Has Automation Axed Problem-Solving Skills? 5 Steps to Get Back into Practice

As technology advances, our work becomes increasingly more automated. This is great for saving time and manual effort—but it also makes it easier to lose sight of the magic of problem solving. That extra speed can sometimes lead to oversights and half-formed plans, which cost you more time to fix in the long run.

During the five years I spent in architecture school, the drafting process evolved from carefully handcrafted ink on mylar to AutoCad prototypes. I will never forget how relieved I felt saving all that time. I later learned, however, that what I gained in time and efficiency, I lost in the care I took in ensuring my solutions were well crafted and vetted before moving on to the execution stage.

This lesson has stuck with me over the years. I have since dissected my problem-solving process, step by step, to keep myself disciplined. This has been especially helpful in my user experience (UX) career, as creating human-centered solutions is often a complex and nuanced process.

Next time you’re solving a tough challenge for your organization or a customer, make sure you’re following these five steps of problem solving. I assure you the extra time spent will be worth it—for both you and the end users.

1. Research the Problem

Problem solving begins with understanding. As a UX professional, you serve as an advocate for the user. Understanding both the people and the environment they’re engaging with is crucial for tailoring a solution to their needs.

Tip: Develop a series of standard questions that help you better understand the challenges and intended impact of the experience you’re creating. Use these as a starting point, but ensure you include additional questions that are customized to the specifics of the project.

Review your work by asking:

  • Have you accurately hypothesized the problem?
  • How do you intend to prove (or disprove) your hypothesis?
  • What is the big discovery?

2. Develop Content That Solves the Problem

Once you’ve developed an understanding of the problem, it’s time to synthesize your research and define a solution. Looking at the content is the first step in accomplishing this.

Whether you are a content strategist or a website developer, it’s important that you take the time to understand the content, its hierarchy, its relationships, and its current quality. From there, you’ll be able to identify any gaps.

Tip: Translate your research findings into a format your intended audience can easily digest. This may be user requirements in the form of stories, user personas and journeys, or a creative brief that serves as a strategic roadmap for both the client and the team.

Review your work by asking:

  • Does your content strategy effectively capture the research findings?
  • Does it create a structure that will allow for the design of an effective and enjoyable user experience?

Iterate: At this point, take a breath, review what you’ve discovered, and refine the plan.

3. Lay Out Your Content

Layout is an integral layer—it connects the content to the aesthetic. When defining the layout, quantity informs the quality of the final product. Try as many ideas as you can using the medium you work fastest in. The more sketches you end up with, the more likely you are to land on a few ideas that can withstand scrutiny.

Tip: Nothing beats the low-tech approach of using a sketch pad and pencil. Your goal should be to complete a sketch pad as you work on multiple projects—and you should consider it an accomplishment when you do. These sketch pads will be like your design diary or career time capsule. They will outline your thought process, biggest wins, most triumphant failures, but most importantly, your growth.

Review your work by asking:

  • Do your wireframes contain enough information to effectively communicate your content strategy recommendations?
  • Are the interactive/functional recommendations clear?

4. Refine Your Solution’s Aesthetic

At this point, you’ve laid the foundation for your solution. You now have the opportunity to add depth to your design—make it human.

Tip: Collaboration is key! Find a strategist and an engineer you trust and share all your design secrets with them. Together, you can figure out the best way to implement them.

Review your work by asking:

  • Do your design decisions support the overall strategy, appropriately represent the customer, and connect with target audiences?
  • Are there any usability issues?

5. Present Your Idea

Your idea is only as good as your ability to sell it. A successful presentation isn’t about approval, it’s about emotion. Make your audience feel something.

Tip: Be aware of both the most exciting and the most controversial ideas you’re presenting. Whenever possible, get to know who your audience is—figure out what they already know and what they’re expecting to hear/see. To keep the presentation laser focused on your project, it also helps to define your goals for the presentation ahead of time. Once you’ve achieved them, wrap it up!

Test & Iterate Your Solution

The problem-solving process may look linear, but in reality it’s an iterative process. Feedback from various stakeholders can necessitate a return to a previous step in the process. This will only make the end product stronger, so don’t shy away from feedback—seek it out!

Five Steps in Five Days: The Scaled Execution

U.Group was recently approached by an existing government customer to perform a two-week revamp of their existing homepage to “make it more exciting, something I can use to highlight the value of our work.” We needed one week to complete the development edits, giving me five days to create a viable solution.

Here are the steps we followed:

  1. Research: We conducted an intake meeting with the customer to understand their impact and ways in which they have successfully communicated it in the past. We also discussed a vision for the aesthetic by identifying aspirational sites.
  2. Content: Using a whiteboard, we mapped the existing content on the homepage into sections and provided compelling headings that supported a hierarchal narrative about the agency’s impact.
  3. Layout: I grabbed a visual designer and a whiteboard and began creating building blocks to create a visual story with the previously identified content groupings.
  4. Aesthetic: Our designer quickly rendered a high-fidelity mockup, which expanded on the identified approach, and worked with the developer and content strategist to ensure the aesthetic recommendations were both technically feasible and able to support the actual content.
  5. Presentation: We presented both the design mockup and our content recommendations and rationale to the customer. Our goal was to generate excitement and receive any edits necessary to approve moving forward with development and launch.

At the conclusion of the two weeks, we were able to successfully launch a new homepage for the client that not only satisfied the requirements of the contract, but also made the client happy because we solved a problem for him: we helped him answer the question “How can I use this site to communicate our impact … now?”

While technology innovators are always coming out with new tools to streamline your work, there is still value in developing solutions the old-fashioned way. Following these five steps will help you stay disciplined to your process and focus on your growth as a problem solver.

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