One of the core principles of UX is to solve existing problems, or problems that people are already struggling with. While this might not be as glamorous as inventing a brand new thing it is more practical: it makes identifying problems easier and people are much more receptive to your design. If you’re solving a known problem you don’t have to convince anybody that your design is valuable…they already know exactly why they want to use it.
Unfortunately, there are far more problems than there are designers to solve them. So how do you know you’re solving a problem that’s worth solving? How do you know that the problem you’re trying to solve is a real pain point that people will pay money for? How can you be sure that you’re prioritizing problems such that the one you’re focused on is the most important one?
Here is a simple framework that does just that:
1. Are People Frustrated?
If you ask people what their problems are, you’re likely to get a laundry list of issues as an answer. Saying we have a problem is easy, but the real problems are the ones we get emotional about. Frustration is the first clue that people have a real problem on their hands. They might not know how to articulate the problem they have but if they are frustrated then a problem exists somewhere. Frustration comes in several forms:
- They complain about it. (our favorite way to express frustration)
- They reluctantly accept something as “the way it is”
- It’s on a list of things to do
- They’re asking others for opinions & recommendations
If people aren’t frustrated, it means the issue at hand is not a real problem yet or they don’t recognize it’s a problem. Don’t try to convince people they have a problem…look for existing frustration instead of creating it anew.
Sometimes people are frustrated and don’t know exactly why. If people could articulate the root problem they might have solved it by now. So do user research by interviewing them, employing the Five W’s technique, or otherwise finding out what the real problem is. Once you know the real problem, often the solution presents itself.
2. Are People Actively Trying to Solve It?
Frustration is a major clue that a problem is important, but people get frustrated by a lot of things, some of which they’ll never do anything about. And, amazingly, some things stay problems forever! So try to wait until people take action against their problem in some way. This means they’ve prioritized the problem to one they really care about and are ready to take on.
Look for behavior that shows people are taking action. Are they cobbling together a solution from existing parts? Have they started a project with the express intent of taking on this problem? Are they amassing a library of information about this problem? Are they trialing software that is focused on this problem area?
People pay lots of lip service to problems they’re having but we have many more problems than time to solve them. So look for action, however small, to guide your design efforts.
3. Are People Already Spending Money?
Taking action is a necessary step, but it isn’t the best signal that we’re onto a great problem. People spending money is the strongest signal we have that they value the problem and would value a design that solved it for them.
Here are some ways that people might spend money:
- Purchased software - If they have purchased existing software then it’s a good sign this is a real problem to them. Note that this doesn’t mean they are happy…if they’re frustrated with existing software that they paid for then you can be further sure it’s a core problem.
- Hired consultants - they don’t know how to solve the problem…they want to get another brain on the job. When I was consulting this was key…many people were trying to solve a problem for so long that they couldn’t think objectively about it. What they needed was someone familiar with the problem space who didn’t have their head in the weeds. Being close to a problem for too long can actually make it much harder to solve!
- Building it themselves - this means that existing tools are yet good enough to solve the problem yet its worth the investment to get it solved. Building yourself is a crucial indicator that you’ve prioritized this problem to the top of your list.
Prioritizing the Most Important Problems
Prioritization is a core competency of UX designers. We have to prioritize the people we design for, the features we choose to build, the elements on a page, as well as the overall problems we choose to solve. But choosing problems isn’t always easy…people have no end to the improvements they want made in their lives. This simple framework helps you prioritize problems based on people’s actual behavior, not just what they say or think. By focusing on whether people are frustrated, already taking action, or most importantly already spending money, UX designers can be sure they’re tackling the most important problems for their clients and customers.