Business Analysis, Business Case, Product Development, User Analysis, User-centered Design

Whenever we start working on a new product or project, we are often rushed into creating ‘the  solution’. Pressure builds up from all directions and we are but forced to start delivering the solution from the day one.  This is where my problem lies…not being able to work on and understand the problem itself, but still trying to solve it.  For instance, whenever you go to a doctor with an ailment or complaint,  he does not give you treatment straight away. The physician asks you a set of questions, listens to your responses, understands what your problems are and then starts giving you the correct treatment. They call it ‘diagnosis’ and we all are happy to be diagnosed without asking any question to anybody, including ourselves. Then why is the resistance to adopt the same approach in other spheres of our work and life?  Taking specifically the case of you, me and all of us, IT professionals and experts, I write this post to highlight the approach we should adopt to understand, define and communicate the problems before resorting to solutions.

Problems, needs, challenges & opportunities

Most of us use the terms problems and needs interchangeably in varying contexts. I am not too tied down to using any one terminology over the other.  Bottom line is that we have to make an effort to identify them, define correctly, and strive to solve the problems or fulfill the needs. Some people also use opportunities in the same vein to convey that these have to be understood, pursued and addressed. You might have also come across the suggestion to replace the negative connotation of problems with its more positive and pragmatic counterpart, challenges. As I said, I am flexible on this and you can choose whatever you might like among the four terms problems, needs, challenges and opportunities. However, from a product manager’s perspective, my personal preference is to use the terms problems or needs, because they convey some sense of urgency and cry for addressing them and solving them at the earliest :)

Texavi’s Model for Problems and Solutions

I would like to touch upon briefly the model I evolved at Texavi to have a better handle at problems and solutions. The image below provides a clear distinction between problem space and solution space. As you can see, focus on the problem domain first helps us understand the WHAT and WHY which enable us to get to define the TO-BE WHAT and HOW to reach there.  Also, this platform independent model lets you apply the methods and rules to any platform, technology. I shall discuss more on this in a separate blog post.

 

Problems drive solutions

Yes, problems do drive solutions and not vice versa. It is imperative to specify the problems first and then accordingly, direct our attention to the solutions. I would like to take the analogy of train and engine to put forward my point about problems and solutions. My fascination for trains and being a son of a Railways employee, I couldn’t but think of a better example.  A train is driven by the engine and not by the bogies attached to it.  No matter whether the engine is placed in the front or back of the train, it still powers the train and makes it move. Similarly, understanding the problems always helps us to find the correct solutions to tackle those problems.

   

How do you get to the problems

Well, by now you might have been convinced that problems are as important as, if not more important than solutions. The next obvious question that might come to your mind is how we can identify the problems, in the first place. From experience, I realized that problem solving is best when it is solved where it has come from. To be able to spot the problems in the correct way, we need to really have an open mind, with an inquisitive  approach leading to exploration and discovery. This is quite different when you approach the solutions, which might need a one-pointed focus,  with deep dive approach leading to generation of ideas and implementation of solution.

I follow a set of unwritten rules when trying to work in the problem space. These facilitate me by providing the right directions for the flow of my thinking. You can find the following pointers helpful in structuring your thoughts and approach to problem identification:

  • What are the problems?
  • Whose problems am I trying to solve?
  • Why are these problems existing in the first place?
  • Where can I start with my solution? Which problems need my attention, first?
  • When can these problems said to be solved?
  • How can I solve these problems?

My mantra for problems and solutions

Based on my experience as an analyst over the years, trying to find problems and solve them, I created a small mantra to help myself.  This helps me focus and leverage the powerful relationship between problems and solutions. It is applicable to most situations, and helps all of us in any sphere of work and life. In fact, this entire post is based on this one and I would urge you, especially the product managers and business analysts among you to note it well and try and put into practice.

Know problems…know solutions

No problems…no solutions!

I hope that you find this post helpful to set the direction and help change your views about the problems and solutions. I will cover more details on the proven methodologies that we evolved at Texavi Innovative Solutions. As always, your feedback is welcome. Until next post, Ciao!

 

Agile Development, Information Technology, Product Development, User Experience, User-centered Design

People often ask me what I think, are the most important factors that contribute to the success of a product. My answer varies depending on the nature of the product, the person asking the question and my mood in that moment, to name a few. But interestingly, if we draw up a list of the responses to this question, the two items that top my list are simplicity and consistency. Yes, there is no doubt that these two aspects of user experience help to a largest extent in making any product, a huge hit. In this post,  I will cover the first one, ‘simplicity’ and how we can leverage this powerful yet ‘simple’ usability mantra to turn your products and applications into a success.

Simplicity sells

Yes, simplicity does sell and sells, all by itself. Its perhaps the biggest value proposition in your product. In any industry and any geographic market whatsoever, you have hundreds and thousands of products and variants. There is a huge margin of difference between the leading few and the following majority. Often this boils down to one super differentiating factor and that is simplicity. It works wonders not just before sales, but also after the sale is done during the usage by end-users. This positive experience during the product usage prompts more usage, referrals and increased sales, overall.

