5 Questions to Ask for a Better Solution

Are you a business owner or product manager looking to improve the design of your product? Even if you do not have a designer on staff, you have design minded team members that can be guided with right questions. Here are some questions to ask to get your team to drive to the optimal solution.

Question 1: What is the problem you are trying to solve?

There is a tendency to jump immediately to solutions without first stating the problem. Stating and clarifying the problem itself will crystallize the issue for both the product manager and the team. Ask this question to have team members verbalize the problem.

For example, I had a project manager ask me to design an icon to put on the screen. This button was the solution he determined for the customer problem. I asked him a series of questions around the problem and it turned out the button was a band-aid that would resolve the specific customer request. The real problem was much larger. Users were not able to get their work done smoothly and they wanted to speed up a process they did frequently throughout the day.

Question 2: Who has this problem?

There is a tendency to focus solutions on the most recent set of user requests or complaints, rather than generalizing to the overall user population. This question is asking about the persona or the archetype of the user. Identifying the persona determines the persona’s needs, goals, activities, environment and how the company wants to interact with this type of user. 

For example, I had a project manager come to me for help with a specific product enhancement. One customer was asking for a specific feature. By having a conversation about the type of user this request came from, we were able to do a better job of generalizing the problem and solving this issue for a greater number of customers.

Question 3: What is the user trying to do?

Understanding the context of the interaction is the essence of user experience and product design. Everyone should be clear on the tasks and workflows that the user is doing when encountering this problem. Diagramming, story-boarding, or videotaping helps to communicate the workflows clearly to the team.

For example, I have been designing software for traders. Traders work in an information dense and noisy environment. Many traders attend to 3 to 6 monitors, multiple phones and a TV broadcast while in an open space with many people talking and shouting. The trader runs several applications with very different visuals. Each application has many moving parts: flashing data, programmed sounds and interdependent information. How do you design incoming information about a stock that is not visible on any screen without interrupting the traders current work? Knowing the context of the environment will ensure a design that meets the users needs.

Question 4: How are we going to design the product?

As the business owner you should expect many solution ideas for each problem. All possible solutions that impact the user should be sketched. Encouraging many different team members to sketch on their own will triangulate on a better design than one person designing.

For example, I worked on a project where not only did the internal team come up with sketches but so did the client. We presented and explored the sketches everyone put forth. We compared two designs to identify what worked and what did not work (do not allow personal opinions unless you are building the product for that individual). This was one of my most successful designs from the perspective of user acceptance and client and team buy-in.

Question 5: How are we going to figure out which design is going to work?

Identify the three best designs to prototype. Create and review a storyboard for each of the designs. Have the team prototype the designs on paper, in PPT, Balsamiq or whatever means that result in a quick turnaround.

For example, I use PPT to mockup and prototype the UIs. I have created PPT squares that illustrate the UI framework we are working with, which allows anyone to  prototype and edit the screens. Since interaction design requires small movements and transitions, I have found PPT very useful to illustrate small changes that the user can click through. The PPT click-through allows the user to move forward and backward at their own pace and replay the interaction over and over. I have found that some users will be able to provide feedback as to whether the design solves the problem or not. I look for trends to emerge.

The result of this process is that you will get quick, tangible feedback from users before coding has begun. Completing the process allows more members of the team to be able to accurately visualize the solution, resulting in team cohesion and better execution in the engineering stages. These steps provide a rapid means of investigating the solution space and throwing away poor ideas before time is spent coding. In hours or days, depending on the size of the problem, you come away with a more confidence in the design of the solution.

Innovation Is About Arguing

This is a beautiful explanation. Every time that I work with a new product manager or business owner I always explain that I ask a lot of questions. When we are working together, I am going to explore the constraints and boundaries of the problem. When I explain it that way they do not feel that I am just being argumentative. Continuum has done a nice job of embedding this into their process and culture. Entering cultures that do not do this is a challenge because many people are sensitive to feeling a question is challenging their work.

On the point of say “no, because,” I try to avoid “no” in many cases because it is so final. I rather say “what about …, what do you mean …, I thought it was …”

I have worked with individuals and teams where we do these 5 things and it does help explore the solutions space. It is a mindset that all team members need to have to work. For many, the suspension of disbelief has to be requested so that they can go through the process and learn to trust the questioning/arguing for the purpose of exploring the solution space.

Innovation Is About Arguing, Not Brainstorming. Here’s How To Argue Productively by Daniel Sobol

    Breaking down hierarchy is critical for deliberative discourse.
    No is a critical part of our process, but if you’re going to say no, you better be able to say why.
    This model works for us because deliberative discourse requires a multiplicity of perspectives to shape ideas.
    Argument is productive for us because everyone knows that we’re working toward a shared goal.
    Our work requires intensity, thoughtfulness, and rigor. But no matter the nature of the project, we keep it fun.”


Big Data Analysis

This article makes the case that with the increase in data, there is a greater need to make decisions on the data and therefore a need to better represent the information for human consumption and decision making.

“Manually analyzing data is time consuming but is often done in order to maintain core business capacity, operational continuity, competitive advantage and compliance. Reviewing stacks of numbers and text is not only error prone but also makes it difficult to analyze data in order to:

1) Develop or assess a hypothesis: Those managing regulatory compliance may need to consider and assess a hypothesis like Hyman Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis to protect their firm’s future.
2) Discover errors and outliers: From a risk and compliance standpoint, a firm may want to find a way to easily monitor risk exposure across a portfolio on a trade-by-trade basis and manage outliers or trades that are over certain limits.
3) Map trends: From an investment management perspective, a firm may want to track volatility across sectors or industries to capitalize on market opportunity.
4) Create categories: A valuation and risk group may want to know if it can readily quantify exposure to all counterparties by subsidiaries.
5) Make decisions: A structured products group may want to know if it can create “what if” stress scenarios and decide on optimal product selection.
6) Understand relationships, such as spatial hierarchy and rank: For energy traders, the need may be to determine if a company can manage pipeline operations and portfolio optimization across crude, refined, natural gas and other commodities.
The need to effectively and efficiently address these concerns, individually or in combination, is a challenge for many firms. Following a thoughtfully crafted method to hone the possible visualizations choices is a good way to identify the most appropriate one. ”

By Julie Rodriguez and Francesco Brullo