Don’t Think You Have the Solution
So, you’ve defined the type of impact you think you want to have. You have a theory about what particular group or community would benefit from your business idea or solution.
Now you’re going to immediately make your solution and unleash it into this world, right?
This is a rookie mistake for any new business. We assume if it’s our problem, it’s important to everyone else. We believe that other people value a solution as much as we do, or struggle with the same issues we do in the same particular ways.
I hate to break it to you, but value is relative. Once you have a starting theory of who you believe would benefit from a solution, you need to validate you’re solving for a pain or issue that even exists. Never assume that other people are going to value the same things, or respond in similar ways to the same issues.*
There is no substitute for seeing how other people live their lives, with your own eyes. Spend time with the actual people who you believe will use your theoretical solution. Be methodical about seeing the systems they live within, and the aspects of those systems that hold them back. Do this without immediately showing your hypothetical solution to them. (And do your homework if you don't know much about the people you're going to talk to. Secondary research is your friend here. Immerse yourself in it. Start to get educated as rapidly as possible.)
Being on the Lookout for “Duh” Problems
What I’ve learned by conducting hundreds of ethnographic interviews with people from all around the United States is this: My initial hypotheses regarding what people need is never, ever perfectly aligned with what they actually need.
Yes, I know you believe you’ve got the big solution all figured out. But what you discover when you start testing your hypotheses is that you’re missing out on BIG needs that don’t get solved easily.
And that is often where the real opportunities for your business begin. I call them “Duh” problems. As in, “Duh! This problem is right here in front of us, and nobody is doing anything about it.” Some “duh” problems that I can rattle off just off the top of my head: Dealing with all of the passwords for your online accounts. Helping people save money for an emergency. Improving the speed that doctors can help you if you have an emergency. Even figuring out where you want to go for lunch with your officemates can be a weird little problem that keeps cropping up over and over again, and there are many businesses trying to tackle it.
“Duh” Problems Are Systemic in Nature
What you learn from looking at successful entrepreneurs is that they can’t make point solutions to try and crack a “duh” problem. “Duh” problems can't be dealt with by fixing just one little thing, and then ta-da they’re magically solved.
If you're going to tackle a "Duh" problem, you're going to need to suss out root causes for that problem. These root causes are challenging to identify. It takes some time to get to the bottom of things, and really understand foundational issues you need to start working from. Many of them change rapidly, based on cultural and behavioral trends.
Solutions to “Duh” problems are systemic in nature. They are challenging to make, because many entrepreneurs don't know how to visualize and make the appropriate elements of that system and test them.
You have to train yourself to identify how these problems manifest themselves. Designers see these as touchpoints in how people go about their lives, interacting with services and systems. (You could argue that in our modern day and age, anything that moves beyond a point "product" is just a proxy for a systematic branded service.) You need to know where these touchpoints are and keep track of them, as they are part of the ecosystem your business is going to work within (and potentially disrupt).
You may need to add, change, or remove touchpoints to deal with that “duh” problem and create the desired impact on the part of your target customers. One type of tool that designers use to do this is called a journey map, which helps you to clarify how people move through different touchpoints. The X axis on these journeys is always time, and on the Y axis are the different phases that customers move through to achieve a goal, based on the different touchpoints available to them from products or services.
If you can map out how much things are broken, then you can begin to imagine ways that journey could change, to make it so much better for your audience.
The "Duh" about Trying to Solve "Duh" Problems
Why would you go to the trouble of identifying and solving for "duh" problems? Because good solutions to “Duh” problems are more valuable.
“Duh” problems are surprisingly obvious, once you start paying attention to where people struggle most. But there are always reasons why people say you shouldn’t try to solve them. These reasons are often logical, highly reasoned, and tied to either legacy business models or quirks of human behavior that require untangling. (It might even be because someone else patented the crap out of potential solutions and is holding on to them. This is not uncommon.)
If you map out how much a customer journey is broken, there are always reasons why the pain points exist, and some of them you can’t change.
But if you’re aiming for impact, these are exactly the problems that need to be solved. Each “duh” problem is an investment in helping people.
Investing in tough problems can have greater risk, but it’s also where the big rewards are for customers in terms of value and in how much you can potentially earn with a business.
*Unless you’re creating social products—and approaches to creating these types of products merit their own deep dive—you should start by identifying the needs of the customers you believe would benefit from your ideas. Even when creating a social product, you should be referencing secondary research to see what behavioral trends or needs you can learn from.