Why we should fall in love with problems, not solutions

1 June 2020

Design thinking

We’re fixated with answers, but we need to reignite our love for customer problems

In the first of a series, our Consumer Strategist Kieran Purcell dives into the topic popularised as 'design thinking'; here he discusses the importance of its core premise - putting the customer problem first, ahead of business problems and solutions.

It seems to be the norm in business that the larger and more complex an organisation becomes the more removed the key decision makers are from the lives, truths, and experiences of their customers.  

This isn’t intentional of course, or something that a company starting out would be aiming for, but unless there is a concerted effort, the amount of meaningful, real life insight flowing directly from the customer to core leaders decreases or becomes increasingly diluted over time. 

There has been a huge movement toward customer-centricity in the last thirty years; spear-headed by the research and insight movement in the 90’s, reinvigorated in the noughties by start-ups in Silicon Valley, and codified most recently with the rise of Design Thinking in business vernacular.  Most agree that being customer centric or “putting the customer at the centre of everything we do” is best practice. But we still see research, innovation, and customer immersion first on the chopping block when things get tight.

This is a dangerous situation. 

This can lead to the behaviours we are all familiar with; insular focus, insular conversations, focusing on our own business problems, making assumptions about our customers, their lives, desires, and behaviours. We write lots of plans and reports, our days get filled up with meetings about company initiatives, strategies, boardroom sessions, and reading research decks & trend reports. 

We increasingly obsess on business problems and solutions, rather than customer problems

This is not a criticism of people in big organisations. We have been there. It’s so easy to get stuck in the day to day details and processes in our business bubble. And it’s easy to feel like we’ve ticked the customer centricity box because we’ve run or reviewed some research. But hand on heart, how many of us could honestly say they’re super clear, confident and inspired about the customer problem they’re trying to solve?  And how much of our time over the last month did we spend out in the world, watching, observing, talking to customers, and exploring their moment of truth?  How many times have we worked on solutions and retrofitted the problem?

We’re fixated with answers, but we need to reignite our love for our customers' problems. Former Intuit CEO Brad Smith spoke about how it’s human nature to love our own ideas, but credits Intuit’s success with being staunchly focused on the customer problem rather than the solutions they came up with: 

“If you never lose sight of the problem, how you attack the solution can remain more flexible, iterative and ultimately, be more likely to succeed.”

Ultimately, if we’re not super clear about our customers problems it’s easy to waste time and money. We can work to make an existing product prettier and more appealing without looking up to check if the solution we are creating is actually hitting the mark. Does the product or service you are developing require any significant changes or even a pivot? We could simply be putting lipstick on a pig. History is littered with examples (cue Ford Edsel, Facebook Phone, Segway) of organisations spending loads of time and money developing, tinkering, amending, tweaking, retesting, updating a solution only to find the idea didn’t solve a customer problem in the first place.

And here’s the crux of the issue. Presentations, Ted talks, trends documents, short courses, basic research – the tools we turn to for enlightenment and insight – often don’t identify the real customer problem that unlocks valuable ideas. This “process” of insights can even get in the way of actually finding real life human discoveries. Reading about trends and conducting research is a positive, don't get us wrong.  But that work must go deep into the moment and immerse and uncover the real, felt consumer problems that unlock ideas. 

Capture context and embark with curiosity

The good news is that you don’t need to hire an expert, go on a 2-day design thinking course, or have a 6-month roll out plan to start the journey into understanding your customers problems; you just need to harness some curiosity and take action.

Two of the central tenets of design thinking are empathy with your customer context and defining the customer problem. There is no handbook or guide or course you can take that works as well as establishing a passion for going out and getting close to and living our customers experiences; their goals, joys, pain points and moments of truth. It’s hard to get this richness from spreadsheets and PowerPoint decks, or from behind the glass in a focus group facility. It comes from immersing curiously. This helps you to really feel, touch, experience and empathise with the what and the why of their behaviours - in the real-world moment of truth. And it feels exciting.

Don't seek the answer, seek the problem

Henry Ford stated, “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses”, and he’s right. But we are not looking for answers from customers, we are trying to understand their problems. This subtle switch in mindset allows your organisation to understand those things that customers don’t tell you. Go from creating solutions based on what you think they want, to creating solutions based on a deep understanding of the problems they are coming up against. Businesses that want to thrive in a changing world will get there through empathy, immersion, and understanding what their customers are facing so they can build solutions that create real value.   

Many people reading this are probably sitting there nodding their heads along in agreement, “we’ve heard it all before.” But how long has it been since you last left the office to interact with real customers on the ground, without leaving it to a particular person or team within the organisation or hiring a research agency to do it for you? The theoretical understanding of focusing on problems rather than solutions is not an issue, but we need to back this up in our intentions and behaviour. 

Where do we go from here?

There is no faster way to move towards a more problem-focused approach than spending time in the world with your customers. The customer problems are there, out in the world happening now, every day. We just need to get out and find them for ourselves.

In our upcoming design thinking articles, we'll explore the approaches we use to extract and bring to life real customer problems. If you'd like to hear more, subscribe to Frame or live chat to the team right here on this page. Why not say hi to Kieran on LinkedIn too?

Tags: Design thinking, Human centered design, Problem solving, Design, Innovation, Immersion