Identifying the Right Problem

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“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

So said Henry Ford (apocryphally, it turns out), and the misquote has been used for years to justify developing products without thorough customer input. As many innovators soon discover, though, software development is not a Field of Dreams, if-you-build-it-they-will-come scenario. If you fail to solve the right problem, no one will come.

Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen shed new light on how we think about products and problems. In the classic Harvard Business School paper, one researcher noticed that 40 percent of milkshakes at a fast food restaurant were purchased in the morning. That’s an odd time for milkshakes, so he started investigating the phenomenon.

It turned out that morning commuters bought milkshakes to both satiate them until lunch and to have a snack that would last the whole commute. They weren’t just buying a milkshake. They were hiring it to fill them up and liven up an otherwise boring task.

The problem customers experienced wasn’t a need for sugar or a variety in flavors. The problem they were solving was completely different, and that knowledge changed how the chain innovated that product.

Solving For X

Business owners do this all the time. We think customers are experiencing one thing, but the truth is they are often coming from a completely different angle. Solving for one problem might drive a little business. Identifying the right problem will produce exponential growth.

Identifying that big problem is the key to great innovation. There are three things to think about before you start:

  • Who to ask
  • What to ask
  • What NOT to ask

Step One: Know Who to Ask

First, make a list of 5-10 friends who could talk about the problem you’re considering.

Don’t ask them.

It’s never a good idea to ask friends and family for one simple reason: they love you. They will want to answer questions in the way that makes you happy, and they will encourage and support even your wildest guesses.

Current employees should also be on the “don’t ask” list. Many of them will be experts in your industry, and that’s exactly why they will struggle to understand the mind of the customer. Employees will also be driven by motives that are different from a customer (the need for a raise or recognition, for example).

Instead, ask your list of people for 5 referrals to others who experience the problem you’re investigating. These 25-50 are your true potential first customers. They will be interested in solutions, not just your success, which will help you get to the heart of the problem more efficiently.

What To Ask To Find The Right Problem

Keep these two tenets in mind: ask broad questions, and then focus on the one you can solve.

For example, you want to develop an app that will streamline the payment process at restaurants, and you’re talking to an owner. You might ask, “What are your biggest problems with collecting payments?

You will probably get several answers. Maybe the waitstaff is too lazy or too busy. Maybe the customers keep walking out. Maybe the system keeps breaking.

Depending on your idea, you could be looking to solve any one of these problems. If so, ignore the noise, and focus in on what you want to solve. You can often solve any problem, but rarely can you tackle every problem.

Your next question will be equally important: How do you solve this problem now?

Every problem in the world has some solution already in place. It might be incomplete or inefficient, but if this is a common challenge for business owners, they are mitigating it in some way. That status quo will be your competition, even more than actual competitors.

This question is also valuable because if you can create a solution that mimics the best part of the current status quo (while improving the worst parts), you will be well on your way to a great solution.

Last question: how much do you pay to solve it now?

Some problems are so painful, people and businesses are willing to pay to fix them. Others are just not that painful. If your target customer feels the pain of collecting payment, but the current solution works just fine, you’ll have a hard time convincing them to switch.

The beauty of interviewing people is that you will have an opportunity to note their body language and tone of voice. When interviewees talk about their problems and current solutions, do they roll their eyes or get agitated? Or, do they seem nonchalant and unconcerned? Simple conversation can uncover more (and more valuable) information that prescriptive questions can.

Do NOT Ask This Question

There are some questions you should ask, but there is also one question you should avoid at all costs.

What do you think about…

This question comes in all shapes and sizes. It can sound like,

  • “I think X, what do you think of my thoughts?”
  • “I solved this problem this way. What do you think?”

This question is ineffective because it narrows the scope too soon. It is inherently future-focused, asking someone to predict if and how they would use your solution in the future. Even Steve Jobs didn’t understand how revolutionary the iPhone was, and if Apple had tried to plan, it would have failed.

If you ask someone to comment on your solution, they will, but you will probably miss valuable data–and long term vision–along the way.

Focus on the Problem, Not the Solution

It’s common advice, but when we get excited about a solution, it can be difficult to maintain. Remember that your first responsibility is to identify the job your target customer needs done. For example, they don’t need sugar or calories. They need a snack that will satisfy them and last for the whole commute.
Solving the right problem results in powerful innovation that sells. Also known as the sweet spot.

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