Better Enough: Design Thinking in Three Easy Questions

By Matthew Landkamer

Squeezable ketchup bottles—there was a time when we didn’t have them. A dark time of great annoyance when we were instructed to tap the bottle at the base of the neck (on the embossed 57) in order to get the ketchup to flow. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that we finally applied existing squeeze bottle technology to the act of ketchup application. Why did it take so long?

Great design often seems obvious, once it has been done. Design thinking (as a problem-solving methodology) is a process of problem identification and iterative solution generation to arrive at better solutions. Note that I didn’t say the “best” solution. “Best” is an unrealistic ideal that traps thinking on a Mobius strip. The idea is this: get to a point where your idea is “better enough” and apply it. You’ve heard the maxim before: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

When applying design thinking to the solution of business challenges, I like to use a three-question framework:

  1. What’s your problem?
  2. What if?
  3. Why not?

What’s Your Problem Is the problem identification phase, where problems may surface from annoyances or complaints. Jerry Seinfeld often used the identification of these annoyances as a jumping-off point for jokes. Once we hear him say, “What’s the deal with…?”, we have that flash of recognition: “Yes, Jerry, I have felt the same frustration.”

Realize that your initial understanding of the problem may not actually get to the truth of the problem. Take some time in this phase to really dig down and understand the underlying issue. Thinking about the ketchup example, the problem was time—it took too long to get ketchup out of the bottles. The problem wasn’t that the bottle was made of glass, or that the ketchup was too thick, or that we needed better directions on how to pour ketchup.

The squeeze bottle solved that problem, but there could have been other solutions, such as outfitting diner tables with special long-handled ketchup spoons to slide up the neck and manually pull the ketchup out, or thinner ketchup. I think I’m glad for the squeeze bottles.

As you investigate the real problem, it’s helpful to spend some time observing the product or process in action. Perhaps your problem is an office process that you know could be improved. Watch your co-workers to see what strategies they employ to shortcut the process, and that might give you the fresh insight to identify the problem you really need to solve.

Once you have identified your real problem, you are ready for the other two phases:

What If is the ideation phase. The key here is volume, not accuracy. Speed helps, too. You want to create a huge list and be nearly unreasonable. Bring colleagues to the process if it helps—oftentimes being able to “bounce ideas back and forth” results in thinking you couldn’t achieve on your own.

As with the first phase, observation will be a key tool. Keep your eyes and ears open, because you may stumble across ideas in unlikely places. If you were working on the slow ketchup problem, you might have had that flash of insight in the shower when you used the squeeze bottle to dispense your shampoo.

If you thought you were going to find your solution with a brainstorm session, though, you were wrong. Now comes the hard part: testing and iteration.

Why Not is the testing phase. Choose one or more potential solutions from the What If list, and try them out. Or at least model them out, if you don’t test them in real time. Find out how they will work, and poke holes in them. This is the Why Not part—why won’t your solutions work? Where do they fall short? Where are they broken?

Keep track of this phase. Take notes, and take measurements. Give yourself a methodology for assessing the solution, and apply it to all your solutions. This part is science, not art. Catalog all the flaws and breaking points of your potential solutions. In this case, failure is data.

Which brings us back to the What If phase. Bring what you learned from your Why Not phase to another focused round of What If. Each time you go through this cycle, your What If list will tighten up, getting closer and closer to things that might solve the problem. As you iterate, allow yourself to become more reasonable with your What If solutions. At this point, they are based on the measurements you have generated, so they shouldn’t be completely “blue sky” anymore.

This may work itself out in a couple of cycles, or it may take several. Remember to continually check your results against the original challenge you identified. If you were working on the ketchup challenge, you would need to test each iterative cycle to see whether it sped the delivery of ketchup. Be patient with this phase, and keep an open mind. And remember: the goal isn’t best. It’s “better enough.”