Here’s three quick quotes about the creative problem solving process. I find myself returning to these time and again when it comes to making things people use.

On Problem Definition

A problem well stated is a problem half-solved. — Charles Kettering

This quote is used to defend the value of strategic alignment. Define your problem, frame up the need, and it’s much easier to be creative about an appropriate solution. Otherwise, every attempt you take at solving the problem will equate to stabs in the dark. You might hit your target, but without clearly stated goals, who could say?

Forget thinking outside the box; think inside the strategic frame. A good strategic frame has:

  • Clear benefit, to a…
  • Clearly defined user, with…
  • Clear outcomes for the future.

Without knowing these things, you have no frame to play within. Without the frame, you don’t have shared perspective with others on your team.

On Customer Needs

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. — Henry Ford

First off, it’s worth stating that Ford probably didn’t say this, but it’s fun to think he did.

I hear this quote a lot inside the walls of the corporate enterprise. It’s used to dissuade against UX research, especially talking to customers and users of a product or system. The underlying bias is, I know the problem better than my users do, and I can solve it better than they can. This is a thinking trap.

That said, I state the quote right back: we do want to hear about the faster horse. We help them imagine, describe, and draw the horse. We We empathize with our users to understand why they need a faster horse. We look at the current constraints to understand why it’s logical for our users to want it. (It’s easy to want a new horse when you own a barn, a carriage, and the roads are purpose-built for your horse to traverse)

Then, we go design a car. We do this to exceed customer expectations, but we can only exceed them if we know what they are in the first place.

I love the Kano model for this. The Kano model of prioritization sorts ideas into three distinct areas:

  • Unstated expectations: table stakes items that are only talked about when they aren’t present (there’s nowhere to sit on this thing!)
  • Stated expectations: requested, vocalized items from our user (I want to go faster!)
  • Delight: unstated, unknown items that a user would love, if they only knew about it (my Model T is so much more reliable than my horse and buggy!)

To be clear, you can’t serve up delight if you don’t meet both sets of expectations along the way. It’s a tricky balance, but only comes from understanding your user on a deep level.

On Understanding Users

The secret of my success is a two word answer: Know people. — Harvey S. Firestone

First things first, I’m proud to be a small part of the legacy of this quote. I work for Bridgestone Retail Operations, which proudly runs the Firestone retail business and sells tires bearing his name every day. Now, that aside…

Knowing people means you understand their motivation and needs. That means you can help them overcome their problems, which means you’re valuable to them. Simple enough!

When we make things that we know people need, with a validated and real problem, good things happen. We might not make the next unicorn company or change the world, but we might just change some aspect of life for someone. Isn’t that amazing?