Perhaps it’s human nature, but people don’t seem to like to talk about problems. Problems are downers. It feels icky to talk about problems. Nobody likes a complainer. 

On the other hand, talking about solutions feels good. You may have heard the management saying: “Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions.” Offering solutions means we’re contributing. We’re useful. We’re helping. 

We run into this in our work all the time. Whether it’s clients, developers, marketers, product owners, or UXers like me, everyone comes to the table anxious to suggest a fix. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a website or app or a brand looking to redefine itself; it’s almost universally too easy to jump right in to fixing things. 

So, is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, but the risk is this: if you don’t really know what problem you’re solving, you’re less likely to come up with the best way to fix it. In some cases, if you apply the wrong solution, you could even make it worse. 

A better solution? Fall in love with the problem.

There’s an old design saying: “Great designers don’t fall in love with the solution. Great designers fall in love with the problem.” It’s not just good advice for designers. 

No matter your role on a project or in an organization, falling in love with the problem means allowing your solutions to be wrong. It means any potential course, regardless of how passionately you believe in it, doesn’t mean squat until you can confirm it addresses the real issue that’s affecting real people. Our ideas are not precious. The problem is. 

Not convinced? Here's five (more) good reasons to be problem-focused

If the inherent risk in spending time and budget to build something that doesn’t actually meet user needs isn’t enough, here are five additional benefits: 

  1. It builds deeper customer empathy. Really understanding the problem requires talking with customers and end users. Every one of those conversations deepens insights and knowledge, and adds empathy for your customers' experiences
  2. You'll enjoy better team alignment...and better solutions. Backing up from solutions to focus on problems helps cure teams of a “deliver first” mentality, and instead focuses on understanding. This can reveal even more optimal approaches that might've otherwise been missed. It also ensures everyone understands, and is working on, the same (and highest priority) problem
  3. Often provides ripple effects to other efforts. Higher-quality insights focused on addressing real customer issues usually brings along benefits both within and outside the immediate effort or project. It's not uncommon to find you can apply what you've learned and make other work better
  4. Enables easier buy-in. Once you can show a proposed solution truly addresses specific problem(s), it’s usually much easier for stakeholders and decision makers to see value, and streamlines agreement on approach
  5. Facilitates clearer prioritization. Connecting tactical work to the customer-facing problems we expect it'll solve immediately adds a layer of objectivity when we’re prioritizing efforts, and makes it harder for individual opinions to influence direction

How do you get started?

Well, one tactic is to just...start. Challenge your team when they begin by offering solutions. A good question to have on hand is, "What problem are we solving with that? And how do we know that's really a problem our users are having?" If nobody has a good answer, it's probably worth taking a step back. Talk is cheap. Ill-advised development is expensive.

Interested in knowing more? Stay tuned for a follow-up post where we'll go into a bit more detail, covering actionable ways you and your team can become more problem-focused, and reveal better solutions that will better serve your customers, your business, and your brand.