As a part of our working culture at Alliance Systems (a company specialized in designing and developing digital products), we have an important saying – “Falling in Love with the Problem comes first!”  What does this mean? And how can it help you better prepare for any kind of digital transformation opportunity; no matter how big or small.

I’ve been working in the industry professionally for 21 years and I have met some amazing people with great concepts.  By concepts, I mean either digital products or business models, and their goal was turning their vision into an operation that would generate revenue.  The people with these concepts come from various walks of life.  Some were natural and seasoned entrepreneurs; others had no business experience at all.  Meeting people with ideas is great, but meeting teams that are willing to do the work and know how to execute is a thing of beauty; where hard work and dedication end up with a product and or service that ends up having positive impact and being used by many.  After all, this is what we got into this business for, right? (making dreams come true!)

However, how do you go from an idea to executing?  What separates those that will spin their wheels from others that gain traction and get their product into a market to generate revenue?  Alliance Systems believes it’s all about picking winners, and that means falling in love with the problem to see what opportunities desperately need a solution.

This article will provide information across two major areas:

  1. User Empathy
  2. Problem Definition


User Empathy

User Empathy

What good is it to complete a product and sell it if you cut so many corners in the design/development process to end up where no one wants to buy? A fundamental challenge for any product development team is to understand how to interact with the users of a system in order to provide them with a solution that is truly desired.  The end goal being: Can we develop a product that is desired to be used? Is there a natural product market/user fit?

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference.  By carefully observing, asking, and learning – designers and engineers can better understand the purpose for any given solution.  This doesn’t take talent; it takes discipline and the determination to carefully plan.

We like to break down this topic into three thoughts:

  • Performing R&D to uncover “empathy”
  • Understanding pain points
  • Observing and turning practical insights into true needs

Performing R&D to surface “empathy”

While there are various methods to performing R&D, the context in this blog post will be that of generating some empathy for production teams (such analysts, designers, and engineers).  UX Research is a critical buzz word in our industry.  And any time you have the chance to interview existing customers or users of a system, you have a great opportunity to understand first-hand what they want and need.

Creating an environment with feedback loops as you are designing and developing a product can empower your team to deliver better results.  This is because you are replacing assumptions with information directly from the source (customers).  Popular exercises that document information from user groups include development of Personas/Avatars, Empathy Maps, Customer Journey, Focus Groups, and User Interviews.

Performing R&D to surface “empathy”
Performing R&D to surface “empathy”

Understanding Pain Points

As you dive into discovery and begin learning all about the challenges, you start to understand what customers are going through.  The pain points can quickly become a long laundry list that take you down a rabbit hole.  Being able to comprehend the value of solving pain points and triaging which ones are essential as root causes improves your final results.  The ultimate challenge is that our clients are trying to create a product that solves problems across a range of people with needs.  You can’t solve every individual unique need, so leveraging and utilizing your resources in an optimized manner takes planning.

Observing and turning practical insights into true needs

Sometimes agencies and development teams are so quick to using tech or mocking up a new design flow.  However, they are merely reacting and jumping to conclusions.  There are no cutting corners when it comes to problem analysis.  The main cause for digital projects going off track comes down to poor expectations, planning and communication.  More specifically, the actual definition of the problem (which we’ll cover in more detail later in this article).  Stakeholders, product managers, and producers could all argue and waste precious resources when they are not aligned with the core problems they are solving.  Ensuring there is enough evidence for a product/service market fit is vital to any new emerging business.

When research is done right, it not only organizes information, it can help you turn practical insights into true needs.  You might find unique situations not evident before that help you design and engineer a better solution.  But this opportunity only happens if you have the attitude of “falling in love with the problem” before you try solving it.

Observing and turning practical insights into true needs


Problem Definition

Problem Definition

The ultimate and foremost concern is the ability to properly define the problem.  This means all parties need to be on the same page, including:

  • the stakeholders (investing in this resolution)
  • the managers (people leading the initiative)
  • the producers (teams designing, building the product)

If you can’t define the problem accurately, it is hard and sometimes impossible to know where to begin solving it.  It literally can be one of the most challenging aspects of any project; arguably the most important.  Without a clear view where everyone is aligned, teams can get distracted or go down paths that waste valuable resources.

