don’t design the solution until you understand the problem
About two months ago, my friend Thomas asked me over dinner why I don’t publicize my blog or push content to Facebook. I had to laugh a little. I don’t really push content to Facebook (although I’m getting better!), and I don’t consider myself a “real blogger”.
Truthfully, sometimes I feel like I don’t put enough time into my writing. I justify it to myself by saying that I’m busy, or I’m tired, or I don’t have enough good content to weave into a post. And by not publicizing it, I let myself off the hook for not pushing myself.
If I hired you as a consultant to help me design my life to accommodate blogging better, what would you tell me? Block out time on my calendar to write each week? Each day? Keep a running list of topics that strike my interest? Find a quiet place without distractions that stimulates writing?
Three weeks ago, waiting on a plane from ATL —> DEN, I had three hours to kill. Perfect time to blog about what it takes to understand needs in product design, I thought. I had just started a new job, and was spending lots of time in the Holy Trinity of device design - the lab, the clinic, and the whiteboard. I sat down with a glass of wine, and wrote… absolutely nothing.
What I was doing in Denver :).
Can you understand what my problem is? If you know me in real life, you might (I’d be impressed if you did). If you work with me on a day-to-day, it might be a little clearer. It took me two weeks to figure it out, and I live with myself.
There’s little that’s more frustrating than finding the right solution to the wrong problem. My problem is not time. It’s not motivation. It’s not a lack of content. I keep a 15-page Word document on my desktop with topics, links, and ideas that I want to explore in writing. I set aside time every week to write, and I write plenty in a day.
In technology, there’s a dangerous tendency to design products that we are capable of producing. The larger a company gets and the greater its capital investment in a particular technology, the less likely they can be to branch out and create something new. But customers aren’t surprised and delighted by economies of scale. Rather, they are enchanted by solutions to their real problems.
Check out this USA Today article about solar panels in India. Houses in the rural countryside have been wired for the grid for years without having access to electricity. The electric company in the area is trying to answer the question, “How can we increase capacity to expand the grid faster?” But people in the rural countryside are bypassing that question, and asking, “How do we get electricity without relying on the grid at all?”
Or how about this Fortune article about P&G shampoo in China? A Fortune editor tags along on a trip to Shahe to watch a woman wash her hair, and makes the assumption that Wei Xiao Yan’s first priority is function - to have clean hair. After all, she lives in a part of the developing world where people spend less than $5 a day to survive. But when she’s given the proposition of cutting it, we learn that her primary motivation is beauty - to look pretty for her husband.
These may seem like subtle nuances, but these subtle nuances about user needs are the difference between products that users love to use, and products that users don’t use.
Did you know that Facebook has an analog design lab? The idea is not to create the greatest technical solution that you can - the idea is to “build a system that actively maps people’s relationships in the world - offline”. The only way to design something that interacts with people the way they need to be interacted with, is to understand that interaction. That’s meaningful social.
How this post started out.
Here’s the correct answer to the consultant question: I start all my posts on paper. Like, with a real pencil. I am a whiteboarder. A Sharpie addict. They’re not written out in their entirety (even I’m not THAT old-school), but I like to map my ideas out on paper - literally. Every blog post now starts on a piece of cardstock - even the paper is important, because cardstock gives a very real sense of gravity and substance. And what I didn’t have with me in the airport that day was a piece of paper and a pen.
It dawned on me as I was walking into Hartsfield last week with an hour before the boarding door closed. I had a five hour flight in front of me, and no pen in my bag. So I hustled down to One Flew South in Concourse E to bum a pen off of Tiffany before I got on my plane and started writing.