Defining Problems

The world is changing fast. There is a lot of pressure to innovate quickly, especially in terms of technology. However, technology-led innovation arguably does little to solve many of the problems facing humanity. While useful technologies are developed every day, much of technology is developed for the sake of the development of more technology–for added features that help products stay ahead of the market. Yet, there is another driver of innovation, which is human-centered design. This approach takes human needs as the impetus for innovation, ensuring that the solutions address existing needs and not unfocused technological progress. Either way, innovation begins first and foremost with how problems are defined.

In our Theory of Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship class, Laura Galos and I participated in a discussion around a series of articles focused on the subject of the uses of technology in innovation. Each has a perspective on innovative solutions, but also on the definition of the innovation problem. The readings were as follows:

Design Fiction, by author Bruce Sterling, introduces “design fiction” as a way to imagine and think about the future. Sterling is a science-fiction writer, speaker and professor at the European Graduate School in Switzerland.

Genevieve Bell, Mark Blythe and Phoebe Sengers wrote the article Making by Making Strange: Defamiliarization and the Design of Domestic Technologies. In this text, the authors describe defamiliarization as a strategy for exposing new opportunities by reframing our understanding of the intent and purpose behind things that already exist. Bell is a cultural anthropologist at Intel Labs where she leads a team of researchers. Mark Blythe is a research fellow at the University of York and Phoebe Sengers leads the Culturally Embedded Computing group at Cornell University.

In People Are People, But Technology is Not Technology, authors Gary Marsden, Andrew Maunder and Munier Parker underscore the importance of designing by understanding what a human needs technology to do, rather than working backwards from technological capabilities to address a human need—which may turn out not to be a need at all.

Ray Kurzweil, author of The Law of Accelerating Returns presents an argument that the relationship between the pace of technological change and human progress as it relates to the future is largely misunderstood. He says, “When people think of a future period, they intuitively assume that the current rate of progress will continue for future periods. However, careful consideration of the pace of technology shows that the rate of progress is not constant, but it is human nature to adapt to the changing pace…”. Kurzweil is the Director of Engineering at Google.

In each of these readings, problems are the basis of innovation. Problems may be defined as the need for technological progress, or they may be defined in ways that describe human needs first and foremost. We believe that the latter is a more useful viewpoint which empowers designers to solve for human needs above technological progress for it’s own sake.

Technology-Led Problem-Solving

Where “progress” is the goal, problems are defined as technological issues. Additional features and capabilities are seen as the solution to problems, and so the process with which to solve these problems becomes a feedback loop: from demand (whether from corporate, marketing, or pressures to outdo the competition) to creation, spurring new demand. In this context, technology takes the lead, resulting in rapid short-term changes that prevents designers from learning and iterating throughout the problem-solving process. This often manifests in feature-heavy innovations that are not centered around the humans who will use the product. Kurzweil illustrates the dystopian end-result of technology-led change. Technology is changing at an exponential rate, and will soon exceed our realm of understanding. He says, “As exponential growth continues to accelerate…it will appear to explode into infinity, at least from the limited and linear perspective of contemporary humans. The progress will ultimately become so fast that it will rupture our ability to follow it. It will literally get out of control. The illusion that we have our hand “on the plug, “ will be dispelled.”

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What happens when designers lead change, not technology?

When benefit to human users is the goal, problems are defined differently. The authors of the texts we have read in class put forth several techniques for problem-finding and problem-defining that help keep human needs, rather than technological progress, at the center of innovation. Human needs are complex, and require a more robust framework around problem definition to ensure focus and useful outcomes. The following are three techniques the authors put forth to find and define problems:

Sterling: Introduce constraints

Sterling draws parallels between science-fiction and design as beneficiaries of more clearly defined constraints. It’s the recognition and acknowledgement of where boundaries lie that allow writers and designers alike to push past them and imagine new future states for their craft. He says, “These two inherently forward-looking schools of thought and action do seem blinkered somehow–not unimaginative, but unable to imagine effectively. A bigger picture, the new century’s grander narrative, its synthesis, is eluding them.” As it relates to problem definition, constraints focus a problem enough to allow designers to work in a small enough “box” to make an impact on a given need, or course-correct as necessary to find the boundaries of a problem worth solving.

Bell, Blythe and Sengers: Defamiliarize and reframe

By defamiliarizing, Bell, Blythe and Sengers teach us to disassociate from our existing understanding and reframing with new meaning to arrive at new and innovative opportunities. They describe this as an act of “analyzing a kitchen sink in terms of its cultural or social significance…by questioning the assumptions inherent in the design of everyday objects that HCI [human-computer interaction] has always opened up design spaces, pointing towards better and more innovative designs.” Defamiliarization allows designers to acknowledge the assumptions they come to a problem with. Focus on assumptions allows designers to avoid them or challenge them as they define the problem they will solve.

Marsden, Maunder & Parker: Contextualize culture

When problem definition begins first with the technology that could be used, designers introduce risks associated by omitting contextual understanding of the user and their environment. However, from the perspective of these authors, this means that constraints in technology don’t necessarily need to be understood by the end-user, but by those the individuals within a community that can use their understanding to imagine alternative solutions. They say, …”we realize that, within most communities, there are people with a vision for how technology can best be used within their context.” Defining problems that take into account the needs of individuals and community in their context leads to solutions that are relevant and impact real human needs in culturally-appropriate ways.


Human-Led Problem-Solving

Ultimately, designers are certainly equipped to solve describable problems, but they are even more well-suited to solve and lead problems that are ambiguous and difficult to define. Being able to iteratively introduce constraints, defamiliarize and reframe and contextualize culture allows designers to parse through complexity and solve problems that arrive at innovations useful for people. The goal of design from beginning to end is human-centered, long-term change. When design takes the lead on innovation, the problem-solving process invites the application of technology for the sake of humanity, not just technology for the sake of demonstrating speed to change. In order to truly have a positive impact on society people in society, ideas must be born of empathy and human understanding before they take they are shaped by the application of technology.