Brainstorm Questions, Not Solutions


Your “proposed solution” is probably wrong.

Whether you’re establishing a startup or receiving a brief from a client, what is your first course of action?

If you’re like the old me, you take immediate action toward solving the problem: employing all your creative abilities to develop a beautiful solution. And let’s not kid ourselves why: We love creating things and that’s what gets our juices flowing. But when we jump in to solve the problem, we are assuming that we even know what the problem is. But is solving for the sake of solving the right thing to do at the onset of a project?

Imagine you were approached by a banking client who wants to increase user satisfaction and engagement with a spiffy new mobile app. Do we dive straight into wireframes? Oftentimes, problem-finding reveals a more complex issue to focus our energies on. For example, are the ATMs the main touch point for this bank’s customer and are performing at a high level? Does customer service lack overall? Does the bank have an integrated physical-digital strategy?

When thinking and analyzing my studio’s previous work we had countless examples where clients or colleagues pushed a predetermined problem on our team.

However, in retrospect, most of these problems were too ill-defined or short-sighted to solve in the first place. It’s a popular product maxim that users are great at sniffing out problems, but are terrible at arriving at the right solutions. What I realized we had to change was how we approached new projects.

Users are great at sniffing out problems, but are terrible at arriving at the right solutions.

Simply stated, the first “problem” to solve is always exposing the “true” problem.

Why Are We Quick to Act?

Living in a world of constant change, we tend to celebrate those who are quick to provide solutions. Quick solutions seem logical and comforting. But those solutions are like eating the nearest food available when we’re hungry. Sometimes it pays to plan the meal.

Why are we so reluctant to slow down action and question the problem? On the surface, it can seem like slowing down will provoke authority or signal weakness.

However, when presented with a new problem, it’s incredibly dangerous to continue without pausing to investigate it. You’re severely limiting your creativity, and ultimately the scope of your solutions, without a proper digestive process.

Psychologists Jacob W. Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who have studied creativity for the past 40 years, discovered that those who excel at the top of their industry have the ability to formulate a good problem to focus all creative energy on.

So how can you apply problem finding to your next endeavor?

First, step back and instigate some fact finding

Returning to our example of the mobile banking app brief, how can we move on our intuition to investigate the problem? What steps can be taken to find the “true” issue here?

When presented with a problem, I like to begin by stepping back and breaking it down. By looking for the negative space, the gaps of understanding and anomalies around the initial problem, I begin to understand its ecosystem.

Some ways to explore the problem include:

  • Challenge the underlying assumptions of the problem (including your own.)
  • Understand audience’s needs in more detail.
  • What is the big picture? Distill the wider impacts of the problem.
  • Understand fully how different people around you perceive the problem.
  • Know what has already been tried with regards to the problem (if anything.)
  • Question the questions that are being asked.

Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram, gave a great inspection of this process in this lecture at Stanford.

At the start of Instagram, he and his co-founders sat down and wrote ALL the problems with mobile photo apps at the time. The big problems that rose to the top with mobile photography were lackluster photos, lengthy upload times, and share ability. With this focus, they designed an app that forever changed the course of photography.

Applying this to our mobile banking app scenario, the team could start by looking into what the company has already tried to do, toward solving customer satisfaction issues. Each member of the team tries using the bank’s digital tools, and writes down their observations.

Analytics could lead to further insight as to the nature of this diminishing customer satisfaction. How long are customers spending in branches in general? How many customers use the ATMs every month and over the last 12 months? How are customers faring when it comes to savings vs. debt?

Second, drive more questions

After you’ve debriefed your team on your fact-finding mission, it’s time to brainstorm.  Usually, brainstorming is for developing a great deal of solutions—but have you tried the opposite: brainstorming questions? Generating questions, rather than solutions, can allow us to think more freely and creatively, since we’re not required to come up with a perfect solution yet.

The QFT (Question Formulation Technique) by The Right Question Institute (as showcased in Warren Berger’s excellent book, A More Beautiful Question) gives us a simple framework to develop loads of high quality questions.

  1. Appoint a session leader.
  2. The session leader sets an area of focus for questioning (e.g. “The future of mobile photography”)
  3. Team spends 10 minutes producing as many questions as we possible (Questions can start with “What is blocking…”, “What is stopping..” or “Why…”)
  4. Team spends another 10 minutes pairing up to share and improve their questions.
  5. Pairs then spend the final five minutes to prioritize their questions and present to the team.
  6. Team decides on three favorites to explore.

Your team should easily be able to develop 50 questions in order to narrow down to 3.

In our brainstorming session for “the future of banking customer satisfaction and experience,” questions could include:

  • What is beyond just an app to prepare our bank to being truly digital-first?
  • What are entirely new offerings that defy current conventions and answer our customer’s core needs?
  • What are the future sources of revenue for our bank? (For example, could we courier cash to people out and about instead of having them visit one of our ATMs)

Third, define your problem and start problem solving

You now have three thought-provoking questions that should excite your team and partners. The questions can be used to drive experimentation, further reading, research, and discussion.

Furthermore, the information from these questions should lead to your final problem statement. A problem statement is a clear, concise description of the issue that needs to be addressed by you and your team.

The statement’s specific form:

  1. Vision – what does the world look like if we solve the problem?
  2. Issue Statement – how do we describe the problem using specific issues?
  3. Method – how will we solve the problem?

Example for Instagram:

  1. Vision – We want all of our user’s photos to upload to our app seamlessly, looking exceptionally beautiful, where they can all comment and share without any distractions.
  2. Issue Statement – Today, too many apps capture poor photos that miss the essence of the photographer’s vision. It takes ages to upload or send these photos via text message, making it difficult to share with our friends and family.
  3. Method – We will discover the final needs of our users with our human-centered design process. Lean methodology will help us constantly improve our product.

Our vision statement for the retail website might be:

  1. Vision – We need a suite of digital tools to increase engagement with our most-important customers and drive satisfaction.
  2. Issue Statement – Our lack of digital tools have left us in the dust when it comes to other banks and start-ups. Specifically our services need to be more digitally focused in order to appeal to the devices and tools people use and expect.
  3. Method – We will discover and revitalize the most effective avenues for restoring contact with these high-spending customers, and leverage our design expertise with user research to smooth out the customer experience.

Keep Questioning and Stay Curious

“It‘s not that I‘m so smart, it‘s just that I stay with problems longer.” – Albert Einstein

Problem finding is an essential skill for creatives in any industry.  The process opens many doors that others will simply ignore.

Relentless curiosity, the capacity to see the indiscernible, and a willingness to continue to question–these components build the kind of problem finding you need to thrive in today’s changing world.

This article first appeared in

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