous that a dozen or so in-depth conversations provide greater clarity and depth to a given situation than rigorously compiled representative quantitative research done over many years and therefore “fieldwork” is a waste of time.

It is not.

Understanding the broader context of the customer’s / user’s / student’s perspective paints a much more varied picture of a given touchpoint than does number data from the organisation’s point-of-view. After all, a maker of dairy products will compare themselves only to other dairy products, ignoring 95% of all goods that a consumer can buy in a supermarket. An education ministry specialist, who fundamentally believes in the importance of education, will ignore the contradicting signals a 15 year boy faces in regard to the importance of education vs all the other things that are important in his life. However, as all solutions to problems tend to include a communication aspect, how can you even begin to communicate effectively if your point of departure is so different? Which is why so often, we spend an inordinate amount of time, fixing the wrong problem. But since everyone in the organisation involved, agreed, then it is no one’s fault that the solution didn’t work.

Understanding what you are good at

We often use the below diagram to illustrate the different points-of-view between organisations and their customers or users. Over time organisations become complex. Internal rules and logic begin to dominate and affect how users are forced to interact or react to the organisations proposals. When these organisations are monopoly providers in a given situation, then people just have to accept it and move on. When these organisations are facing immediately accessible competition, then the user moves with their wallet. 

Internal metrics and processes can make things complicated for users.

Organisations that recognise the need for change in principle recognise the need to make things less complicated. Both internally and externally. In order to achieve reasonably rapid change, they also need to understand what they are inherently good at, and what not.

Outside point of view

A production company is good at production. It probably started by making something better or faster or simply first. Over time, however, new products need to replace older products. Endlessly adding features to an old product will not work. However, efficient production and efficient innovation require different skills and different approaches. Sometimes the needs of one process is incompatible with the need of the other.

Using human centred design to define problems and develop solutions

The same qualitative approach that allows designers to dig deep to find root-causes of problems also serves to uncover definable market needs and directions for innovation. In order to reap the benefits of these insigths, it pays to apply the same methodology to developing solutions. In the case of large organisations that want to move quickly, it means that it is not enough to hire designers to define opportunity spaces. To make sure there is no “lost-in-translation” between strategy and execution, it is reasonable to engage outsiders to help develop and validate new proposals, before investing the much larger sums of money necessary to deliver it in scale. 

If you want to know more about how to move from insight to innovation, get in touch.