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Leveraging Analogous Situations: Looking for Precedent In The World Around Us

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012 | Posted by Jon Kolko

For some startups, identifying what to build can be emotionally difficult. You may have identified an initial topic area, conducted research, and even synthesized the research into meaningful insights, but may be having trouble identifying a preliminary set of features or capabilities. I’ve seen technologists wary of building the wrong thing and having to rework code, and product managers who aren’t yet confident in their product decisions, and designers who aren’t done synthesizing research, and all of this can culminate in a culture of inaction. I suppose, in many ways, various things like “Lean” and “Agile” are a way of getting over this hump, by trying to build something super-small and super-fast and “fail early and often.” There are other ways to identify a set of features with resonance, though, and I think these are sometimes less troublesome and more effective. These include identifying an analogous emotional experience, and mapping the interactions over time.

By identifying an analogous emotional experience, you can understand and leverage emotional inflection points.

First, think about the insights and goals you’ve identified through your research. If you are working in the space of medicine, you might have described insights like “People want to stay healthy with minimal effort” or “People don’t understand or trust scientific terms for medical conditions”. You might have identified goals like “Safely treat a disease” or “Understand treatment plans.” As Alan Cooper describes, “when technology changes, tasks usually change, but goals remain constant”, and so these goals will be true irrespective of the medium of your solution.

Now, based on the goals and insights, describe the uniquely human interactions and emotions that are typical when people try to achieve their goals. Some interactions and emotions related to safely treat a disease include “Remember to take a pill each day”, “Feel confident of progress being made”, and “Check in with a professional once a month”. Some interactions and emotions related to understand treatment plans include”Read about the treatment plan in plain language”, “Discuss complexities with other people”, and “Feel in control”.

Now, think about a comparable and analogous situation that has nothing to do with health care. What are other situations where all of these qualities are true?

  • Remember to do something each day
  • Feel confident of progress being made
  • Check in with a professional once a month
  • Read about the situation in plain language
  • Discuss complexities with other people
  • Feel in control

I see an analog in things like gardening, doing an executive MBA, and training for a marathon. All of these situations require daily interactions, have a long and slow sense of progress, require infrequent but regular professional interactions, have lots of jargon that can be described in plain language, and require a feeling of control.

Take one of them – say, training for a marathon – and begin to describe how the process happens, over time. Sketch a timeline of it, and describe the main artifacts that are used to support people as they train. For example, there are devices people wear to track their progress through the day. There are calendars that coaches prepare, to remind people of their training regimen. There are groups people attend, in order to receive encouragement and help. And there are magazines people read with inspirational stories of people just like them, succeeding.

All of these artifacts become prompts for your brand new product in healthcare, offering initial touchpoints and pointing at potential features for your new product. Ponder the calendar idea, the group idea, the magazines, and the devices, and think about why these are so effective in the analogous situation. And then, steal the ideas liberally, and re-appropriate them in the new context.

This method of looking at analogous situations works, but requires a rich view of the world, one where it occurs to you to think of marathon training or gardening. And so in addition to this technique as a prompt for sparking momentum, consider how you can more generally broaden your view of culture and society. That might mean reading new blogs, that have nothing to do with software or startups, and going to conferences that are two or three times removed from your comfort zone.

1 Comment »
  • Hugh Lester

    I am continuously impressed by these blogposts, and this one was the one that transitioned me from lurker to “on the record” fan of your methods and observations.