Accomplishing the task of problem definition is easier said than done.  This is because you have potential politics between people that may have differing perspectives.  So, what are some suggestions to get started.

Begin Documenting

Start with writing the problem down.  It’s hard to communicate when information and important elements of the potential opportunity live inside of someone’s head (or several people).  Once you have some good initial documentation completed, it is always good to include multiple perspectives.  Having several vantage points can open up discussion for an improved and more balanced solution.  Once enough details are compiled, try visualizing some flows.  While written documentation is always necessary, any visual documentation such as user flows can speak louder and clearer than words.  Our team doesn’t work in silos, we all share information and work together to deliver the best solutions.  Creating visual documentation provides a great sense of transparency as everyone can clearly get aligned by visuals.  If all you have is words on a page, they can mean different things to different people.

Begin Documenting
Be Curious

Be Curious

The next suggestion is having sincere curiosity.  Feel free to explore and ask great questions by becoming an active listener.  Here is the opportunity to look for deeper problems that users might not even find obvious.  Deeper problems and root causes may be interlinked; therefore, you have to pay attention and understand any risks, contingencies or dependencies.  Most problems have a root cause, but people might focus on symptoms rather than getting into the foundation of the situation.

Break it Down

If you are looking for root cause situations, it is good to break the process down into chunks.  For example, are you able to isolate what the primary problem is? (there might be various problems you are solving, but they all can’t be primary problems).  Defining the primary problem clearly and accurately is a critical step.

Have you asked what factors all relate to the problem?  Which are important and which do you reserve for later?  Identifying various factors will provide a greater understanding of the problem and how it might be solved.  Have you asked yourself, who knows about the problem that can help us?  Identifying people who are available to provide insights is extremely helpful.  There might be experts in the field that have been trying to resolve the problem longer than you.  Have you considered including subject matter experts as a part of the break down process?

Have you asked who are the user types that might be affected?  There are different types of users in any given situation such as:

  • Mainstream Users: baseline target audience for a product/service
  • Lead Users: also known as power users and typically experience needs ahead of mainstream
  • Extreme Users: known to have special needs/challenges, better design for these users can help everyone
Break it Down
Levels of Needs

Levels of Customer Needs

A quick example of the hierarchy of customer needs could be broken down like this:

  1. Primary Needs = Basic requirements for the success of the initiative
  2. Secondary Needs = Needs that reinforce primary needs
  3. Latent Needs = Hidden opportunities that users may be unaware of
    • A great example of a latent need was when Apple understood and developed the Mag Safe magnet connector, so that charging laptops wouldn’t be tossed across the room when someone trips over the cable.

If we take the very popular Nest Thermostat product, we can break down the level of needs in a few examples.

List of Customer Needs



This blog article is brief in nature and only covers the tip of the iceberg when considering the statement – falling in love with the problem.  And while you can learn a lot through books and certain methodologies, it comes down to experience and willingness to roll up your sleeves and become an investigator.  It is a subset of problem-solving skills and surrounding yourself around people that are great planners can improve your stakes.

We covered two main topics around (1) Empathy and (2) Defining the Problem.  Empathy was described as being a key to try to understand the user’s challenges from a first level perspective wherever possible.  Without some level of empathy, solving the problem becomes more challenging.  We also called out the importance of communication and learning from various perspectives.  And we also shared aspects of how to properly consider the definition statements for any problem.  By leveraging curiosity, and breaking down the details, we can begin aligning views across stakeholders, managers and producers.  This transparency begins to set the right culture across all teams.

If you are in need of a custom solution, and no off-the-shelf solutions are the right fit, keep in mind the culture of the organization you are interviewing with.  Ask them about their process and how they go about planning for such initiatives.  Be suspicious of development companies that jump right into solution mode or that sell you leading tech before truly understanding and falling in love with the problem.


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