What is problem space
A problem space is not about a problem that you or somebody else in your organization has identified; That’s just one problem.
A problem space is about building a robust and dependable map of opportunities for your organization–a map that is protected from assumptions or biases. It emerges from the inner thoughts, emotions, and principles of people outside your organization.
Growing up all of us are taught to solve problems, to come up with ideas. That’s the way that we graduate school, and land the next promotion. We are swimming in a culture that celebrates “solving”, but does very little to equip us with the tools to find problems worth solving.
Most organizations concentrate their efforts around the discovery and development of solutions. These organizations operate in the solution space where speed is of the essence. Metrics are based on “users” doing what the organization intended: engagement, OKRs, KPIs, etc. Every tool and method is then aimed at “customers,” “passengers,” “members,” “participants,” or any of those other nouns you might use to reference somebody that the organization is trying to support or market to. This focus has meant that the tools of the solution space do not allow you to understand people beyond the narrow lens of their relationship to your solutions.
What keeps you up at night
Building products & services is hard. But it’s even harder to create products & services that meet the actual needs of people, and thereby provide a competitive advantage and a viable path to success. True, there is a growing body of frameworks to aid you on that path. And yet, how many times have you gone through the process of discovery, experimentation, and scaling, diligently following one or the other framework only to find the results disappointing? How many times have you had to abandon a goal or metric, or found that it has fallen short of supporting those it was purported to support?
The question is, why it is that despite the increasing productivity of teams, and the abundance of new frameworks, solutions fail. From Facebook to Amazon, organizations are realizing that some of their best solutions are actually harming the humans they purport to support.
Solution Space: All these ideas but little innovation and growth
Some of the challenges we face:
- All that teams know of the people their work supports is the sliver of information the org gathers through the usage of their solutions
- The lack of deep understanding is compounded by the rapid pace of solution development
- Teams are often prohibited from using all the research tools at their disposal
- Orgs are guided by metrics that focus only on the org’s intentions, not the people they seek to serve
- Teams can unwittingly introduce bias and false assumptions in their findings
- The solutions these orgs create, at best, serve a subset of people well, but leave most people with an ill-fitting experience. At worst, they harm those who could benefit most.
Problem Space: The source of opportunities
The problem space is about understanding people and their larger purpose. I use the word “person,” and I try to understand the person’s purpose without relationship to a solution or a specific organization. Sometimes, it scares organizations when they have to forego “users” and “customers” in favor of “persons”. But if we realize that what brings any person to our organization in the first place is the alignment of a piece of their purpose with our offerings, it would make sense to invest in a holistic understanding of their purpose. This robust understanding would then become the fertile ground upon which we can cultivate innovations that stick, ideas that truly serve different subsets, and growth that is sustainable.
Today, organizations are starting to realize they’ve not invested enough in understanding the problem space. They’ve been spending budget studying their solution, its design, and its use through quantitative and qualitative methods. But they haven’t balanced that by understanding the problems people are trying to solve in the first place.
The Problem Space Method
Understanding the problem space takes different skills than traditional user research. If you are interested in learning about my process, the following links could give you a great start:
- Books on problem space by Indi Young
- About problem space method: From listening sessions, to thinking styles, to Mental Model diagrams
Problem space in action
Links coming soon