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How to Solve the Right Problem

In 2012, online travel website Expedia solved a problem that had been costing them $100 million a year. How did they do it? The short answer is that they found the right problem to solve.

How Expedia found their problem

Up until 2012, Expedia’s customer service team were determinedly focused on efficiency, and they’d achieved great results in reducing the average length of customer help calls – they prided themselves on getting customers the help they needed, fast. But when they had a fresh look at their data, they realised something worrying – a huge 58% of customers were making help calls. If Expedia was supposed to be a convenient online portal, why did so many customers need extra help in the first place?

With a bit of digging, Expedia found that almost all of those calls were customers asking for a copy of their itinerary, because it had ended up in their spam folder or they’d mistyped their email address. The team added an email confirmation field and created a self-serve “resend my itinerary” function, and the number of help calls plummeted – along with Expedia’s customer service costs (hence the $100 million savings).

Expedia had been so focused on providing great service and solving customer experience problems efficiently that until 2012, they’d never stopped to think about whether they were solving the right problem. In his article on upstream problem-solving, the author Dan Heath points out that “when you spend years responding to problems, you can sometimes overlook the fact that you could be preventing them.”

We’ve seen similar scenarios play out with many of the clients and partners we’ve worked with, and one of our key learnings has been that it’s just as important to solve the right problem, as it is to solve the problem right. Below are three of our top tips to help you find the right problem to solve.

yellow red and blue lego blocks

Get the scope right

The way you define your problem at the very beginning of a design process will ultimately set the tone for your entire problem-solving approach. To get it right, you need to ensure that your problem definition sits in the perfect middle spot: not too broad, and not too narrow.

If your definition is too broad, you haven’t made any decisions about the aspect or domain of the challenge you want to focus on, and you’ll find it hard to know where to start. If it’s too narrow, on the other hand, your problem definition will funnel you towards a particular solution, and you won’t explore the range of possibilities in a way that gives you the best chance of finding an innovative way forward.

Be mindful of the solution space you're carving out

Whenever you define a problem, you carve out a theoretical ‘solution space’. Solutions that appear to be reasonable responses to the problem definition sit inside the solution space, and unreasonable or irrelevant solutions sit outside of it. Define a problem as a technology failure, for example, and your solution space will likely be dominated by technical fixes – but it might not include better training for the people using the tech, or a workaround that makes the failed technology unnecessary.

Taking care with your problem definition can help you to become more aware of the solution space you’re carving out, and more importantly, the powerful solutions you could be missing because they sit just outside that solution space.

Keep asking the people you're designing for

When we’re grappling with complex problems, we often look for the advice of experts in the relevant field: researchers, professionals, or decision-makers with important knowledge about our problem. While the input of these experts is invaluable, we often fail to pay enough attention to the input of the people ‘on the ground’ who experience our problem every day in their ordinary lives, and who are usually the people we’re ultimately designing for.

Gaining formal expertise or authority often creates distance between you and the problem at hand, but few people are as familiar with how a problem really works as the people living through it. At every stage of a design process, it’s worth inviting their voices into the room to keep you on the right track.

How can you further your problem-solving skills?

Finding the right problem to solve is just one of the crucial skills designers need to help them develop impactful solutions. If you want to develop your own design skills and learn how to apply design concepts and tools to real-life business problems, check out our design skills bootcamp! Design Jam is an immersive learning experience where you'll learn the core techniques, tools and frameworks to help you bring effective and innovative design into your organisation.

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