At some point during the product development process, you are likely to encounter a problem so large it leaves you feeling completely stumped. How can you successfully solve problems during the product development process?

How to solve problem during product development

Take a look at these four tips that originated from advice offered by expert problem solvers.

1. Start small

You’re in the midst of developing a prototype and have just found a massive flaw in your product design. Don’t panic: your problem might be huge, but the key to successfully tackling it is to start small. Consider the story of Sidney Farber. Dubbed the Father of Modern Chemotherapy, Farber took one enormous problem, which was cancer treatment, and focused on one incredibly small aspect of it, examining leukemia treatment on literally a microscopic level. Farber successfully developed a treatment that went on to become the foundation of treatment for many other types of cancer. The first step in tackling large complex problems is to find solutions to micro-problems — solutions which can then be extrapolated to bigger issues.

2. Don’t define your problem too rigidly

“Most businesses set goals in terms of ‘we need to improve X by Y percent,’” explains data scientist Mark Stringer. “On closer inspection, improving X by Y percent is often just a partial solution to a bigger, more ambiguous problem. Improving X by Y percent may incrementally improve your business, and using the define-plan-execute method will get the job done on a number of projects. However, if you don’t revisit and redefine the problem, you run the risk of misusing valuable time and resources.”

3. Take time to understand the problem

Just because you think you understand the problem you’re trying to solve doesn’t necessarily mean that you actually do. Consider the famous Netflix example. Back in 2006 Netflix offered a staggering $1 million award to anyone who could manage to figure out a way to improve the company’s viewing recommendation algorithms by 10 percent. Competing universities and teams worked for three years to solve the problem, but nobody ever quite hit the nail on the head. In the end, the solution that won the $1 million dollar prize was never fully implemented. Basically, it was a major problem-solving flop.

Why? Well, it has to do with the way Netflix defined the problem. Netflix needed to improve recommendations, but in order to do that, it didn’t actually need to change the algorithm. They should have taken a broader, more ambiguous look at the situation. Fast-forward a few years, and Netflix was actually able to find a simple way to improve their recommendations: they segmented recommendations by different household users.

The takeaway? Don’t define your problem too concretely. It will narrow your focus—which isn’t necessarily a good thing. “Businesses should also look to set concrete goals while defining problems ambiguously. Problem solving methods for ambiguous problems aim to continuously redefine the problem,” Stringer insists. “They start with a big, ambiguous problem and take an iterative approach to testing out solutions and changing course.”

4. Ask yourself, “Who else has solved this problem?”

More likely than not, your problem is not totally unique. Somebody somewhere along the line has likely faced a similar problem—and solved it. “The whole idea behind creative problem-solving is the assumption that you know something that will help solve this problem, but you’re not thinking of it right now,” explains Art Markman, a cognitive psychologist. “When you begin to realize that the problem you’re trying to solve has been solved over and over again by people in other areas, you can look at the solutions they came up with to help you solve your own.” Of course, their exact solution might not fit your dilemma perfectly, but the inspiration should help get your creative juices flowing.

Pivot International is a product design, development, and manufacturing firm with strengths in software development, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and industrial design. If you are interested in engineering a new product or updating an existing product, contact us at 1-877-206-5001 or request your free consultation today.