Design Thinking has changed the way designers go about the creative process. It’s rooted the way we approach understanding problems in empathizing with people instead of focusing on the solution. It’s a powerful framework that I have seen work endless times in spectacular ways.
As designers, we love finding a meaningful problem and working with those experiencing it to piece together a process or product that will help them overcome it. We are driven by that empathy to help our users by creating efficient solutions.
But what happens when we find a problem that isn’t ours to solve?
One day when I was in grad school — back before I knew what Design Thinking or UX Research was — I was sitting in an empty classroom cramming for my upcoming finals. I got a phone call from a friend of mine from undergrad telling me about a problem he saw the previous year when he was in Ghana.
Despite Ghana’s robust agricultural sector, he had noticed that families in Accra’s low income neighborhoods didn’t have sufficient access to fresh fruit and vegetables. He called to ask me if I wanted to spend a month with him that Summer trying to come up with a solution to this problem. I was young, had some time in between my Summer internship and Fall classes, and he found a hostel that worked for our student budgets – so we booked tickets to Accra.
Before heading there, I tried to do as much desk research as I could on Ghana’s agricultural supply chain. I was able to get a basic understanding of how the market was structured, but we went in relatively blind to what was actually happening on the ground. But that’s the purpose of field research, right?
When I arrived, I was overwhelmed by unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells. The rich red soil was highlighted by the brightly colored kente patterned fabrics, the constant honking of car horns competed with the voices of street hawkers that seemed to carry for miles, the sweet smell of fried plantains harmoniously paired with the wafting traces of generator motors. I was in a completely unfamiliar environment, and it was exhilarating. I became obsessed with trying to learn everything I could about this new way of living.
We decided to start our research by going to the place where people go to buy produce — street vendors and local markets. After asking multiple vendors where they bought their food, we were lead to the wholesale markets. After navigating our way through those, were told to talk to farmers, and then to nonprofits that represented farmers.
Through talking to all of these people, we learned that there were a number of intermediary sellers between the farmers and street vendors. This meant that by the time fruits and vegetables got from the farms to those living in low income areas of Accra, the produce was expensive and well on its way to rotting.
Over the span of several weeks talking to dozens of people, we not only began to slowly piece together this supply chain, but we were making friends in the process. We learned how to play (and lose) Spar, a card game that was played by groups of people all across the city. We spent afternoons hanging out with college students and hearing about their side hustles as they were putting themselves through school. We befriended a family that taught us how to make fufu and peanut stew and enthralled us with their story of how they found each other in school. We became familiar with the group of kids who were teaching themselves English outside our hostel during their Summer break.
As we quickly came to appreciate the beauty of Ghana and its people, we simultaneously started to recognize the complexity of the social, economic, and political dealings surrounding this problem we came to solve.
As this supply chain problem became increasingly clear, everything surrounding the solution got murkier. We came up with a business model that would pay farmers fairer prices for their produce and deliver it directly to street vendors in low income areas for affordable prices. But what were the environmental and cultural levers that dictated how farmers decided what to grow and when? What processes and norms would we be disrupting in trying to break ties between street vendors and wholesale markets? What does a healthy workplace culture look like in both rural Ghana and Accra? Although there were studies showing higher rates of malnourishment among children in these neighborhoods, is bringing fresh produce an appropriate solution?
It became apparent that I did not have the cultural, historical, or social understanding to start formulating answers to these questions. In fact, I didn’t have the full contextual understanding to even pin point if this fresh produce supply chain was a problem in anybody’s mind besides our own.
These questions, although complex, are not impossible to understand. However, it would take a lot more knowledge than what two grad students who are not from Ghana would be able to gain in a couple of months. Designing solutions that truly solve problems in an impactful and sustainable way takes more than coming prepped with the Design Thinking toolkit and a large dose of empathy. Although those are extremely good, and arguably necessary, you also need to be able to understand the deeply embedded cultural and societal implications of what it is you are designing.
Although doing this is a monumental feat, it is not impossible. We could have built a strong network of farmers, vendors, parents, children, and community leaders that would have helped us to think through all of these questions. We could have partnered with people and organizations who have all of the knowledge and understanding that can’t be simply learned by interviewing others. But we didn’t have the resources to do these things— with a strict budget of time, money, and experience we could only go so far.
After a beautiful month scratching the surface of a vibrant city, I realized that this was not my problem to solve. At that time it wouldn’t have been effective to try and keep pushing towards a solution.
Although it is vital to seek out people’s stories when trying to understand problems, we are not always the people meant to design the solutions.
Now that I practice Design Thinking and have been trained as a UX Researcher, I have carried my learnings from this experience into my work. When defining a problem statement, I try to always have a frank discussion with my team and our users about whether or not this is a problem that should be worked on, and whether or not we are the ones that should be working on it. Oftentimes the answer is yes, and we go forward — but sometimes we have to come to the the realization that there may not be a problem to be solved. Or if there is, that we may not be the appropriate ones to try and understand it.
There isn’t a clear path forward when faced with this scenario. What I can suggest is that you try to pinpoint the gaps you and your team have — perhaps you don’t have the proper cultural understanding, maybe you don’t have resources that can properly execute the design process, or you don’t have the relationships needed to create a lasting solution — and see if there are others you can partner with that can fill those gaps. Or maybe you go and find the people who can bring what it takes to tackle the problem and encourage them to go forward with it. Regardless of what path you take, be sure to take an honest inventory of what you bring, and remember that what makes a great designer aren’t the problems you solve, but how you go about doing it.
Design is about so much more than creating a product, it is the journey through which we try to understand whether or not there is a problem, and what the most sustainable way is to go about addressing it.