Oyster forks, responsive speed bumps, beer holder hats, ‘smart’ glasses that block out TV ads…one has to wonder if these innovations are really necessary. I find a knife far superior to those gizmos at the local gourmet store meant to help “simplify” the arduous process of cutting up an apple or slicing a banana.
To innovate is human, which is a fun creative endeavor. But dreaming up tools of dubious utility just clutters and confuses the world. We just can’t help ourselves though. Sometimes there is even a legitimate business problem that needs to be addressed, but in the spirit of expediency a solution slapped on with little thought as to whether it truly addresses the problem.
Solutionitis is a serious organizational condition that is a pervasive and chronic contagion in the corporate world. In the hunt to become more differentiated, organizations make up solutions and then invent the problems for them to justify their existence.
Needless buttons, zippers, wrappers, buttons, pockets, and other doo-dads complicate our world all in the name of ‘design’ which ironically is antithetical to that very cause. The downside for organizations is wasted resources and, after sobering up after the unexplainable high of that $3,000 scooter you walk on to propel yourself wears off, a bad experience for customers.
What can you do to avoid chronic solutionitis? Here are few tips:
1. Start with the Customer
I think good old design should start with a legitimate customer problem, not one that has been created to substantiate some widget dreamed up by some scientist or designer. So often we have solutions looking for problems, rather than problems driving solutions.
It seems obvious, but it is very often ignored. We use the word ‘problem’ to signify an unmet need. These can be manifest or latent needs. People are annoyed with wait times when dialing into customer support, so smart call centers came up with call back options. This is a manifest need. People can articulate their irritation and customer support centers responded with a solution.
Latent needs are solutions for problems people didn’t realize they had yet. For example, no was so super annoyed at the prospect of hailing a taxi in NYC. Yet, the folks at Uber and Lyft manage to ascertain this was a point of annoyance for some. Most people wouldn’t be able to articulate the need, but once a better solution was introduced, the gap between ride-hailing and taxis became self-evident. Understanding latent need is how category busters are created.
2. Avoid SOS (Sparkily Object Syndrome)
Like the harpies in the Odyssey, we are all lured by the sweet song of bling. The appearance of objects lures us and sometimes fools us into believing it has some legitimate utility. Like a slick-talking politician, bling just rings hollow after just a short time of usage. Be strong and do not succumb to the seduction of pretty looking nonsense.
Just because a dashboard looks super cool and flashy, doesn’t mean it has any meaningful utility. Look past the bling and ask yourself “is this solving a legitimate real-world problem or is it just snazzy-looking graphics masquerading as a solution for a problem?” Data visualizer Stephen Few applies this design asceticism to his work. While some may be critical of his ascetic visualization approaches, there is little argument as to the parsimony and power of a well-designed bullet chart or the intuitiveness of sparklines. Sometimes good design isn’t pretty, but it is always useful.
3. Shave Every Day with Occam’s Razor
General George Patton once reputedly said “A ‘good’ plan violently executed today is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” Usually the simplest solution to a problem is the best one, even if it is not perfect.
Perfect solutions trip up in their own complexity and fail. The paper clip is a study and simplicity and perfection. The universal gear is elegant in its simplicity yet power. The Fender Stratocaster or Gibson Les Paul are objects of both beauty and function, reaching the near apex of great design with elegant simplicity.
Your iPad operates by your fingers and hands moving objects around. Simple. Simple is good. Life is complicated enough, don’t muck it up with unnecessary stuff. It’s a waste of time and resources.
4. Be Willing to Eject out of Your Loops
The human species has a strong need for closure. This strong need for task closure even has a name: the Ovsiankina effect. This innate desire to ‘close it out’ can have positive short-term consequences but can result in thoughtless and destructive loops.
For example, Thomas Midgley Jr’s ill-advised addition of Tetraethyl lead to gasoline was not only not necessary but literally resulted in the poisoning of an entire generation. But hey, it solved pesky engine knocks toot suite!
Likewise, the ancient British embarked on the efficient execution of the ‘need-wood-chop-down-a-tree’ algorithm and clear cut nearly the entire islands of Great Britain. Perhaps ‘need wood’ is the wrong problem statement. Perhaps ‘need building material that is sustainable to use’ would have been a better (and less devastating) problem statement.
5. Be Observant
I have found there is no substitute to simply watching people to truly understand the problem. How do people walk down the street, wash their hands, prepare meals, and prepare for sleep? Close observation can reveal true insights. The folks at Heinz developed their dip-n-squeeze packaging by looking how much Ketchup people used (around three packs), what they used it for (for dipping French fries and slathering burgers) and what they struggled with (opening up the ancient squeeze packages and having ketchup go everywhere). This was achieved primarily by simply watching people use their product. Sometimes the evidence is right in front of you. All you need to do is look.
6. Surround Yourself with Weirdos
I remember interviewing for a design role at an automotive company many years ago. The VP asked me “If an intern said they had a difference of opinion and had no evidence, and in fact might have been contrary to the evidence available, what would you do?”
Being the young fact-based crusader of objective truth I told her that while I would respect her opinion, but truth is arrived at through empirical evidence. Turns out that was the wrong answer and I did not get the job.
I have come to learn that evidence is developed through a certain frame of inquiry. You find answers to questions you ask, not ones you do not. This can paint yourself into a very fact-based but erroneously biased corner.
The antidote for this to surround yourself with people very different from you. I call them weirdos because a weirdo is someone very different than yourself. For example, I find accountants a bit odd in their need for order and closure. I am sure they generally feel the same about me. Point being, diversity of world view will mitigate your tendency to only ask the questions you are interested in. They will help you ask the questions you should be asking in the first place.
Dreaming for Efficacy
So yes, let’s all enjoy the YouTube videos of circular runways and window cleaning aerial drones. They are fun to watch, and it is fun to dream. Dreaming is important, but when comes to making a meaningful on your customers’ experience, make sure they are always tethered to a real business problem. And…of course, make sure it is the right business problem.