One of the first steps of any successful business, non-profit, design sprint, initiative, or product is finding a problem to solve. It also can be an intimidating step. How is it that we can easily identify issues in our normal lives, yet when we decide to build a product or service it becomes so much harder to separate the problem and the solution? It’s one of the mysteries of the universe.
To help out, here are 79 techniques you can use to find problems in the systems around you. They are organized by the type of work involved, so each category may be attractive to different sides of your personality or members of your team.
Just like working out, sometimes you have lower energy and other times you’re unstoppable, so this list provides a range of options for whatever mood you’re in. I recommend applying a couple of strategies from each category so you can get a fuller picture of the problem space. Maybe you apply one strategy per day or week until you discover the problem you want to tackle.
Depending on what you’re trying to do, there may be certain strategies or sequences that will work better, but the first step is getting to the point where you’re noticing problems to solve everywhere. I’ll cover how to prioritize (given what you’re trying to achieve) in other posts.
As you go through the list, think about ways you could apply these four angles to the activities:
- Follow a person: Pick someone and look at life from his or her perspective. Ex. A parent, doctor, employee, or customer.
- Follow a process: Choose a start and end point and examine what is happening in that process. Ex. Portal-to-payment, a doctor’s visit, or your product design life cycle.
- Follow an artifact: Follow a document, prototype, product, or data element as if there was an RFID chip on it. Ex. Cradle-to-grave analysis of an article of clothing.
- Look for waste: Look for areas where time, money, or other resources are either unnecessarily spent or underutilized. Ex. Duplication of effort, waiting, defects, or untapped skills.
We’ll walk through techniques that will appeal to seven different roles:
- The Reader
- The Data Analyst
- The Visual Thinker
- The Journalist
- The Ethnographer
- The Meditator
- The Facilitator
Techniques for “The Reader”
Let’s kick it off with some research activities. These are great for times when you’re in a reading/viewing mode and looking to collect information and absorb new content passively.
For learning more about problems that individuals are having, in their own words:
- Look for questions in Twitter chats or under Twitter hashtags.
- Review questions and comments in relevant forums such as Quora.com, LinkedIn or Facebook groups.
- Read blog posts.
- Read comments on articles, blog posts, and videos.
- Attend talks and conferences and pay attention to the Q&A sections.
- Watch Youtube videos to learn about workarounds and DIYs.
- Watch Youtube videos of product reviews.
- Run a free user test or review videos of real people giving feedback on other sites via Peek User Testing.
For learning about how other people approach problems:
- Review best practices. Read whitepapers and trade publications for popular and successful techniques that have worked in similar settings.
- Look at what the industry performers and competitors are doing to solve customer problems. What are they doing well? Are they creating any new problems? Is anyone left underserved?
- Look outside of your industry for inspiration. There are some universal problems that may have been solved somewhere else but haven’t made it to your field yet. Ex. The Lean Startup movement was inspired by the Toyota production system.
For understanding what problems other researchers have uncovered:
- Read industry papers, articles, and white papers.
- Watch documentaries and videos.
- Read news articles and underline problem statements.
- Review reports created by other people in your organization.
- Search Goodreads for book recommendations, reading lists, and book club groups related to your topics of interest.
- Look for innovation challenges posted by governments, non-profits, and universities.
Techniques for “The Data Analyst”
For when you get an urge to crunch some numbers and look at charts:
- Add sensors or other tracking mechanisms to measure different parts of the process. Check out “How to measure anything: Finding the value of ‘intangibles’ in business” by Douglas W. Hubbard for tips.
- Analyze trends over time.
- Review geographical differences of data.
- Look for positive or negative exception cases.
- Track frequency of problems and use Pareto analysis to visualize the results to highlight the most important problems to tackle.
- Try using software to run some sentiment analysis.
- Track time spent throughout your process. Review how long each step takes, overall cycle time, and time spent in inventory or waiting.
- Use keyword research to find out what people are searching for, viewing, and sharing online.
- Create a framework and rate your system/business/product against that framework. Look for areas where you’re scoring lower than ideal.
- Run a financial assessment. Review cash flow, profits, and break evens.
- Conduct quality assurance testing and isolate causes of defects.
- Review business traction metrics such as acquisition, activation, retention, revenues, and referrals.
- Analyze relevant supply chains. Here are free materials from an MIT course about designing supply chains for products in developing countries.
- Run an experiment. Define a falsifiable hypothesis (ex. [Specific Repeatable Action] will [Expected Measurable Outcome]) and validate it.
