Are you solving the right business problem? Here are 5 ways to get to your question zero

Businesses fail because they often solve the wrong problem.

Forty percent of Samsung’s new smartphone, Galaxy 5S, never left the warehouse. Its all-in-one, Swiss Army Knife approach missed the consumer mark. Motorola’s Moto X, “the only smartphone assembled in the U.S.A,” proved to be similarly unexciting. Arguably, these costly ventures failed because they did not identify the essential challenge their consumers grappled with.

The essence of any given problem, according to Harvard Business School professor Herman Leonard, can be reached through question zero. As practiced by design firm Ideo, question zero is a sequence of “whys” used to get designers through a chain of answers until they reach the actual challenge they need to address.

Applied to creative strategy, question zero can clarify the exact thing we are trying to accomplish and help us create smarter solutions. It allows us to address bigger and more important issues than we originally set our sights on. The question zero of a successful creative strategy is to ask what the problem is, why it is a problem and how we can use resources at hand to solve it.

There are five ways to go about answering the question zero:

Humanize it

At the bottom of most problems is a human truth. If we do a better job of understanding it, we can do a better job of satisfying our customers’ needs. Our task is to observe how our customers are currently solving their problems and build a better product or service offering based on this observation. A simple look at our immediate environment offers proof that we are surrounded by things constructed around machine needs rather than human needs. For example, think: vending machine. We need to bend all the way down to get a pack of snacks from it. It is easier for a machine to use gravity to drop a pack of snacks into a bin at our feet than to deliver it at waist-height into our hands. Machine wins, we lose.

Zoom out, find your narrative

Once we take the big picture into account, it leads us to a new way of seeing a problem. When a problem is very specific, a holistic approach has proven to be the best. One way to implement a holistic approach is to tell a story around the intended use of a product or service. A simple narrative helps us understand how an interface or an app is going to be used and how it’s going to fit into the wider context of consumers’ existing behaviors. Airbnb, a global accommodation rentals platform, aims to make its customers feel at home wherever they are. This experience of belonging, rather than the actual rental properties that Airbnb lists, is this platform’s key product. The immediate benefit is that this wider, bigger-picture, emotional, “feel at home wherever you are” approach creates a powerful narrative about solving a human need — and allows Airbnb to grow organically by adding offerings that enforce its big picture, emotional narrative.

Think about time

Contemplate how a solution is going to unfold with the progression of time. Back to Airbnb: a few years back, Airbnb’s founder Brian Chesky read a Walt Disney biography. He was inspired by the famous auteur making the entire Snow White animated movie in storyboards. Chesky and his experience designers applied the same method of telling a story through sequential, discrete scenes in order to come up with the optimal travel experience for both Airbnb guests and hosts. Storyboards helped Airbnb to humanize its user journey and develop empathy for the people they were designing the experience for. Their careful choreography of Airbnb users’ online and offline activities helped them call out the key “wow” moments of the trip and create a seamless end-to-end experience Airbnb is now known for. Storyboarding also helped Chesky’s team to continuously improve each stage of their users’ experience (and Airbnb’s business performance) by asking what kind of value they can add, where the revenue opportunities are and how to organize their company’s process around each stage of the experience in order to serve their users better.

Think about your team

Ask who you need on your team in order to solve a problem at hand. Once you know what kind of experience you want to create, and once you have a hypothesis on how people are going to move through it, it is time to think who do you need to join forces with in order to make it a success. Think about whether you need to bring in an anthropologist, an analyst, a digital ethnographer, an experience designer, a journalist or a business consultant — or all of them.

Improve as you go

There’s no way to know if your solution is the right solution until you see it out in the wild. Treat your creative brief as a straw man. Use it as a perpetual draft. Briefs don’t need to be perfect, but they have to be useful. Move faster. Concept something quickly and immediately put it in front of your customers to see what they say and how they behave.

Set your expectations right

There’s a great story about how a British cycling team recently won the Tour de France three times in a row since a massive multi-decade drought dating back to 1966. Their secret weapon was Sir David Brailsford and his 1% rule. Sir Brailsford and his team broke down every single thing they could think of that goes into the process and experience of riding a bike. Then, they improved each thing by one percent. The nutrition of riders, their weekly training program, the ergonomics of a bike seat, the weight of the tires, the pillows that the cyclists slept on, the gel they used for their massages : they improved it all, just by a tiny bit. By putting all those 1% margins together or, by “aggregating marginal gains,” Brailsford ended up with a significant increase in his team performance. Improving by just 1% isn’t notable (and sometimes isn’t even noticeable), but it is meaningful, especially in the long run.

A good strategy — creative or otherwise — is a business of solving customer problems. Stop worrying about making your communication more creative and start thinking about what problem you have, why it is a problem and how can you use resources you have to solve it.