As I grow as a designer, the time I spend working on solutions has decreased. Not because I am faster, or even necessarily better, but because experience has taught me differently. My time isn’t spent on the solution, but rather on the problem. Defining the problem, understanding it, getting to know it, and finding the right one before starting on a resolution has been one of the most powerful techniques I’ve learned as a designer.

Don’t jump to solutions

When a question is phrased differently it can yield a different answer. Asking ‘what are you working on today?’ might be asked with the same intention as ‘can you complete this task today?’. Similar intent? Sure. But the two questions will result in wildly different answers. It’s the same for design. A different approach, a different angle, a new insight, and the best solution will change.

As a designer, the temptation is to jump to a solution as soon as possible. You get to be the hero: the client is happy, you’ve saved time, and demonstrated how efficient you are. Well done, right? Unfortunately, shortcuts often have consequences. You learn people weren’t forthcoming with information, or the client asks about another audience that wasn’t considered. It might be easy to point blame at the client, but the mistake is yours. You didn’t find the right problem. Not enough time was spent in discovery: asking the right questions, poking the problem, and asking ‘what if’.

Now it’s back to the drawing board to find another solution. There goes time, there goes efficiency, and what a frustrating experience for you (and the client and your team). If only you’d spent more time with the problem.

Part of your job is to run the design process—making sure you run a thoughtful and comprehensive discovery phase defining the problem. Whenever I’ve been wrong with a design solution, it’s because I haven’t correctly defined or understood all angles of the problem.

Got ninety-nine problems, but a solution ain’t one

I’ve never come across a design problem with a single solution. There are quick fixes, hacky solutions, time-consuming solutions, many, many different ways to solve the problem. With so many solutions, choosing the strongest one comes down to your understanding of the problem. If you aren’t solving the right problem, then your solution won’t last. Don’t sink your time into a solution until you know that it is the strongest one – and you can’t know that until you’ve done the groundwork finding and defining the problem.

Problems are a team sport

There is one more powerful step before you work on a solution: align the entire team to the problem. Internal teams, executive teams, and the client should all be aligned that the problem being worked on is the problem.

Taking the time with this extra step has saved me countless hours (and frustration) throughout my design career. Your team may point out any assumptions you have made in examining the or have made different assumptions. Before you spend time executing a solution—which can be unravelled—get everyone on the same page.

Solutions are unimportant

Once you come to a solution, don’t get attached to it. It’s human nature to attach ourselves to our work. All that time and hard work that went into them, the sense of accomplishment, the beautiful outcome, the hit of dopamine you get from being ‘right’. As soon as you attach yourself to a solution, the problem has beaten you. You love the solution and your ability to see the problem is clouded.

Let go of your solutions—they don’t matter. Obsess over the problem and it will make you and it will make the result much stronger.

Enjoy your problems

The longer you spend dissecting a problem, the better the ultimate solution. Often the solution becomes more apparent, possibly even easy. It’s because you gave it the time and effort it deserved. Spend more time finding the problem, not the solution. Your problems will thank you.

 

Let’s solve problems together!

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