Techniques for “The Visual Thinker”
For when a blank sheet of paper or whiteboard is calling your name:
- Try data visualization options, such as a word cloud or other quantitative visualization techniques.
- Create a process model. Draw out the step-by-step process and look for inefficiencies, lack of clarity, or artifacts that are created and never used.
- Define and walk through different scenarios. Look at exception cases and alternative scenarios beyond the “happy path.”
- Make a value stream map by modeling the flow of material and information throughout the system.
- Create a customer journey map. Outline the steps users go through and the pain points they experience.
- Create a service blueprint. Similar to a customer journey map or business process model, service blueprints show the customer touchpoints and “backstage” business activities required to deliver the service.
- Sketch out the players and systems involved using visual notetaking or graphic facilitation techniques.
- Draw a picture of related concepts in a mind map.
- Do some cause and effect analysis by creating a fishbone diagram.
- Create a social network diagram to highlight connection gaps among stakeholders.
- Draw out the major steps of your process and identify risks and missing mitigation strategies at each step.
Techniques for “The Journalist”
For when you’re in CNN journalist mode and ready to gather facts and opinions via surveys and interviews:
- Interview someone in the group you’re trying to help.
- Interview someone who knows people in the group you’re trying to help.
- Interview late adopters. Find late adopters for your product or industry and ask them what they do, how and why.
- Interview early adopters, lead or extreme users. Ask them what they do, how and why.
- Set up an in-person coffee shop interview.
- Set up a one-on-one call.
- Create a paper questionnaire or survey for people to fill out during a meeting.
- Create an online poll or survey and embed the link on your website. Try SurveyMonkey or Typeform.
- Run an Amazon Mechanical Turk survey.
- Post the decision/description/prototype/screenshot online and ask for feedback.
Techniques for “The Ethnographer”
For when you need more context to help identify problems to solve (don’t forget a camera and notebook):
- Conduct ethnographic research. Go out into the field and observe how people live in their homes and work environments. You could go as far as being immersed in that environment for weeks or months, or going completely undercover.
- Shadow someone during their work day or as they perform certain tasks.
- Watch someone interact with a product (yours or someone else’s).
- Observe someone interacting with a prototype.
- Observe the surrounding context, like what’s available in the office, school, or local community.
- Look for evidence of other people’s workarounds and frustrations as you go through your regular day.
Techniques for “The Meditator”
For when you want to look inward for inspiration:
- Reflect on problems in your own life that you would like solved.
- Keep a journal and get in the habit of writing down problems and opportunities that you notice.
- Take pictures throughout the day.
- Track emotional highs and lows during a task or over time.
- Reflect on your values and purpose and how well your life currently aligns to them. Ex. if you’re unhappy with your job because it doesn’t map to your purpose, there are probably others who feel the same way and are also looking for a solution.
Techniques for “The Facilitator”
For when you want to help a group uncover problems:
- Pull together a cross-functional group. Consider a diverse group with representatives from each part of the system lifecycle.
- Create a focus group to get feedback on a product, service, idea, or advertisement.
- Conduct an online chat. Try a Twitter chat, Slack, HipChat, or Google chat. Ask questions and see how people respond.
- Run an online webinar and let people ask questions on the call or in a chat room.
- Hold an in-person brown bag or presentation with a Q&A section at the end.
- Teach a class and observe how students respond to the material.
- Hold a town hall meeting.
- Hold a board meeting or “brain trust” meeting to gather insights from key players in your organization.
- Run a fishbowl discussion, where people sitting in an outside circle listen to a discussion held by people on the inside circle. At the end, ask for volunteers to share their insights.
- Do a Five Whys exercise. Ask “why” five times to uncover other problems.
- Complete a value proposition design exercise with your team. Outline user needs and the current value proposition of the product or service. Highlight remaining unmet needs.
- Gather a group and run an event storming exercise. Capture domain events, then add triggers or commands that cause the events. By the end, you’ll have a picture of the entire system along with problem areas, overlaps, and ambiguities.
- Lead a retrospective.
- Conduct a pre-mortem to anticipate what could go wrong with a project ahead of time.
- Role play. Act out a process or interaction. See if you notice any areas that need improvement.
- Lead a brainstorming session. Gather a group together and have them verbally or silently generate ideas of problems to solve.
This list will definitely grow over time, but I hope that these tips have inspired you to go out there and search for problems to solve. A lot of the techniques are also great for finding the “bright spots.”
“Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.”
– Albert Szent-Gyorgyi
What are your go-to strategies for finding problems to solve? Any big ones that I missed?