The problem with being a “problem solver”

How a generation of designers are selling themselves short.

A young man and an old man decide to build a house, so they set out in search of wood. Deep in the forest, they find a mighty oak, big enough to supply all the wood they need. But no matter how hard they swing, their axes can’t pierce the bark of the tree. Eventually they fall to the ground exhausted.

After a while the young man speaks. “The problem is that the bark of this tree is too strong. We must find a different tree.” He picks up his axe and sets off deeper into the forest.

The old man stays behind. He gazes up at the tree and then feels the edge of his axe with his thumb. “The problem,” he says “is that our axes are too blunt”. He takes a whetstone, sharpens his axe, and has soon chopped down the tree.

Hours later, the young man returns empty-handed. “How did you get this wood?” he asks incredulously “I searched the whole forest, but I couldn’t find a single tree I could cut!”.

The old man smiles “While you were searching for the right solution, I found the right problem”.

Good designers solve problems. But as Don Norman says, great designers do something else as well.

“The rule I teach my students, is: Do not solve the problem that’s asked of you. It’s almost always the wrong problem. Almost always when somebody comes to you with a problem, they’re really telling you the symptoms and the first and the most difficult part of design is to figure out what is really needed to get to the root of the issue and solve the correct problem.”

Imagine if you were asked to design a better bike helmet. You might make it smaller, lighter, more aerodynamic. You might come up with something like this:

But now imagine the brief didn’t mention a helmet. Instead, imagine you were asked to come up with a better way to protect a cyclist’s head. Suddenly by changing the problem, you’re completely changing the list of possible solutions. And by doing that, you might let yourself come up with this:

The Hövding is an airbag for cyclists. It’s stored in a “scarf” around your neck until a crash triggers it to inflate. It doesn’t mess up your hair. It looks cool. And in a crash, it provides 3x the shock absorption of a regular helmet.

By reframing the problem, the designers of the Hövding came up with something that wasn’t a helmet at all. That’s the power of problem definition. And that’s why the best designers spend so much time doing it.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” — Albert Einstein

We shape our tools and then our tools shape us

The last few years there’s been an explosion of tools for design. Sketch, InVision, Pixate, Marvel, Zeplin. Tools for visual design, illustration, prototyping, animation, working better with developers. An avalanche of new tools for all of these things.

On one hand, this has been great for the field of design. A few years ago, hardly any designers were building interactive prototypes. Now it’s become a standard part of the typical design process.

But there’s another side to the story as well. Because the more tools we have, the narrower the definition of “design” seems to become. These tools are starting to define a profession. A profession of problem solvers.

The results of a Twitter search for “designer and problem solver”

The results of a Twitter search for “designer and problem solver”

Khoi Vinh’s recent survey The Tools Designers Are Using Today covered six categories, all of which seem to assume that someone else had already written a brief.

UXPin (a prototyping tool) even puts this on their homepage:

Sure, a big part of design is about solving problems. But what about figuring out what to design in the first place? Analysing your research? Building models to understand user behaviour? What about the million other things that happen before a pixel ends up on the screen?

These new tools are for the end of the design process. Where are the tools for the beginning?

Design can be so much more

Thinking like a “problem solver” puts a ceiling on what you can do. But when you embrace the hardest part of being a designer, you can take your work to another level.

So before you go looking for solutions, make sure you’ve got the right problem. Don’t give up until your find it. Then sharpen your axe and start swinging.