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Solve the Right Problem


Yesterday a friend of mine wrote about a topic that’s dear to my heart – new product development. Particularly, Austin Gunter was focused on building something users want to buy. Austin is a smart guy who has worked with a ton of software startups, so right off the bat, you know I’m biased to appreciate and approve of his insights. That said, it was a great article – regardless of my bias. You should all read it.

Ok, with that said, I think there was a missing component in his article. Nothing about his process was wrong, mind you. I just think there was something that was needed before his article. That’s what I’d like to share with you today.

We ask ourselves a lot of questions

When we’re building something new, we often ask a set of questions:

  1. Will they like it?

  2. Will they buy it?

  3. Will they find it easy to use?

  4. Will they fall in love with it?

  5. Will they tell their friends about it?

These are all excellent questions. If you’re asking these questions, you need to read Austin’s article because he will help you dramatically improve your answers.

It’s the one question we forget to ask

But I think there’s a more important question. One that we often forget to ask. No, it’s not – “What problem are we trying to solve?”  That’s an obvious question that was missed in my list above. But it’s not that. It comes right after that question though. And it’s more nuanced and requires deeper research.

“Where does this problem rank in terms of my target market’s existing problems?”

An Example

I had a friend who I’d worked for years ago fly out to see me to pitch me an idea. He wanted us to potentially start a company. He had several ideas, but I remember this one idea more than the others.

He hated the sounds that baby toys made because they were so repetitive. The baby would touch or play with a toy and you’d hear the same sound clip every single time. To the point that he wanted to throw some of these toys out the window.

Now I remember when my kids were that young and we tried to not even open toys like that. But I remember a few that matched what he was talking about. And he had this idea – to allow users to replace the default sounds with other mp3 files.

He knew people would love it, and might even pay a little extra for the convenience. He had a way to make it easy. And now he wanted to talk about a web site to let people upload sounds.

Can you see the problem?

You could easily follow Austin’s advice and make it the most delightful solution. But if you don’t ask the initial question – “Where does this rank in terms of newborn parent problems?” – you might not notice that it’s not in the top 100. And trust me, no trigger or reward is going to move that idea into the top 100, much less top 20.

Solve the right problem

I’m not saying I can tell you what the right problem is. I’m not even telling you that your client or market can tell you what the right problem is. But I am telling you that it needs to be a felt problem. A problem that when articulated finds itself in a top list somewhere. In fact, if it’s the right problem, there are probably a lot of makeshift solutions out there already.

Take the problem of carrying CDs. You had folders. Special clip on products for your car’s sun shade. Even MD players from Sony (because they had to create a new standard for something). But then you had the iPod and you could carry your CDs without carrying your CDs.

Take the problem of getting great WordPress hosting. One vendor after another might tell you that their servers were fine and it was your WordPress installation that had the issues. But they wouldn’t or couldn’t help you. And then stepped in to announce a different kind of hosting product.

It may be right in front of you

Years ago a friend and I walked into a Circuit City. If you don’t know what those are, think of Best Buy. He wanted a way to manage his appointments. So we walked over to the mobile handheld computing section. I started asking him if he wanted Palm OS or Windows CE. I asked him about the battery he was looking for. And RAM. I asked questions that were properties of the solution set. And I was wrong.

Because right then a sales guy walked up to my friend and asked him about how he would use a day planner. And when he heard the problems my friend was having, he suggested going next store to the Staples (office supply store) and buying a pocket organizer.

We often get stuck looking at the solution space and we forget to spend enough time in the problem space. When you do that, you discover that the main problem may be solved in a different, faster, and cheaper way. And if you don’t do it, you may create a nifty solution that doesn’t succeed nearly as much as you hoped for.

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