The art of finding Problems Worth Solving

By Joy van Baren and Anneke Nipius – read more about us here

The secret of innovation? Find a problem that fascinates or bothers you. There is no better way to spark creativity. Innovation is not about coming up with brilliant ideas from scratch – although it’s great when that happens. It’s about finding a Problem Worth Solving, falling in love with that problem and experimenting with the best way to solve it. 

By focusing on the problem you give yourself the opportunity to think out of the box. You can explore multiple directions and will not be hesitant to kill your ideas that do not work. 

Before starting our successful corporate startup Walter we did several attempts to innovate our existing research platform. We ended up with incremental improvements making insufficient impact. Why? Because we started with an existing solution instead of a Problem worth Solving. 

Beware of falling in love with your solution. Keep experimenting to find out whether you are solving a real problem for an audience that’s willing to pay for it. Every problem has a solution, but not every solution has a problem.

Tip: Play the Oracle

Try to create a simple, concise problem statement in just one sentence. The Oracle Exercise can help: ask yourself five times “why is this a problem”? This helps you get to the essence and prevents you from secretly thinking in terms of solutions.

A great example is the pen to write in space which NASA developed at significant cost . The Russian cosmonauts just used a pencil. “We need to design a pen to write in space” is a solution masquerading as a problem, whereas “we need to write in space” is a Problem Worth Solving.

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Let your customers (or their customers) find problems for you

How to find Problems Worth Solving? “NIHITO” stands for “Nothing Important Happens In The Office”. So leave it and go learn about your target audience.

Open ended research methods

User research is essential to innovation. It’s critical to choose methods that fit this part of your journey. In the early discovery phase unstructured or semi-structured methods are your friend and bring you the broadest possible perspective.

Contextual inquiry combines semi-structured interview and observation methods to get a deep understanding of how users work in their own environment. In addition to understanding their tasks and workflow, it yields insights into work practices, physical environment, technical tools, and social/cultural influences. These extra layers of information are extremely valuable for inspiring ideation: understanding the context in which a problem occurs helps you think of potential solutions.

Tip: Look for homegrown hacks

Donald Norman once called workarounds “the soul of innovation.” A great way to find problems is to look for hacks and workarounds which people or organizations have cobbled together themselves. The fact that the underlying problem is serious enough for someone to invest time or money in creating a workaround shows that it may very well be a Problem Worth Solving.

For example, the torch function on your phone was invented by a Nokia engineer who observed Chinese consumers using the light of their phone screen to see in the dark. 

Open mind, open heart

Successful problem discovery requires an open mind and an open heart. Our neurological tendency to see patterns is an asset, but can make us ignore new angles. Similarly dangerous is falling in love with our solutions and disregard input which proves them wrong.

 Before going into an interview or reviewing the outcomes of an experiment we do an almost physical check:

  •        Can I empty my head of everything else (forget that budget review) and focus?
  •        Am I prepared to learn something new, even if it does not fit with my existing knowledge?
  •        Am I willing to kill or radically change my concept based on the input I receive?

Tip: Don't ask users what they want

We frequently hear the comment “I don’t really believe in user research. Users don’t know what they want. ” There’s an easy reply to that: “so don’t ask them.” Most interviewees are unable to look beyond what they currently use.

This is exactly why we look at their tasks, workflow, and context. However, don’t ignore it when they ask for a solution. Keep asking why: understand what problem it would solve for them why this matters – it may lead you to a Problem Worth Solving.

Look across the value chain

Talking to customers or users is great, but not enough. They have their own beliefs and biases and may be stuck in a cultural or business paradigm. To uncover new angles talk to other roles which play a key part in the ecosystem you are investigating.

For example: in the discovery phase of corporate startup Walter we wanted to identify Problems Worth Solving for lawyers. We interviewed people in the following categories:

  1. Users: lawyers
  2. Buyers/Stakeholders: influential roles within law firms such as managing partners, innovation managers, business development, and CIOs
  3. Customers of our customers: people paying for the services of lawyers
  4. 3rd parties: established vendors and startups serving the legal market

These combined insights helped us conceive a solution we never would have found by talking to lawyers alone. For example, talking to CIOs and 3rd parties inspired an API-driven marketplace tying together existing applications used in the legal ecosystem.

Joy van baren our innovation journey

Tip: How to find people to interview

Especially in B2B it can be tough to find people to interview at short notice. Going through existing channels such as Sales takes time and biases us towards talking to our existing happy customers. Instead, rely on your wider network to find new people.

