What problem are you trying to solve?
I spent the first six months at Schoolrunner asking that question repeatedly. It’s incredible how easy it is to get lost without it. When you’re designing a new solution, the easiest thing to learn is what people hate about their current products. I’ve heard more than a few rants of that genre, and while occasionally you get some insight out of it, more often than not it’s simply therapeutic for the user.
Often, asking this simple question “What problem are you trying to solve?” gets you very simple answers. When you first start out don’t be surprised if you’re disoriented by the answer you get in comparison with the tool they’re currently using. Fundamentally, the processes and tools they currently have aren’t helping them, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the rant about the current process and a concise description of the problem are so disparate!
Keep Your Startup Eye on Pain Points
When I started Schoolrunner, I spent six months sitting with everyone from the principal to teachers to the person who worked the front desk in the main office. I asked versions of this question to everyone, so I could understand what decisions they were making, what data informed those decisions, and where that data came from and needed to flow to next.
As I was building this user-centered map of education data, one conversation with a teacher stood out. She was speaking passionately (read: ranting) about how frustrating her current tool was for tracking student mastery of a given set of learning objectives or standards.
What she had was effectively a giant spreadsheet of data, with every student’s name listed down the left and every standard across the top. The numbers were highlighted red, yellow, or green, but it was still an overwhelming amount of information to try to process at once.
For a minute I got lost in trying to solve making browsers better at handling massive grids of data, when I realized I was asking the wrong question. So I countered, “What do you actually DO with all this data? What problem are you trying to solve?”
Use Data to Solve Problems
She explained her workflow was to go column by column and sort each one, looking for patterns of kids who struggled with each concept. It hurt my brain watching her, and I know it hurt hers too. “What if I could visualize this data for you so you could quickly see the standards that the most kids are struggling with and the kids who are struggling with the most standards?”
It seemed so clear to me. Computers are great at taking mountains of information and crunching them down to a simple visualization. I could then organize the data so that it naturally answered the problem she was trying to solve: re-teach this concept or pull this small group of kids aside for extra tutoring.
Instead I got to another common stage in this process: resistance to change. This same teacher who’d just been complaining about this process was all of a sudden saying that she needed this same workflow, but just with a magic browser to make scrolling through the data easier.
I offered to build a better visualization, and said if there was something she missed from her current workflow I would build the giant grid. But I never needed to.
The point is that I felt confident in my design because we had started from the fundamental challenge and then built up from there.