All of us have to-do lists that we work through each day for personal reasons or work. The tasks on the list can range from the more benign house chores or preparing slides for meetings to potentially trickier ones such as planning for holidays or fulfilling your professional development requirements. We often enlist specialised products or services to help us complete the tasks. They can be either physical or digital, e.g., the Dyson hand-held for cleaning, HelloFresh for meal sourcing and preparation, the productivity applications of Office365, TripAdvisor and Airbnb for reviews and accommodations, Go1 for your professional and compliance training needs.
The best products or services are the ones that help us accomplish the tasks within certain constraints. These constraints can be about cost, effort, time, and so on. For instance, I need to renew my first aid qualification as cost-effectively as possible. I can enlist Google Web search to help with the task or I can hop onto Go1 for that. Both would likely yield the outcome I want but the best choice would depend on whatever constraints that accompany the task. If I want to be able to find cheap, quality providers and at the same time, not have to scour through dozens of websites, then the latter option would deliver much more efficiently.
Problems occur when undesirable situations arise during the use of the products or services which slow down or worse, prevent the completion of the tasks. Since the first things that the people encounter in an undesirable situation are the more tangible signs, we are often stuck with those and attempt to solve for them. These are just the symptoms and addressing them does not guarantee that the problems will not re-occur. The focus should always be on the things that actually led to the problems.
The root causes to many of the problems in our context of product and service usage can be traced back to three broad groups. The first one is the product or service enlisted is not being used for what it was designed for. It could be as simple as a person filling a non-tempered glass (with clear instructions advising against it) with hot water and finding that it cracks. The problem now is the person is unable to drink (from it) because the glass is not usable anymore. If I try to solve for the symptom of the glass cracking, I would just replace the glass with another (potentially non-tempered) glass. The problem will re-occur unless I realise that the root cause is the misuse of the glass.
The second one is the product or service genuinely lacks the necessary features to effectively help with a task. Consider an e-commerce website that allows customers to search and buy kitchenware. If the search functionality does not offer the customers the ability to sort the results by price, then it becomes a problem for those who are more price-conscious. The third is the product or service does not operate the way it was intended to. An example would be a vacuum cleaner stopped working after the third use despite the unit being new and the battery being fully charged.
In the following sections, we will look a scenario and unpack two potentially intertwined but distinct topics: the right product for the task and problem solving associated with product usage. For the first one, we discuss the importance of selecting the right product for the task; the lack of which could potentially give rise to problems with the use of the product. This brings us to the second topic of separating the root causes from the symptoms in solving problems associated with the use of products. Together, the ability to build or recommend products that are best suited for the users and to identify root causes for problem solving along the way are the two most critical skills to have in areas such as customer service and product development.
It was a long weekend. Luke visited a hardware store with a broken drill bit on Saturday. As he walk through the entrance, he was greeted by a customer service person. He asked how he could help. He showed him the broken drill bit and was pointed to aisle 18 for replacement. Luke went to the aisle and walked away with a replacement, two of them in fact.
The next day, Luke went back to the same store with two broken drill bits. He went straight to aisle 18. He saw a staff member standing near the electric drill section. Luke showed her the broken drill bit and told her this is the third one in two days. She had a look and asked him what surface was he drilling on. He said concrete and she told Luke that he has been using the wrong drill bits. She pointed him to the right ones and he walked out this time feeling reassured.
The next day, Luke paid the store another visit. He bumped into the same person who introduced him to the masonry drill bit the day before. He told her that the drill bit did not break this time but he cannot seem to get a hole in the concrete wall. She asked him what kind of drill he was using. It was then that Luke found out his regular cordless drill was not fit for the task. He needed a hammer drill and he went to get one. He did not have to go back to the store after that.
It was Saturday the week after and Luke had some friends over for dinner. He showed them to his living area and the photo frames that he have put up recently. He told them about his bad experience with the drill. It was only then that Luke found out there is a new product by 3M that allows him to reliably hang pictures without nails.
Let us first unpack the scenario above from the perspective of tasks and products. As they say, there are many ways to skin a cat. It is important that we first understand the task and the constraints within which the customers want the task to be done before building or recommending products for them. The actual products or services should always come second. In our scenario, the customer was fixated on a particular product to accomplish the task of hanging pictures on the wall. During his repeated visits to the store, the staff members whom he interacted with just went with his choice without questioning what the product was being used for. If the constraint is about being hassle-free, most of us would agree that there are better ways to get the task done. Let us be clear that whilst the “hole in the wall with a drill” approach may not be ideal for that particular customer, it does not constitute a problem.
There is a saying in the innovation community that goes “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole”. I would go further by saying most people do not want holes in their walls, they just want to hang stuff off them. The trick here is to recognise and cut through the intermediate outcomes that sometimes exist with these sorts of task. What would have been excellent customer service is the store assistants talking to Luke about what he was trying to do with having holes in the wall. That would have saved him the effort of running around and the cost associated with purchasing new drill products just to arrive at the same outcome that the use of 3M strips would have.
The other important skill that we can unpick from the scenario is root causes versus symptoms for problem solving. The scenario above can be complicated as there are two layers of hiccups associated with completing the task of hanging the pictures. The first layer has been discussed above, which is the hassle from the use of a product when a better-suited alternative approach exists. This may be an inconvenience but it does not qualify to be a problem. The real problems exist in the second layer from the inappropriate use of the product.
Let us assume that Luke really needed the holes in his wall for some reasons. The inability to create those holes using the drill then becomes a problem. Isn’t the drill bit breaking causing the problem you may ask? In reality, the staff member was just helping Luke address the symptom when he points Luke to the aisle to get drill bit replacement. Did replacing the drill bits fixed the problem and helped Luke get the holes he wanted? No, that is not the root cause.
The next time when it was pointed out to Luke that he was using the wrong type of drill bit, the store assistant just drilled into, pun intended, one of the two root causes. In other words, the drill bit breaking was not the root cause, the use of the wrong type of drill bit is. It took Luke another trip to the store to find out the other root cause – he was using the wrong drill. All in all, the incorrect use of the product was the thing preventing Luke from creating the holes, hence the problem. This fits into the first group of root causes as mentioned initially in the article.
We discussed about the importance of helping customers find the most appropriate products or services for their tasks. The use of products that are less suited for the tasks can give rise to all sorts of problems. When problems do occur from the use of products or services to perform tasks, the ability to get to the root of a problem is critical. Addressing symptoms instead of tackling the real problem can be costly for a business. However, getting to the root of the problem can sometimes be challenging, especially if there are multiple causes or the tasks are complicated. Some of the techniques such as the jobs-to-be-done framework which have been discussed in another article can help us build or customise products to solve unmet needs, and the “5 whys” to help us get to the bottom of things. And if anyone ever needs training in these areas, we know that Go1 is the right tool for the job!