Double your output by solving the real problem

This happened to my team last month:

We wasted hours on a button. Choosing and tweaking a fiddly little icon, sweating over padding, exploring colours and gradients, starting to change nearby buttons too... 

We felt like we were following a rich vein of "making everything better." In reality, we were spinning our wheels. It was pathological scope creep.

In the end, we scrapped the lot. It took me 10 minutes to make what we actually needed: a simple little grey button with some green text.

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When this happens on a tiny scale, like this button, it's not such a big deal. But on a grander scale, like an entire website, it can be a devastating waste of time. 

Wouldn't it be great if we could stop wasting all that time? 

Imagine avoiding the pain of binning the work. Imagine how much more we’d get done each day if we didn’t keep reinventing the wheel.

There’s an approach for doing just that. The catch is that it’s simple but not easy, which is why we forgot to follow it last month. It’s this:

First, define the problem

Problem solving is the real skill of the designer. Not aesthetics. I've known this for 2 decades, having read it in countless design books and discussed it with countless designers. But I don't think I really "got it" on a gut level till relatively recently.

If you don’t define the problem, you’re just pixelwanking

As designers, pushing pixels is bread and butter. We enjoy it and it's easy for us. In some (misguided) people’s eyes, making pixels pretty is what we get paid for.

And it is a valuable skill. Until we start wasting time pushing the wrong pixels. Then we’re pixelwanking.

We can always tweak "just one more thing”. And we can’t stop, because we don’t know what “finished” will be like when we get there.

This is when our very identity as Designer works against us and we can slip into Making Everything Better By Design mode. That's when we’re asked for a button and come back three weeks later having redesigned the Internet.

So stop.

Step away from the mouse. 

Introduce problem-definition into your process.

The hardest part of solving a problem is understanding what the problem really is

A well-defined problem gives you an “Aha!” moment. When you’ve "got it", you can confidently answer the question, “why are we doing this work?” 

If you can't answer that, you face two risks:

  1. you waste time solving the wrong problem
  2. you suffer cognitive dissonance that clogs up your subconscious creative engine

It won’t come easily. Important, satisfying things never do. The path of creativity never runs smooth and there is no panacea.

Defining a problem is every bit as creative a task as solving it

It can be helpful to work on defining the problem for a half hour and then go for a walk or meditate before coming back to it. You almost certainly need to spend a bit more time with your users so you can really understand things from their perspective.

Note that sometimes your problem will be that you don’t know what the problem really is. Then you may have to try a few paths that may turn out to be blind alleys. That’s ok, as long as it’s intentional. Plan to fail fast, prototype rapidly, test your assumptions with users.

The good old 80/20 rule strikes again

Defining the problem is 20% of the work, but it will get you 80% of the way to a solution. In some cases, defining a problem just makes it go away. Then you can have a doughnut instead.

And while you’re enjoying your doughnut, why not grab my free worksheet for defining the problem?