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News  2, Sep 2013

Is your solution relevant? Design Studio breaks problem-solving down


Product design affects how relevant your startup is. Here are a few tips from the master himself.

Startups are often rooted in the idea that there is always a better solution to the current problem. We see companies like RedMart, Mailbox and Path trying to prove that their solution will better consumers’ lives. However, what exactly are they using to win over their audiences? Too often it isn’t the aesthetics or appearance of the product that brings the users, but the product design and strategies behind the offering.

What exactly is product design? Not to be confused with art, the New Oxford American dictionary defines “design” as “purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object: the appearance of design in the universe.” Personally, product design is deliberate, pragmatic and often seeks to see a two-way dialog between consumer and designer.

We also spoke to Will Evans, a director of user experience design at The Library Corporation and has over 15 years of industry experience in interaction design, information architecture and user experience strategy to understand what the design process is like.

Frame first, everything else later

Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of America, once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Preparing, or planning, is often cited as the key to success or at least in avoiding failure.

Before developing any sort of solution, Will highlights that it is absolutely crucial to frame the problem correctly. Firstly, the product designer has to understand or make sense of the world (or situation) so that we can act in it. Framing a problem is not the same as identifying the issue. By framing the problem, a pertinent step in the design process, one is able to eliminate bias and make sure that time is well-spent.

Read also: Designer product marketplaces on the rise: Is there room for more?

Will shared, “A frame is an active perspective or a lens on reality that both describes and perceptually changes our understanding of a domain. A frame is, simplistically, a point of view; often, and particularly in technical situations, some people might argue that this point of view is “irrelevant” or “biasing” because it implicitly references a non-objective way of considering a situation or idea.”

He then went on to quote Professor Brenda Dervin’s explanation on sense-making and framing problems. Curious, I read up a little more about the communication theorist and her work. What I found was absolutely intriguing. Jon Kolko, founder and director of Austin Center for Design, also explained in Sensemaking and Framing: A Theoretical Reflection on Perspective in Design Synthesis:

“A frame is an active perspective that both describes and perceptually changes a given situation. A frame is, simplistically, a point of view; often, and particularly in technical situations, this point of view is deemed “irrelevant” or “biasing” because it implicitly references a non-objective way of considering a situation or idea. But a frame—while certainly subjective and often biasing—is of critical use to the designer, as it is something that is shaped over the long-term aggregation of thoughts and experiences, through the above process of sensemaking, and is therefore a larger way of viewing the world and situations that occur in it. Like a point of view, a frame too will change, but will change over the long-term rather than the short term.”

By recognizing what question to ask, the product designer will then be able to use the shortest time available to solve the problem.

Common mistakes people make when identifying solutions

You framed the problem and identified your solutions but they don’t work out well. You might even think to yourself, “How many proverbial frogs do I have to kiss before I meet with the right prince, which in this case is the million-dollar solution?”

Will shared that sometimes, in unordered domains or industries with unknown unknowns, “clearly stating and understanding the nature of the problem only sets us up to send in catalytic probe and see what kinds of behavioral patterns emerge.”

Here are the three common mistakes that most people make in the complex domain of “unknown unknowns”.

  1. Assuming that the potential solution is “the solution”, instead of seeing it for what it is – a potential solution;
  2. Not stating up front what your success criteria is, when it comes to measuring whether a solution is actually the right fit;
  3. Investing too much in any solution. In essence, it is a bet too big for anyone to commit before understanding whether the solution is optimal, needed or essential.

The third mistake is no doubt especially important for technology startups to note. Having seen spectacular blowouts like Color and Fusion Garage, where large amounts of funding were involved, the question begs: “Can founders be so wrong about their seemingly right solution?”

Read also: Razer CEO Tan Min Liang: “We are our biggest challenge”

Will explained that there seems to be a gap in coherence, mainly between the founders’ understanding and marketing reality. Did the founders find a good solution? Sure. Was the market (ready and) willing to pay for it? Not really.

Want to avoiding going down the path of disproportional hype to destruction? Will advised that startups should conduct multiple small, contradictory experiments regularly to make sure that the company remains nimble.

Who should understand product design?
Shah Widjaja, principal consultant of Nmbl Consulting, a specialized UX Analytics consultancy, shared that product design should be picked up by almost everyone, from product managers, UX designers, developers, business stakeholders to customer service managers.

He then added that there are two key benefits for non-designers to understand more about the process. He said, “[Firstly, it will] provide a structured way to uncover tacit (unspoken) requirements that may be critical to the success of the product or service. [Secondly, it] communicates effectively within the team and quickly build consensus on executing things that matter based on clear prioritization.”
Will Evans will be conducting a one-day Design Studio Workshop with Nmbl Consulting in Singapore on 4th October. Find out more details about the workshop here.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock

Elaine Huang

Elaine Huang

Elaine is a fervent believer that if there ever is a zombie apocalypse, we will all be snapping away at them with our phones and posting them onto Instagram. A Mass Communication graduate of Ngee Ann Polytechnic's School of Film and Media Studies, she enjoys writing about technology and entrepreneurs. When not hashtagging her way through all sorts of trouble, Elaine is probably contemplating how to write in the third person.

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