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You can’t redefine someone else’s problem

Walt wrote an interesting line in a recent think piece on the Verge. He makes a lot of interesting points as usual, but one little quote got me thinking about an easy and frequent mistake we can all make. In the process of looking for solutions and making commentary we often times subtly redefine the problem someone else is having.

But there are other paths. For instance, that HP Spectre I mentioned earlier is actually a tad thinner, but manages to add a couple of additional ports on the back edge of the machine, and to use full-fledged processors, even if they required a cleverly designed fan.

In the emphasis I added above you can see Walt doing this with the design of the MacBook (non-pro) that Apple has been shipping for the last few years. I used the first design of that machine and agree with all of Walt’s criticisms.

What I don’t agree with is the idea that you can hold up another computer that makes different design trade offs as a direct comparison to the trade offs on this particular computer. The design brief for the MacBook probably read something like “needs to be able to email, browse the web, use office class applications, road warriors dream, long enough battery to last cross Atlantic flight”. Walt would rather have a computer that makes different trade offs. To call this a symptom of “overdesigning” a product isn’t really accurate. It’s a symptom of designing a product for a different set of trade offs than the ones you prioritize. Walt is right, this happens all the time, and I see it as a positive thing.

The uncharitable usage of the word Design implies frivolity. But I think what is happening more often is that companies are being very focused, and in the process eliminating a lot of use cases from their product. This isn’t a bad thing, it allows products to be brought to market faster and with less budget, however it does eliminate possibilities, and in my experience reading the tech press, there is nothing that riles a tech journalist up more than a product that could do something if only the product designer had made the product the way the tech journalist thought it should be made.

Technical Journalists do their best work when they put themselves into the role of a user of a product and seek to understand how the company creating the product has done the work of designing the product trade offs to fit that use case.

Product designers do their best work when they are able to capture a clear picture in their head of how a new thing can be created by questioning the assumptions under which we all operate, and integrate some novel thinking into a product in a way that feels like a natural consequence of problem solving.

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