HOWTO Solve Hard Design Problems

German mathematician David Hilbert  said "a perfect formulation of a problem is already half its solution."  What is true for math problems is also true for design challenges: without a well-framed problem statement, it’s easy for the industrial design and detail engineering stages of the product to move very quickly in the wrong direction.

Your framework for making decisions matters as much or more than the decisions themselves, because the "chaos" of the system makes most outcomes indeterminate (again, chaos theory: “long-term prediction [is] impossible in general”).  [Andy Weissman, "The Chaos Theory of Startups"]

At DtM, our framework for making design decision is the “hypothesis of record.”   For an early stage project like the Otter Warmer, there are a few critical elements of the product hypothesis.

The first component is the product “point of view” (POV), defined as follows by IDEO’s Diego Garcia:

A point of view is the set of conscious constraints a design thinker adopts in order to make a specific statement.  [...]  I submit to you that, as a rule, things that are remarkable are born from a strong point of view.  Those that are not remarkable are often the result of a muddled point of view, or no point of view at all.  Having a point of view requires making choices among many possible alternatives.  Having a point of view means having a vision of what good looks like as a means to make those choices.  You can feel it when something was created with that vision in mind.  And when that vision was not in play, you can feel the lack of it.  [Diego Garcia, "On Anathem and points of view”, Oct 2008]

A POV is almost more useful in how it defines what a product is NOT.  Great products are very narrowly focused.  During the product development process, there is an irresistible temptation to add new features, or to stretch the product’s role to cover more users and situations.  The POV is one way to fight against scope-creep and the tendency for great narrow ideas to bloat into “one size fits all” garbage.

A DtM POV takes the form: this USER in this CONTEXT has this NEED.  The goal isn’t to generate deathless prose, but rather a rigorous definition that we can use as a test to answer ambiguous design questions.  After a couple weeks of research, here’s the latest Otter POV:

District-level hospitals in developing countries that admit newborn patients for 24-hour care, that have reliable electricity, that are staffed by care providers with limited training but who are able to visually assess newborn hyperthermia and hypothermia, that want to prevent hypothermia in newborns for observation or treatment in the neonatal intensive care unit

-- NEED --

a durable, wipe-clean, always-on single-infant warmer that will maintain a 36 degC conductive surface beneath the newborn, that has a user interface and temperature feedback control system that are "hard to use wrong," and that works both in complement with Firefly phototherapy, with conventional overhead phototherapy and as a stand-alone device.

The next component of our hypothesis framework is the product value proposition.  Where the POV is concerned primarily with the user, context and needs, the value proposition address the competitive landscape.  For DtM to claim that our product is “better”, we have to define “better than what”.  Here is the latest Otter value proposition:

For district hospitals in resource poor areas who want to treat low birthweight newborns at birth rather than risk transporting them to crowded central facilities, Otter is a conductive warming bassinet for thermally stable newborns who are at-risk for hypothermia to maintain normothermia while undergoing other treatments.

Unlike devices that provide a regulated microclimate that are complicated to use and maintain (for example incubators and radiant warmers), Otter provides affordable active warming that is hard to use wrong and easy to clean.

For an excellent reference on writing value propositions, we recommend Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm.

The final component of our current hypothesis framework are the “design principles”, a set of qualitative statements we use to guide product development.  Where product requirements and specifications are prescriptive (guidelines to follow), design principles are intended to be generative and inspirational.  

For example: Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter created Spy Magazine to mock the pretensions and excesses of Eighties society and its obsession with wealth and social status.  Kurt Andersen said that their mission statement for the magazine, aka their "design principles", were: "Smart, fun, funny, fearless."  This framework inspired them to create stunts like mailing tiny checks to billionaires to see who would cash them.  Bloomberg ignored the a dozen checks; Trump cashed every single one, including a check for $0.12.

With each design principle, we’ll include some examples that help to ground the idea.  Our current design principles for Otter are:

  • Is effectiveprevents hypothermia; improves clinical outcomes; meets international standards

  • Looks effectivelooks like a trustworthy modern medical device; looks warm; appears intuitive

  • Context-friendlycompatible with both rural context (cost to buy, own) and other newborn clinical interventions

  • User-friendlyhard to use wrong, facilitates mother-child bonding, provides good patient visibility

Check back in a few weeks as we update other key components of the Otter hypothesis!