The Problem Changes As You Work On It

The story of how Post-it® notes were invented by accident is familiar: an adhesive failed for its primary purpose but found a new and useful one.  However, there is a lesson in this story that isn’t well known:  that it’s only through testing different solutions (adhesives) that we can really know what the problem is (the need for an adhesive that doesn’t fully adhere).  We’d like to think that there is a linear process that moves from defining a problem to be solved and then cleanly transitions into solving what’s been defined – that the process begins with understanding the goals and requirements and then finds the best way to meet these, with no overlap between the two and that the goals remain unchanged at the end.

The reality is (or at least should be) quite different. It can’t be a linear process. This is because the problem changes as you work on it, as you unearth new possibilities.  Let’s call this the “market theory of design strategy” –  you have to test your understanding of the demand (criteria, requirements, direction) with different scenarios for supply (of information, products, services, spaces, etc) in order to truly define the problem and develop the best solutions. This is why design strategy must be an iterative process (non-linear), why it needs to be participatory (get broader input into what the problem is and feedback on solutions), and why it needs to be integrative to find the best “equation” between supply and demand, without making trade-offs.

I like to think of a design brief as a recipe of sorts. It should define the goal, describe the ingredients, and offer direction on how they should go together  and why.  As with a recipe in a cookbook, there is still much work to be done to move from the printed page to a meal on a plate, and that takes creativity and experience. So, in order to strike the right balance between too much and too little information and between performance and prescription, I’ve found fluidly moving between demand and supply, definition and solution, to be an essential part of the briefing process.  Here are some examples:

  • Information Design:  At DEGW, in addition to often talking in terms of supply and demand, we often gather information on the importance and performance of a current feature/attribute so that we can prioritize. After one day plotting these data on a grid with low to high importance (x) and performance (y) , we discovered that this could easily be a workshop activity, a new way of gathering, discussing, and visualizing information.
  • Service Design:  In a recent library planning project, a new service model was envisioned for library staff to spend less time behind a counter or desk and more time roving and touching down within the public spaces, proactively engaging with their customers.  As we tested that concept, we saw a prominent space on each floor that was next to the elevator and atrium that would complement this approach by providing a homebase for these mobile staff where they could interface with users in a consistent place.
  • Workplace Design:  In creating design guidelines for the workplace of a technology company, we sought to define the kit of parts of spaces that make up the workplace and strategic direction in how they go together without being prescriptive, to enable variety.  For instance, we stipulated the quantity of small, informal meetings spaces to ensure that there would be enough and they’d be convenient. But, it was only when we tested these quantities that we realized this requirement could be met and still produce a poor workplace. So, we added a second criterion: the maximum travel distance between someone’s desk and these meeting spaces.

Following this market theory of design strategy enables the process to open up new possibilities and yields better results since they’ve been tested and provides a platform to build consensus. However, this is a more messy process – schedules and scopes may overlap, roles may blur, and it requires a greater tolerance for ambiguity; for instance , the McKinsey “MECE” (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive),  analytical mindset may not allow for this fruitful overlap of defining and solving problems. I say the mess is worth it. After all, how many times have you gone to the store with a shopping list, only to realize once you’re there that you left something off the list and didn’t need every item after all?