As an experiment we posted short video messages on LinkedIn

We were blown away with the effect: four similar posts resulted in over 25.000 views and our first 150 pilot users. It’s amazing how helpful our personal network and even complete strangers responded to a personal and genuine request.

Find the needle in the haystack

So you’ve done your research and collected loads of data… how to pinpoint Problems Worth Solving? 

Affinity diagrams for in-depth analysis

Affinity diagrams are a great way to cluster research findings. Here’s how it works:

  1. Conduct open-ended contextual interviews and observations
  2. Record the smallest possible observations (user quotes, observations, small facts)
  3. Write all data points on post its.
  4. Discuss them one by one. For each new post it note ask “is this similar to one we have discussed already?” If so, cluster them.
  5. When everything is on the wall, interpret clusters and put labels on them.

It’s a great way for a team to immerse itself into the research findings. Also, the bottom-up nature can lead to unexpected insights. But due to the granular nature of the method documentation and clustering take loads of time, which in a startup environment you typically don’t have. Therefore, we introduce Pragmatic Affinity Diagrams.

Pragmatic Affinity Diagrams

We developed a method which captures the most valuable aspects of affinity diagrams but makes the process faster by defining some structure beforehand. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Identify meaningful aspects of the audience you are looking at. We typically choose steps in the user workflow or customer journey. This is your X-axis. Note that it’s fine to add or change categories as you go along.
  2. Identify relevant categories of observations. We typically use: Tasks, Input (information used), Output/Deliverables, Tools, Pain points, Workarounds, and Trends. This is your Y-axis.
  3. Use these to set up a matrix and use this as a template for your interview guide and to process the results of your interviews. 
  4. Bring together findings from all interviews. Do this through stickies on the wall or using online tools such as Mural.
  5. Repeat this process for every role or persona you interviewed.

The outcome of this exercise gives you a 360 degree view on the problems your target audience experiences, and the context to determine if these are just annoyances or Problems Worth Solving. And it’s the perfect input for your Design Sprint or other ideation technique.

Want to use this approach for your innovation project? Download an empty pragmatic affinity diagram here.

Tip: Don’t wait till you have all your data

Make sure you are very clear on your research goals and analysis method before starting your research. These determine how you phrase your questions and document your findings for optimal speed and interpretation.

Also, analyze findings after your first couple of interviews. This will help you assess whether you are finding answers to your research questions, and whether your documentation lends itself to efficient analysis. If you have multiple team members executing interviews it’s also a great way to check for consistency early on.

Combine different information sources

The results from your user research become even more valuable when combined with other data. Industry reports can provide great insights on market trends. A competitive scan – include both established parties and startups –  shows you which problems other parties found worth solving and may help to identify white spots or underserved areas in which it is attractive to find Problems Worth Solving.

Let the market do your startup scan for you

To prevent lengthy desk research in doing a competitive or startup scan, use your network and let the market do it for you. In the early stages of Walter we made a very rough overview of LegalTech startups active on the Dutch market. 

We posted it on LinkedIn with the appropriate hashtags, and asked readers to complete it. This led to a wealth of feedback fast, and a more complete overview than we could have generated ourselves.

Go out and do it!

We hope we have inspired you to master the art of finding Problems Worth Solving, and provided you with the methods and tools to do so. Always remember: it’s the problem you fall in love with, not the solution. We wish you happy problem hunting!

What's next?

This is the first of a series of 7 articles in which we take you through the innovation journey. Coming up: “How do to great user interviews” and “Get the most out of your Design Sprint”. Stay tuned.

About us and our journey

Why this article?

There are great books about innovation. What’s often lacking is guidance on how to put the theory into practice and apply it in a corporate setting. We spent the last two years setting up corporate startup Walter. During this time we fell in love with the Lean Startup approach. A love we want to spread!

This is the first in a series of articles filled with concrete, pragmatic advice to guide you through all phases of your innovation journey. 

About Joy van Baren

I spent my career inventing and developing digital experiences for professionals and consumers, always starting from empathy for the user. My track record of building interdisciplinary teams and delivering business impact includes Philips (UX researcher), RELX (UX Director), and Fabrique (Studio Director). Currently I am Chief Everything Officer at Walter, a corporate LegalTech startup for Wolters Kluwer. Connect with me on LinkedIn. 

About Anneke Nipius

Since childhood I have always loved creating and inventing stuff. I made my passion my profession by becoming an industrial designer. My work has always evolved around designing digital products based on user research. I strive to create experiences that make people better at what they do and make them happy. As the Concept Developer at Walter, a corporate startup for Wolters Kluwer, I create and validate the ideas and concepts for Walter. Currently, I’m in charge of developing Walter for corporate law. Connect with me on LinkedIn