Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What's The Problem?

Be forewarned. We are surrounded. They boldly attach to all aspects of life, every thought & dream. They are everywhere. Problems!  Behind the problem, what is the symptom?

This is a quiz. 

Which of the following explains the phrase, "I found the problem!"

A. Something is horribly wrong.
B. A significant symptom was discovered.
C. A likely root cause was deduced.
D. A serious defect was repaired.
E. An opportunity gap exists between reality & intent.

It was a trick question.  "I found the problem!" has been shouted for all of these unique situations.  The meaning depended on the speaker, listener, and purpose.  "Problem" is meaningful only within its narrow context.

What are symptoms?
Compared to the multiple meanings for "problem", the word "symptom" is unambiguous. It’s defined as an indication of something. When a problem is first noticed, its symptom was detected. A problem becomes defined by its distinct differences from expected performance. Symptoms don't cause a problem; they are simply signs & evidence of a problem. Symptoms include observations, measured data, user complaints, and everything about a problem except the problem itself. Taken together, relevant symptoms become the definition of the problem. The obvious goal is to establish & resolve root cause by untangling clues offered by the symptoms. What is enough? How deeply to dig? Officially, the goal is to restore previous operating condition. However, also consider preventing the next failure. Consider this example chain of problems: poor quality caused by misalignment caused by inadequate design caused by a flawed design tool used by an inexperienced designer. Each of these problems is symptomatic of the next, deeper problem.

What symptoms are not symptoms?
The multiple, overlapping effects that trigger improvements, upgrades, and other enhancements seem similar to symptoms. The difference is process failure versus process opportunity. Fixing what’s broken vs. fixing what works. When the goal is improvement; a thing’s attributes, distinctions, & peculiarities are not symptoms.

Design prototypes are somewhere in the middle. Generally, symptoms are evidence of one root cause, whereas prototypes have multiple defects and fractured features. Eventually, a flawless (mostly) design is released. After that point, user complaints (symptoms) are usually handled as "design enhancement requests".

Design perfection (mature) & continual innovation (new) are both essential, but they are in opposition. A primary challenge for design projects is apply learning to balancing those forces.

Trivia: The word “symptom” is rarely heard in casual conversation. Try it. And then watch nearby people begin listening very closely.

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