Understanding to Solve

Surgeons can cut everything except cause ~ Herbert M. Sheldon

Put your hand up if this sounds familiar. You share a problem with your boyfriend/husband and the first thing he wants to do is solve it (functional), when the only thing you wanted was to be heard (emotional). To be fair, and thinking about stereotypical gender roles¹, men are often raised and/or wired to do just that; fix and solve problems². It therefore doesn’t come as a surprise that Tech, which remains a very much “male” dominated industry³, has a mindset of “building to solve” instead of “understanding to solve”. Thank goodness the world is changing.

It is very rare that a company doesn’t already have a “solution” in mind when they approach a problem. Sure, they don’t have all the functional parts or UI worked out yet, but where would you see a company’s “About Us” section saying: “Well we started this company. We had no idea what we were going to build or solve, but we did it anyway.” It is part of the business perspective to identify a “problem worth solving”, followed by agile-research, and build-and-test. Everything happens from the perspective of the “solution”. This is “building to solve”.

In contrast to “building to solve”, “understanding to solve” takes a different perspective on product development and user experience by exploring the thinking and emotions behind a need⁴. 

  • Why do people have certain goals? 
  • What do they hope to achieve when reaching these goals? 
  • What challenges do they have? How do they think about their problems? 

At first, you might think: “but this is too much information”, “how long will this take?”, but you aren’t collecting “everything”. You or your company are bound to have an interest in a certain field or context, and you will be exploring that context for richer understanding.

From a business perspective, you will get a much clearer understanding of how much your product actually resonates with users; not just on a functional level, but also match them on a social and emotional level. When you take an “understanding to solve” perspective, your user research will continuously build richer insights and not just be an archive of “What we have done, but never looked at again”. If you plan to build bespoke experiences, this is the way.


  1. Gender Roles and Young People
  2. “While many studies suggest that women are more empathetic than men, Dr. Brizendine stresses this is not entirely true. The empathy system of the male brain does respond when someone is stressed or expressing a problem. But the “fix-it” region quickly takes over”
  3. Navigating male dominated teams
  4. “Needs” are frequently applied as problems framed from a user’s perspective, instead of delving deeper into the user’s mental models

The Path of Least Resistance

In User Experience (UX) we establish users’ needs through research and looking at product usage (where do users struggle with the use of the product – context of use), through the process of user testing. We establish user needs, help the product owner clarify his MVP and expose user problems, so that the product owner, in the end, can create a better product.

One problem with these tools, is that they are reactive. We need to gather data and it is “new” for every product and market. What if we had data that could be used proactively to shape the design, before you get to testing? The first designs tend to copy existing popular products, but we don’t have context of their design decisions and their products aren’t necessarily better.

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The Purpose behind your UX

Every company does their UX a bit differently. It all depends on resources available, are you a start-up or large company and the influence of your existing business-developer processes.

I worked for an ecommerce company and work were usually handed down from the top, in the form of “We need to redesign application X” or “We want a new application X”. My first response is always: “But why?”. Why do you need to redesign? Why do you want to build a new product? What is wrong with the current product?

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