Before you design a solution, you need to know what problem you are trying to solve. I often have students who want to create startup ideas that solve a personal problem. One of my students wanted a better way to share music. Another wanted to create a way to earn Boy Scout merit badges online.
However, each of these students needs to define the problem space to determine whether their solutions—online education and peer-to-peer recommendations—were really a problem for other people. In other words, is this problem a pain point for just you or are there others? Is there a real problem with a large enough market that needs a solution? To define the problem space, we need to start with a more expansive view of what we are dealing with to determine what might be the best solution.
Remember the three questions we asked in part 1 of our blog?
Feasibility: Can we do this?
Viability: Should we do this?
Desirability: Do they want this?
At this point in the process, we are trying to answer the desirability question…Do they want this? So we have to define who is the “they” in this question, and then brainstorm to discover the “this” or solution in the question we want to test. We can use human-centered design to experiment and match our solutions to customer needs at the sweet spot in the center of feasibility, viability, and desirability.
WORKING THE PROBLEM SPACE
So let’s say you are trying to develop concierge college admissions services. That’s the business you want to create. But what is the problem you are trying to solve? Often, students jump to a solution before diving deeply into understanding the problem space. Who is experiencing pain? Is it painful enough that people are seeking solutions and willing to shell out money?
Stanford University’s D-School has developed exercises for brainstorming and developing ideas. LUMA Institute and IDEO.org are two additional companies that help organizations think more expansively and deliver ideas that meet human needs.
To visualize who is impacted by the problem you are trying to solve, you can use a stakeholder map to get a sense of the problem space, the actors in it, and who your solutions might address.
For example, students in a social media class were attempting to create tools and strategies to reach out to potential undergraduate students for college admissions. Of course, they started with the pain points and perspective of high school students having recently been in the search for colleges themselves. However, by identifying other stakeholders that play a role in the admissions process, the students were able to identify other pain points and possible solutions that addressed parents, admission counselors, and other stakeholders in the map (Figure 6).
To begin, you need stickies and limited drawing ability. Also a large blank canvas of paper.
Create small teams of two to six people. Each person in the team gets sticky notes and a marker.
Independently, team members are invited to brainstorm potential stakeholders in the problem space. In our example above, we went beyond the college organization to look at the role of parents, high school counselors, government agencies, and others play in the college decision process. Individual work should be given about one minute.
Collectively, the team goes through its stakeholders, identifying commonalities and defining the roles more clearly by adding a visual element or a speech bubble to suggest what the person may be saying or thinking. These stakeholder stickies are put up on the blank canvas by consensus of the group.
Organize the stakeholders by grouping entities that are linked by geography or processes. Use lines to draw relationships between stakeholders. For example, a line between parents and the financial aid office of a college might be drawn with dollar signs on it.
Discuss in the group where there are breakdowns, pain points, and other places where innovation might help to solve the problem. These discussions can then be used to refine who the customer might be for your efforts — students, parents, college administrators, etc. — and who will pay for your solution.
Select the stakeholders that you will continue to ideate around as potential customers.
One exercise, found at LUMA Institute, is designed to ask “What if?” types of questions: open-ended questions that become the jumping point for brainstorming. Sample statement starters include: What if_____? or How might we_____? These statement starters are then attached to the problems you’ve identified in your stakeholder mapping exercise. Brainstorming then happens around the problem you’ve identified.
IDEO has a design kit with many examples.
OTHER TOOLS YOU CAN USE
IDEO’s Design Kit resource will help you work with students in brainstorming exercises like the Mash Up which encourages students to think outside of the box to create brilliant proposals and solutions.
Check out this collection of Human-Centered Design methods you can use to guide students in the ideation phase.
LUMA offers an online platform to help people implement Human-Centered Design using LUMA’s “flexible, repeatable and easy-to-learn” system of Human-Centered Design.
Exploring your hunch is a huge part of Human-Centered Design. Here is a useful tool to get those ideas and creative juices flowing by exploring and testing your hunch.
The card game Aha! created by the City University of New York allows students to juxtapose an emerging technology with an audience or need.
Help students to prioritize, communicate, and strategize using this synthesis tool and team activity.
Try these pointers to structure and organize brainstorming sessions to ensure they are truly engaging, meaningful, and successful.
Eric Ries of The Lean Startup advocates “failing fast.” What he’s suggesting is that teams quickly move through the ideation stage to customer discovery and testing phases, tossing out assumptions and ideas that fail to meet customer needs.
IDEAS → BUILD (CODE) → MEASURE (DATA) →LEARN
You and your team will engage in a process of validated learning…confirming your assumptions through user testing, research, interviews, or ethnography. You may also build test sites or “smoke tests”—fake websites that walk users through the solution to see if they will pull out their wallet and buy (but don’t use your real domain name for these tests). You may pivot or change ideas after getting feedback or may find yourself back at the empathy stage, gathering more information about the problem space before creating new solutions. The idea is to stay lean and iterate quickly through ideas: build, measure, and learn.
With validated learning, you can test your value hypothesis — the value proposition that you are offering to your customers — or your growth hypothesis, how you intend to scale your company by testing new markets, or types of users. A hypothesis template looks like this:
We believe that ______ will cause [the users] to [do this action/behavior] because of [value proposition].
An example might be:
We believe that an augmented reality shopping app will cause brick-and-mortar shoppers to walk into stores more frequently because of the urgency and proximity of the deals and discounted offers.
Hypotheses are tested using the traditional research methodologies and a prototype or minimum viable product (MVP) of your idea. A prototype is a reduced version of your actual product or service, featuring just key features or functions. Version One of your product has every feature and function that users might need. A prototype can be developed in a few hours or days, while your first full version may take months.
Your team will define the hypothesis, determine how you will test the hypothesis, and assess what you learned from the results. Developers use A/B testing to try two different solutions and see which one gets the best response. This testing might be two different designs of a home page, testing color schemes or even two different solutions.
Before you spend valuable time and money rolling out a product that no one needs, a prototype and idea testing can help refine your ideas and discard or enhance your product or service features.
Once you have identified the problem your group intends to solve, you must ask if another product already addresses it. If so, how? Conduct a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis from the point of view of the competition. (Download a free worksheet.) Do this for each close competitor, large or small, until you clearly identify your niche and are able to refine your target market.
Links to articles that describe brainstorming, ideation, and design thinking.