The problem with “find an unsolved problem…”

The common wisdom for developing new products, goes something like this:

  1. Find an unsolved problem or an unmet need
  2. Identify who values that need
  3. Build a profitable solution for that audience
  4. Communicate the existence and value of the solution to the market
  5. Iterate as needed
  6. Reap the rewards

There are many variations of this list, but generally this is the conventional wisdom.

A while back, I wrote a post entitled. Forget research, let’s just build something! I started it with the following haiku:

Research a concept?
How accurate will it be?
Build something, then see.

In mature or maturing markets, its a lot easier to identify adjacent problems for a set of target customers and work to address them. There are many reasons for this, but a lot of it has to do with working within a specific context or frame of reference and evolving from there. The user isn’t forced to make a context switch to a completely new problem space or new set of actions, which may be a big leap for them.

But when trying to create a new solution or a new market, identifying “unsolved problems” that people will identify with becomes very difficult.

Example 1: Cell phones

For example,  consider how people first viewed cell phones. A lot of people couldn’t understand why someone would want to carry a phone around with them everywhere they went. I had a coworker back in the 1980s who had one of those big, bulky (even by standards back then) phones with a separate 5lb battery pack. The phones cost thousands of dollars, had poor coverage, and were very expensive to use.  What “unsolved” problem was being addressed there? In those early days, how many people would say “Yes, I have a problem big enough that I need to carry that device around.”?

But once the public became comfortable with cell phones, and the devices got smaller and more affordable,  additional features such as cameras and keyboards were added and usage spread very quickly. Now, 60% of people in the world have cell phones and there’s still a lot of room for growth.

Example 2: Rubik’s Cube

Now think about the Rubik’s Cube. This is the most popular toy in history. Over 300,000,000 units have been sold since it’s introduction almost 25 years ago. Could anyone have predicted it would be so popular? If you described the idea of the Rubik’s Cube to someone:

Imagine a 3x3x3 cube with each face having a unique colour and each face having nine independent squares on it. Now imagine if you could rotate the top, bottom, sides etc. of that cube around the central x-y-z axes so that the colours on each face are mixed up. Now the object is to take that mixed up cube and return it to the original state as fast as possible. Wouldn’t that be really fun?

What kind of response do you think you would have gotten? First, what is the problem that this toy addresses? Boredom? Curiosity? There is no problem really. The cube is a diversion for people. Second, it was originally built as a model by Erno Rubik, it’s inventor and a math professor, to use in his classes to demonstrate certain mathematical principles. The Rubik’s Cube is still on sale today and many derivatives of it have also done well in the market.

Example 3: Twitter

Finally, let’s look at the Twitter. .you can find stories of the origin of Twitter in different places on the Web. Here’s one from Wired magazine that describes it quite succinctly. The key line from the article is:

“I had an idea to make a more ‘live’ LiveJournal. Real-time, up-to-date, from the road. Akin to updating your AIM status from wherever you are, and sharing it.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t see any hint of solving any kind of problem there, or in the rest of the article. “Akin to updating your AIM status from wherever you are and sharing it”??? That’s what started it?

It sounds like the writer just thought it was a cool thing to try and do. Granted, Twitter still doesn’t have a sustainable business or revenue model, but that hasn’t stopped them from becoming a very popular service.

And so what?

So here’s the rub. Yes, these are only three examples, but I could have cited many other consumer, leisure or technical successes that had similar non-problem solving starts. The principle of finding an unsolved problem or an unmet need and then addressing it is a good rule to follow, but it, in no way, is the only reason to create a new product or service.

In fact for some successful products, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to precisely state the problem that is being solved (e.g.  Heely’s roller shoes)

Or, perhaps there is an initial problem that is addressed, but the success comes from addressing another need or problem (e.g. Google started as a search engine, but found incredible success as an advertising platform).

A lot of successful products or services only became that way AFTER they were introduced to the market and people actually experienced them for themselves. In those cases, no amount of requirements gathering, interviews, focus groups etc. could have provided confirmation that success was in the future.

It’s important to remember when brainstorming or thinking of new products or services, to not simply fall into the trap of “conventional thinking”. If you have an idea, think it through as much as you can, but in the end, if you really believe in the idea, go for it. You never know where it high it will go and perhaps take you along with it.



16 responses to “The problem with “find an unsolved problem…”

  1. I would say that, in each of the examples you gave, there is an identifiable set of problems that the product solves. However, it’s true that it can be hard to grasp these kinds of problems without first building a solution and subsequently “discovering” the problems through use.

    On a side note, one of the benefits of agile development is that you can use iterations to enable early use and discovery of problems.

    • Roger,

      With the benefit of hindsight, one can potentially identify problems. I still defy someone to identify the *market problem* that the Rubik’s Cube and Twitter were intended to solve by their makers. The cell phone is a bit easier, but still back in the early 70s (when the first cell phone call was made), what was the market opportunity?

