Before trying out solutions, figure out what the problem is


There’s a phrase that every designer learns: “You are not the user.” It’s used to remind people that what you may think is easy or intuitive may not be for another user.

I’ve been noticing a trend with a lot of inspirational posts that fall into that same trap: because I achieved success in this manner, this exact method will work for the average person.

But solving problems for the ‘average person’ doesn’t work: If you try and problem solve with the ‘average’ in mind, you’ll end up solving for no one.

Rather than jumping from one person’s solution to another, there’s something more important you should consider: what is the problem, and what matters to you.

I used to have the hardest time with this question. I would always want to jump straight to solutions for any problems I was tackling at work.I would come into every meeting talking about how we should do solution X or Y. I even day-dreamed solutions to problems that I thought I understood.

Thankfully, I was working with very smart people who would always ask me the same questions: “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?” and “How does your solution address this?”

I’m forever grateful for them for this, because now I ask myself the same questions.

Let’s say that the problem that you’re facing is that you never have enough time to work on a big project (let’s say, learning a coding language). Before you jump into trying to fit solutions together, think about this problem in more detail.

How much time do you need to be productive?

Does it have to be in front of a computer screen?

Are you learning by watching videos/reading or Learning by Doing?

Does the environment matter? Do you need a quiet space or is anywhere fine?

Understanding the problem in more detail will move you closer to finding solutions that are going to work for you. If you need at least an hour to be productive, then carving out 15 minute chunks into your day for this isn’t going to be as helpful.

The goal for this stage is to narrow down the problem from a general one (“I don’t have enough time for this.”) to one which you can take action on (“I need 30 minutes in a quiet environment to watch Coursera videos.”)

From there, you can begin to think of solutions that work for your specific problem.

If I asked anyone on the street if they wanted to become a millionaire, everyone would say yes. On the other hand, If I asked

Would you want to become a millionaire if:

  • You could only sleep for 2–3 hours for the next 10 years?
  • You had to speak publicly and pitch ideas to rooms full of powerful people?
  • You had to turn down your child’s requests for the next 5 years?
  • You didn’t see solid ground for 3 months at a time?
  • You could lose all your savings if you failed?

I’d get a bunch of different responses. Some might say yes to all of these, some might say no.

The other part of understanding the problem is to try and understand yourself. Not in a metaphysical way, but rather what works for you.

If you hate being a morning person, have to set 3 alarm clocks every day and need 7 cups of coffee to be alert at work, then the solution of waking up 30 minutes early to work on coding may not work for you.

What’s important is not what conventional wisdom says is the most effective or productive use of your time. What’s important is the actions you are willing to take towards your goal. So maybe, as a solution, you aim to get to work 15 minutes early. That way, you can leave work 15 minutes early and spend 30 minutes after work on your project before traffic gets really bad.

A solution that is 75% effective but works for you is more likely to succeed than a 100% effective solution that runs against your values. And no one’s saying that you should stop at 75% effectiveness once you establish that habit.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” — Albert Einstein

Do you know what problem you’re trying to solve right now? Probably not. If you were able to define everything about your problem in a few minutes, either you’re not thinking deep enough about it or you were further along in this process than you thought.

But it’s a start. By turning a large problem into one specific to you, you can come up with actionable solutions that have a greater chance of success.

Top writer in UX Design. UX, Data Visualization and Data Science. Author of Data Persuasion: Substack: