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Disclaimer: All information posted in this blog are original unless otherwise stated and remains valid for as long as I have not yet thought of a better way to present them. They are not meant to be prescriptive and used rigidly without forethought.
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13 March 2015

Two Common Blunders with regards to 'Identified Problems'

This post was originally posted on 2nd July 2011. The original heading for this post was 'Design Opportunities and the 5 'Whys''. I've updated the content to focus more on the most common blunders students make when they claim they have found a design opportunity to work on. 


1) The most frequent blunder when a student identifies a 'problem' situation and then follows through it without finding out if that was worth pursuing. Why so?

For most of the time, if the student were to do some research, he/she will likely find out that there are already existing product(s) or solution(s) in the market for that 'identified problem'. When a (right) product (the solution) is not there on-location to resolve the scenario it does not mean GO MAKE. It should prompt you to do some research for any existing solution.

These students, instead of finding out the probable existence of a solution to alleviate the problem, he/she ends up making something that is not really needed to be made. A product that is not authentic in solving a problem. Most of such attempts to make a product rarely value-adds anything.

Take a look at the following examples and learn how you can go about it:
  • Books are messy? Ask Why. GO GET the right shelve!
  • Shoes are messy? Ask why. GO GET a shoe rack! Cheap ones, designer ones, expensive ones. Anything. One that is of the RIGHT SIZE. RIGHT MATERIAL, etc.
  • Cannot find your pencils? GO GET a good storage system, or get your memory upgraded! LEARN to be NEATER.
The following sketch shows a typical common identified problem as design opportunity. If it is simplistically tackled , the project is busted:

Before you go say go make an 'innovative' (or whatever) bookshelf, have you thought about 
1) Why there is overcrowding in the first place? More about the Five Whys later. 
2) Is the shelve the right size for the additional books that you just bought? If not why.
3) Is the problem with you who is messy by nature and therefore the mess? 

The solutions for the respective questions we just generated could be
1) Minimize overcrowding by getting a new shelve for other genres of books. No space for a new shelf, then perhaps you should consider not getting anymore. Donate your books and keep those you really need! etc.
2) Maybe it is time to upsize your shelve. IKEA has lots of them.
3) Buckle up your own attitude and learn to be neater when you store those books.

The problem is not the lack of space, not the lack of bookshelves, not the lack of bigger book shelves, not the issue of too many books, the problem is the USER. Solve the heart and mind problem and you solve the physical problem.

That being said, if it culminates to a Design Challenge to design or redesign or to revolutionalise the 'functionality' and 'use-experienceof a traditional bookshelf, taking in consideration to work towards 'novelty' or 'cleverness' of a new idea , it is another matter altogether. And very legitimate for a potentially good project.

A Deeper Analysis of the Bookshelf Example:

A design situation for the graphic example may look something like the following:

"I have many books. And the books are very messy. I cannot find my books and sometimes my books get lost. The book shelf is too small for all my books.

It will also typically end up with the following Design Brief:
"Design and make a bookself to store all my books".

Let's Analyse the 'Problem'
The is nothing really wrong to write the the situation or the brief like so. What is really wrong lies in the fact that this finding is the attitude of being too 'simplistic' - one that does not engage a thorough thinking-through process to determine if the proposed design situation is really a need area that requires another product to solve.

What Next? A Solution to Move On...
Use questions to help you look at the same problem in new perspectives:
I will ask "Is the book shelf designed to store more books than it is designed for?" If not, then if you choose to pile your books and overload the bookself with books, of course it will be overcrowded and untidy (assuming if you had not bothered to tidy them up)!!!

Use the '5 Whys'...
The '5 Whys' should lead you to where the root problem may be... and more often than not, you may end up discovering that the real problem lies on the individual who is just too lazy to tidy things up and therefore ended up with mess and untidiness. If that is the case will designing and making another book storage solve the problem?

An example of asking the 'Five Whys'
Very very long ago I had a student who came to me and wanted to design and make an egg tray. Very cute proposal isn't it?

I asked what the egg tray is for... and he told me that the egg tray will be used to store eggs in the fridge. How brilliant of me....

If you are his teacher, what would you do?
Do you go ahead and design an egg tray??

So, I started probing further by beginning with a first why, I asked,

Teacher: "Why do you need to design and make an egg tray for the fridge?
Student: "There is no space to put eggs in the fridge".
Teacher: "Why there is no space in the fridge to put eggs?"
Student: "My sister filled up the egg tray with her sweets".
Teacher: (*With amazement*) "Why did your sister fill up the egg tray with her sweets???"
Student: (*pause*) "Because there is not space in the fridge to put her sweets".
Teacher: (*WIth more amazement*) "Why isn't there space in the fridge to put her sweets???"
Student: "The fridge is full of stuffs. Crowded with food and fruits and everything else".
Teacher: (*Curious*) "Why are there so many food and fruits and everything else?"
Student: "My mum buys many food items that had been in the fridge for a very long time..."

I do not need to continue much further to conclude that if I allowed the student to design and make a WONDERFUL and INNOVATIVE egg holder, it would not help solve the problem, not even a bit.

Finally I'll bring back one of the point I mentioned above: 'That being said, if it culminates to a Design Challenge to design or redesign or to revolutionalise the 'functionality' and 'use-experienceof a traditional bookshelf, taking in consideration to work towards 'novelty' or 'cleverness' of a new idea , it is another matter altogether. And very legitimate for a potentially good project.'.

2) Not Considering "Why didn't the GREAT company, the REAL Designers think of that (my problem)?"

If you think you just found a great problem to solve or a great solution to a problem (when you do idea generation), always stop and take the step to understand why they are not made and/or selling in the market from the perspective of business or product design business in the first place.

Could it be that the designers / companies overlook this problem or did not find the solution that you found? Or there might be reasons why they did not (want to) go ahead with the solution - for some economical or practical reasons. Products that generate profit for the company is all that matters in business. Many things can be made, but many would end up too costly from research, to prototyping to manufacturing that yield little returns. In some cases negative returns. Think about these things. Your teacher may be able to help you with this second concept.

Get this step done, and you'll most likely be working on a real good deal.

Are you convinced that it is important to identify a GOOD and GENUINE design opportunity to work on? It requires some effort. But that will save you from spending the next few months designing something that is meaningless and does not improve the situation.

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