      The point of the article is that the “find a problem and solve it” model of new product development has only limited vision into the future. A lot of times, ideas are dismissed initially because they don’t address a “big enough” problem. That kind of thinking is very short-sighted and limiting.

      As for agile development, all I’ll say here is that the method of product development has to be adaptive to new information and circumstances or else you end up with fiascos like the Iridium satellite phone system.

      • Saeed, I embrace your central point that some problems are difficult to identify before experimenting with, and releasing, solutions.

        I’m surprised, nevertheless, that you “defy” us to identify the market problems that Rubik’s Cube and Twitter were intended to solve.

        Of course, I have no idea what was in the minds of the people who conceived them. However, some of the market problems that Rubik’s Cube and Twitter actually solved are not too difficult to identify. (In your blog entry, you went so far as to state “there is no problem” that Rubik’s Cube solves.)

        Like most entertainment products, Rubik’s Cube addresses boredom problems. Many entertainment products (arcade games, playing cards, movies) were not easy to play while carrying them. Rubik’s Cube is not just portable, but you can play it while transporting it. Finally, some people need new intellectual stimulation to enjoy themselves. Rubik’s Cube provided this stimulation, as it was both novel and an intellectual challenge.

        Thus Rubik’s Cube simultaneously solved boredom, portability, and intellectual stimulation problems that were pervasive in the market.

        In our society, there is no shortage of sources of information and no shortage of ways of expressing ourselves. Yet if someone wants to express oneself or “hear” what others are saying without being in the same room with all of them, and without the hassle and delay of e-mails, lengthy blog entries, and Facebook, it’s difficult. It’s also a challenge to listen to just that set of people you want to hear. Twitter is a bit like being in a room filled with people who have things to say that you personally find interesting, while at the same time placing you in other rooms in which other people find what you have to say interesting. Furthermore, you get to “eavesdrop” and only engage at your discretion.

        Twitter thus solves problems with communication efficiency, physical co-location, level of engagement, and opt-in relevance.

        Lastly, agile development isn’t just about being adaptive. Agile development, in a purposeful and disciplined fashion, rapidly “releases” solutions in order to surface latent or undiscovered problems as quickly as possible. In other words, it directly addresses the central point of your blog entry.

  2. Of course your right; IF you can schedule those “Eureka” moments on a regular basis, I might invest in the implied process.

    I’m reminded of the little boy who was taken into a room of donkey dung, and was excited because he knows there must be a donkey in there somewhere.

    Problem focus is just the beginning, you left out the steps of market & opportunity discovery which are directed by the various problems identified.

    I know you were just being brief. But in all those examples as Roger points out, problems existed.

    Many times my product won’t look much like a solution to the initial problem statement. But it pointed me in a direction, that after doing my market research, bundling similar problem statements, validation, strategy & competency alignment, I had a product that had much more potential than the solution to that one problem statement.

    This is a process that others can invest in, its defensible, repeatable, and maintainable. In Texas the “Eureka” process is with held for wildcats.

    • Val,

      Step 2: # Identify who values that need covers the steps of market and opportunity discovery. Yes I was being brief. 🙂

      I think we are in general agreement, particularly given your 2nd last paragraph.

  3. The seductiveness of normal will draw you into the commodity situation. Remember that burn rate. Even open source has a burn rate! “Sorry Joe. The codes gotta wait until I get off of my janitorial shift! You know Joe, I feel burned.” Yes, you might find a problem after you build it, but once you sell it, that customer becomes a market, that market becomes an anchor. That problem you found might not be THE problem, but it’s the one you get stuck with. The problem will be the same problem everyone else is solving. Sure small win, short timeframe, Christmas money, but success?

    Why is it that everything today is “social software?” Because it’s the thoughtlessly found problem.

    Go deep. Look far. Find the distant unserved market. Find the market that nobody would touch. Solve an Earth shattering, once in a lifetime, N Billion dollar market, real problem. Otherwise, that dime on the sidewalk needs, screams out loudly, is having a problem to solve, “hey, pick me up!,” so you get a dime. Congrats!

  4. Remember that the existence of the “problem” may be dependent on an ecosystem that doesn’t exist yet.

    Of course there was a need for the cell phone! Remember how painful it was to meet up with friends in a crowded place before cell phones? Communicating changes of plans, emergencies, or even finding a nearby restaurant required you to find a pay phone, hope you had change and hope it was working and there was a yellow pages present. It’s just that the technology was in a place where we had resigned ourselves to it being an unsolve-able problem.

    A “need” might be people wanting a toy that doesn’t feel like it’s just for kids. A “need” may be that the social norms have shifted to always being in touch. It’s not always going to be as obvious as putting out your customer’s hair that’s on fire.

    • Cindy,

      I’m not sure if you’re being tongue in cheek about the pain it was to meet friends….

      If not, then it’s unlikely that was one of the problems they had in mind when they started building cell phones way back when, given the prices of phones and call plans, they were way beyond the reach of the average consumer.

