Defining problems—or the multi-billion-dollar question

Design is in everything. There’s no marketing without design, nor programming. Of course some people would disagree with this, but it all comes down to describing properly what design if for:
Design is about defining and solving problems.
That’s it. But it’s worth mentioning two things here:

  1. I haven’t said anything about fancy stuff. Design is not about making something pretty. That’s a step along the process—which is solving a problem.
  2. Notice that defining comes before solving. Big idea. You can’t solve a problem you don’t know (or don’t know properly), right?

The key of design is identifying and defining a problem. And that’s way harder than it seems.
Defining the problem is the most difficult part in design. By far. Because once you have defined completely the problem, then it’s easier to come up with a solution.
Consider the problem Google solved. What they did was brilliant. And I’m not talking about making a nice and clear site with no banners. That’s a given. What they did that was brilliant was to integrate in the structure of the product “anticipated, personal, relevant” messages from advertisers to people who wanted to get them (what Seth Godin coined as Permission Marketing 20 years ago.)
There were lots of search engines before Google. The most notorious one was Yahoo, but they didn’t get the joke.
Google defined properly a multi-billion-dollar problem (literally), which was: how do we make this accurate and simple and uninterruptive for the user, while maximizing profits from advertisers?
That what the key question that would define the problem. Then it was “easy” to come up with a solution: the famous ad’s auction that allows Google to take all the profits off the table in every single industry.
Yahoo did not ask that. What they did ask was: How do we use what we have to maximize profits from banners? They had a hammer, and saw a nail. Hence, an ill-defined problem.
Solving problems is not the hard part. The hard part is figuring out the right question to ask and define the problem—the real problem.