how to frame your problem space study

Two acute parallelogram shapes framing the sky

newsletter #5  |  16-Feb-2016

Most organizationss imagine they understand the problem, and don’t take time to research it. They are content to use what they imagine as the basis for developing their solution. The problem space is where they’ll get their strongest insights and innovations, but you wouldn’t suspect this based on the amount of effort put toward exploring their solution and the people using it.

I just returned from the ConveyUX conference in Seattle where I gave a presentation and offered a little Q&A for attendees during the breaks. I’d like to share with you one question in particular, since it will help you focus on the problem, not the solution.

Q: “How do I scope a study for a client who makes time-tracking software for employees who must clock-in and clock-out at work?”

Clock-in and clock-out? Not as in consultants or employees at a digital agency, but as in employees arriving at a specific physical location, where time spent at that location is considered “working.” Dock workers, Starbucks baristas, stock clerks, etc.

When scoping research, the most important thing to do is clarify why you are doing it. In my case the reason is always to understand the problem space. I ignore the solution, and decline invitations from my clients to review or demo their products. Not only do I want my mind free of specific implementations and design problems, but I also want my mind clear of the whole solution space entirely. I want to come from a place where I don’t care about solutions, but instead care only (for the time being) about what each person is trying to accomplish in the larger sense. I don’t care about “tracking time” but instead I explore what’s behind that act: perhaps “calculate wages” or “avoid lawsuits stemming from neglect of Federal workplace requirements.” Exploring this larger sense across participants yields clarity between distinct parts of the cognition process and between behavioral audiences. Your organization can then choose whom and what to support more deeply, and design that support based on a much deeper understanding of how people are approaching the problem.

A: There are two different scopes to explore, one for stakeholders and one for employees.

From the stakeholder (employer) side, the larger intent is to calculate wages based on the hours an employee spent on the clock, as well as a few other accounting and HR things. So, for listening sessions conducted with these stakeholders, the opening question could be, “What have been your concerns, ideas, and battles in the past couple of months about accuracy of employee accounting?” And you would dig into each instance to discover their thinking styles and decision-making philosophies.

For employees, though, the purpose of clocking in and out goes no deeper than that–clocking in and out. Employees don’t like being required to do it. They wish they could forget about it. (At this point there was the joke about inserting an RFID under the skin of each employee, ha, ha.) So what is the larger purpose from an employee point of view? They want to get paid accurately, but that’s a desire, not necessarily a problem. We could choose only employees who have had to correct problems with their paychecks, but that would mostly uncover explanations of the correction process and opinions about the tools the process requires. This is not a lucrative avenue of investigation because it circles the solution in place, not the larger purpose the employee is trying to accomplish–the problem space. To get closer to the larger purpose, explore what goes through an employee’s mind leading up to and after the act of starting and ending a period of work. What other intentions is on their mind? Here are the opening questions for employees, “What went through your mind as you were getting ready to work each of the past several (or memorable or significant) workdays? What thoughts went through your mind at the end of certain of those work periods?” Possibly we’ll hear about things they want to accomplish that day, or that they need to go see their boss about something, or anticipating the first order of the day. The patterns you find across employees will outline areas that matter to them, in conceptual categories that will give your team clarity about where time-tracking might fit, especially if it were twisted to become a background component of prioritizing the to-do list, or checking in with the boss, or taking a customer order, if those things have a digital aspect.


Recommended Reading

At the conference in Seattle I was asked to suggest some books to read about some of the subjects that came up.

Books I referenced when writing my books:

A gorgeous story about cultivating a caring artificial intelligence (science fiction):

  • Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Extra inspiration for the future of humanity, based on the above author’s works, with sound bites from Carl Sagan (video):


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