A case in point is the search industry in the 1990s. Most of the web sites and applications at that time, including the then search leaders like Altavista and MSN had their web pages all cluttered with too much content. Google then understood that the only way to make users happy was by uncluttering and uncomplicating their search experience. They did this by keeping it really simple, with the entire page being occupied by a text box and a button. Need I say more about the success of Google search and how this powerful execution of minimalist design made Google the giant that it is today, not just in search but in software, mobile and many more product areas.

Less is More

In the words of the great architect, Ludwig Van Der Rohe, “Less is More”  has been a watchword for the architects, designers and stylists. A pithy motto which says it all and stands by its meaning, simplicity is just that . While some designers also refer to this school of simplicity  as ‘Minimalist Design’, other professionals and users might prefer to call it ‘working easy’. Making things simple is often a complicated process in itself and does ask for a methodical/systematic approach in the product development space. In this post, I wish to mention a few tips and techniques that I follow as part of my product engineering practice. You might see that these are just a few in the hundreds of ways, and for simplicity’s sake, I will focus on a few things because, less is more. :)

Let us ‘uncomplicate’

There is no dearth of complexity in our lives and professions. We are inundated with huge number of problems, challenges, and pain areas to give enough exercise to our body, mind and soul. Obviously we don’t want the products that we use to add up to this already complicated and stressful situation.  The only way we can try and help ourselves is by looking at the problems and looking for the solutions that make it really easy.

  

There are various ways to attempt this uncomplication. However, the underlying concept is that you first need to identify the complexities involved and then find ways to remove or minimize them. To be able to do this, I suggest you try and get answers to the following questions.

  • Whose problem is it?
  • What problem(s) do you need to solve?
  • Why were the problems there in the first place?
  • How does solving this problem help the person(s)?
  • Where can we go from here?

Reduce the cognitive load

The gateway to simplifying the product lies in the extent of cognitive load on users. I would say that this is the first and foremost step in the way to deliver a great user experience. This cognitive load could be in the form of visual or textual elements, for example when we refer to the presentation layer. It could take the shape of deep levels of navigation or the manner in which the elements are laid out by the information architecture. This is so important an aspect of the product engineering model, that I planned to write a separate blog post on this in the near future.

Cure Featuritis with simplicity

Most of the product managers are pretty well aware that they have a potential evil that they constantly need to fight off and that is Featuritis.  However much they try, they invariably fall into the trap of adding more features and functionality, without validating how beneficial or what value they add to the product and its users. In a never-ending chase to build a better mouse-trap, the product takes the shape of a mammoth white elephant. Or just to exaggerate, the product could turn up into a ‘Frankenstein monster’ whose course cannot be controlled any longer by the product management team.

In the context of  electronics, computers and software products &  applications too, there has been an increase in the complexity scale corresponding to the rapid increase in the number of products. For instance, just jog your memory, thinking about the size of the device and the number of buttons on your  Television remote control as you changed your Telly sets over the years. These are a great proof that with time and number of products in the eco-system, the complexity only increases and the converse may not be true all the time.

 

The only cure for this disease is Simplicity. Ask yourself the following questions when you want to add any new feature or make changes to an existing functionality.

  • Who is this feature meant for?
  • What problem is it trying to solve? or how does it help the person?
  • Which users’ task is this feature relate to?
  • How better can we make the product/process?
  • How different is this feature from similar ones in previous versions or competitors’ products?

Push them under the carpet

You don’t have to give everything upfront and right on the first level. Understand the goals of your users from their own perspectives. Identify the tasks mapping to these goals or needs. For each task, you need to identify its importance and urgency.  Then decide where in the order of things, you need to place the task and corresponding feature. It might happen that the feature needs to placed not at the top level, but somewhere deep down in the 2nd or 3rd levels of the hierarchy. That should be perfectly fine because you based your decision on the sound logic and understanding of the users’ needs and their key tasks.

A perfect example for this is the all too popular Swiss army knife. Give all the options to users, but let them decide how they wish to use a specific option, depending on the circumstances and context of usage.

Not just ‘ease of use’

Some people would equate simplicity to ‘ease of use’. But I think that simplicity goes way beyond ease of use and it is the effect of an all encompassing experience not just related to usage of the product.  During the analysis, design and development of products, teams must take note of simplicity as a mandatory requirement for the product. In fact, the biggest measure for their effort and productivity is directly proportional to the success of the product in that how simpler the product got when compared to its previous version or that of the competitors’.

My five tips for simplicity

Finally, you can check how effective and simple your product has been designed and developed. I suggest you popup the following questions putting yourself in the shoes of the users and with their conceptual model in your mind. When you are satisfied with the answers that you give yourself, well you have got a product that flies!

  • What can I do with this product or app?… (Functionality)
  • Where am I now and where can I go from here?… (Navigation)
  • What should I do now to make <something> happen?… (Interaction)
  • Is it pleasing to the eyes? …(Presentation)
  • Is there help, ready and when I need it?…(Help)

With this I end this post, and hope you enjoyed reading it and find it useful. Please do drop a line if you have any suggestions or questions. Until next post, ciao!