      You make a good distinction between problems and needs and that is something that we must understand as we build products. The issue though is that, for example, in the case of the Rubik’s cube, it may have filled a need, but it was very difficult to identify that need until people were exposed to the cube.

      i.e. the product came first, and then the need/problem was identified.

      • Saeed, some of the problems that Rubik’s Cube solved were actually pretty easy to identify in advance of building the product. (I enumerated some of these problems in a previous comment.) What was difficult was determining the extent to which the Rubik’s Cube would be effective in addressing them.

        Again, I’m not detracting from your central point. But I agree with Dean (and you, it appears) that you can take it too far.

  5. Val Workman tweeted:

    “Good Post! Makes you think. The process your poking at is old and clunky, do you have a better one?”

    This process is the one that gets mentioned often. It is similar, for example, to what was described in the recent Tuned In book.

    I truly believe that *NEW* (emphasis on NEW) product development is both difficult and highly iterative. There are far too many unknowns and variables to try to predict the future with any measure of certainty.

    The folks who created Cranium spent A LOT of time having friends etc play test the game, refining it over and over as they went forward.

    But what was the “problem” that they were addressing? Perhaps there as a “need” as Cindy indicates.

    In a nutshell, the problem with “find a problem” is that there isn’t always a fully articulated problem. It is usually something much more ephemeral, but still presents a potential opportunity for someone to address.

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  7. Well you’re of course correct in your recommendation but this shoudn’t be taken too far. You’re describing smash hits – nobody can expect to live off of those. They’re great if they come but you can’t really aim for it. Sure experimentation is good, quick iterations, quickly kill what isn’t working etc – if your space allows this. But, as Val says, it is rather important to have a process which is defensible and repeatable.

    • Dean,

      Agreed. I’m in full agreement with Val’s comment about defensible and repeatable. Those are a couple of my favourite words to describe product management.

  8. Saeed,

    Interesting argument.

    I won’t argue that there aren’t wildly successful products that evolved from some inventor just deciding they wanted to try to create something. Some have called this the Mt Everest Syndrome – we create because we can and because we think it would be cool. Call this serendipitous invention that catches the imagination of potential users and evolves into a profitable product.

    However, your central thesis falls down when supported by the examples you cite because in each case the inventor did have a specific problem to solve in mind when they started down the path of creation.

    1. Consider the Rubik’s Cube: Erno Rubik originally designed the cube as a visual representation to demonstrate his theories of 3D design to his students at the Department of Interior Design at the Academy of Applied Arts and Crafts in Budapest. He also happened to be a games and puzzle enthusiast so his intent was to create a 3D puzzle that could be solved. As he said, “I particularly like games where the partner, the real opponent is nature itself, with its really particular but decipherable mysteries. The most exciting game for me is the space game, the search of possible space shapes, that is to say the logical and concrete building of various layouts.”

    2. Consider the cell phone: The cell tower concept was developed back in 1947

    As Martin Cooper, the man who made the first ever public mobile cellular phone call in NYC in 1973 and who was the general manager of Motorola’s Communication System’s division, had a very particular vision for what problems a cell phone would solve. He explained it: “People want to talk to other people – not a house, or an office, or a car. Given a choice, people will demand the freedom to communicate wherever they are, unfettered by the infamous copper wire. It is that freedom we sought to vividly demonstrate in 1973.”

    Finally, Twitter was originally developed by Noah Glass and Jack Dorsey at Odeo as a simple technology that was then productized as the team brainstormed on possible new products to save the company. Dom Sagollas explains: “as I remember that @Jack’s first use case was city-related: telling people that the club he’s at is happening. “I want to have a dispatch service that connects us on our phones using text.” Real time communication of moods, location, etc.

    In each case, did they know how big the problem was that they were solving? No. Did they go out and do some research with potential customers? It’s not clear whether they did or not. But they had identified a problem and in at least two of the three cases, believed they had a potentially profitable business opportunity if they delivered a solution for it because they knew that others would want to use this solution.

    I would argue in each of these cases the inventors were visionary about the value of their products but probably had no idea how successful they would be. Still, they saw the opportunity, framed it as a solution to a problem, and created in response.

    • Alain,

      Thanks for the detailed comment. Nice job researching sources. For the Rubik’s cube example, the same document you cite also has this comment from Mr. Rubik:

      “I was sure it was something very interesting and important in my life,” he says, in heavily-accented but precise English, “But I was not thinking about its commercial potential. For me it was a curious object, a puzzle for solving. However, I was trying to develop it as a product, because if you only have ideas, you can’t share them with other people. If the Cube had remained a concept, well, we wouldn’t
      be here now,” he adds, axiomatically.

      This was my point exactly. Without building the cube first he couldn’t have developed it further.

      Yes, they may have been visionary, though in Twitter’s case the original concept is simply one small use case given how people are using Twitter. As for Twitter’s success, that of course remains to be seen, as they don’t have any revenue despite all the users.

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