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009 // The 30-Minute Solution Matrix: How to Think and Solve Under Pressure

Image with text. Text reads: Ideas from Dawan for people who think and solve like a designer.

Prefer to listen? Here’s the podcast episode associated with this article.

How do you think and solve like a designer when it’s an emergency or a crisis and fast design is your only option? What do you do when you need a solution now and inaction is more dangerous than flawed action?

One way to focus and move quickly is to find a quiet place, set a timer and use Fluid Hive’s 30-Minute Solution Matrix. These nine questions will help you capture some of the benefits of a design process when time and resources are scarce. They will help you think and solve like a designer when surrounded by chaos.

The Solution Matrix Questions

Q1 — What problem are you trying to solve?
Q2 — Who are the people who will use the solution?
Q3 — Who are the people who will make and launch the solution?
Q4 — What systems do Q2 and Q3 interact with?
Q5 — What evidence supports what you know about Q1–Q4?
Q6 — What do you need to learn about Q1–Q4?
Q7 — What solution might you try now?
Q8 — How might you build this solution with your Q2 and Q3 people?
Q9 — How will you know your solution works and what will you measure to be sure?

The Process

First Pass — Read through all the questions. Next, write down what you know about each one. Take 20 minutes to write down what you think the answers to these questions are. You are allowed one sheet of paper or use the Ask Like a Designer Thinking Tool download for this article. Yes, paper. Writing on paper will help you stay locked on doing this one thing.

Learning Gaps — What learning gaps can you close in under 10 minutes? Who can you call? What can you look up? What can you do?

Sidecar ModeNext, you have to act, but take your Solution Matrix along for the ride. As you are trying things and making plans, adjust your answers to the questions and use them to help keep the urgent from blinding you to the important.

The DetailsHere’s a closer look at each question in the Solution Matrix.

Q1: Problem

What problem are you trying to solve? This question largely determines your outcomes. It is deceptive. It is a question you keep asking as you solve. If you don’t find yourself changing your answer a little or a lot along the way, it’s a sign you’re missing something. Don’t get hung up on the word, “problem.” The problem can be an opportunity to capture or a challenge to overcome. The “you” probably isn’t about you. Unless you’re the only person who will use and build the solution, the “you” likely refers to what other people would like to be able to do or experience. You’re doing the work, but the problem you’re solving probably isn’t about you.

Q2: People Who Use

Who are the people who will use the solution? The people who will use or experience your solution are the people you serve. You want to understand how they make decisions and behave. Consider all the different groups of people you serve. Here, a group is a collection of people who think, decide and behave in similar ways (e.g., business travelers, vacation travelers, tour group travelers, etc.).

Q3: People Who Make

Who are the people who will make and launch the solution? Understanding how the people you serve behave and why isn’t enough. You need to think about the people who will build, deliver and maintain the solution. How do they make decisions? How do they behave and why? You’ll probably notice gaps in your knowledge here. Note them and keep going.

Q4: Systems

What systems do Q2 and Q3 interact with? When people, things, environments, or technology combines to generate outcomes, you have a system. There are always systems influencing how the people you serve (Q2) and the people who make (Q3) behave. Identify the systems you think your Q2 and Q3 people will interact with. Note any obvious influences, opportunities or constraints. Remember that as system complexity increases, human ability to predict outcomes from your solutions decreases. Design with that in mind.

Q5: Evidence

What evidence supports what you know about Q1–Q4? For each idea in your Q1–Q4 answers, ask, “How do I know? What’s my evidence?” Note where you have numbers or observations to back you up, where your knowledge is incomplete, and where you’re guessing or assuming. You’ll want to know where your thinking is weakest so you can focus your limited time and energy there.

Q6: Learn

What do you need to learn about Q1–Q4? In Q5, you looked for holes in the evidence for what you think you know about your problem, people and systems. Now, write down things you could learn or questions you could answer that would close those holes. Write down as many as you can. Read through the list and put an E for easy by things that are easy and fast to learn. Scan it again for big holes in the basis for what you think you know — these are spots where you think uncertainty could result in failure. Mark these C for critical. Use some of your emergency design time to reduce the size of any evidence hole with an E and a C.

Q7: Solution

What solution might you try now? Here’s a formula for this one:
Based on what I know (Q5 and Q6) how might I create a way for the people I serve (Q2) to resolve the problem (Q1) with support people (Q3) and systems (Q4)?
Now is when you write down all the solutions that have been bubbling up during Q1–Q6. Come up with at least three. Once you have your list, test each one by asking these questions: a) How well will this solution resolve the problem for the people I serve? b) What are the gaps in my evidence for how well this solution will perform? c) What are this solution’s potential conflicts with how people will deliver it or with the systems it touches? Pick the solution that seems best after this quick test.

Q8: Build

How might you build this solution with your Q2 and Q3 people? In Q7, you picked a solution. Don’t stop there. Consider how you might build your solution with the people you serve (Q2) and the people who will make and deliver the solution (Q3). Building with, when you’re pressed for time, means finding a way to say, “Here’s what we’re building, what do you think?” Send an email. Share a sketch. Hop on a call. Find a way to ask a few of the people you serve and a few of the people who will make and deliver the solution. Even imagining how people might critique your solution will give you things to improve on before you have to act.

Q9: Measure

How will you know that your solution works, and what will you measure to be sure? Don’t skip this part. List the outcomes that will allow you to confidently say your solution is working. Note what data you will gather about what contributes to each outcome and how you will gather it.

The Cheat(s)

The whole Solution Matrix is a cheat. There’s no substitute for good design and the time it takes to solve well, but humans X world = chaos. Sometimes quick ‘n’ dirty is necessary and better than guess ‘n’ hope.
If things are so bad you don’t have time for the Solution Matrix, just read through the list of questions then do what you must. Reading the questions will give you access to information, insights, and options you already know but are hard to gather under pressure. The quick read will help you come up with a quick answer to Question #1 to guide your thinking. It will also trigger ideas about what you don’t know and your assumptions — things you’ll be able to protect yourself from a little as you make decisions.

Go slow when you can. When you can’t, let Fluid Hive’s 30-Minute Solution Matrix help you do your best with the time you have. Download the Ask Like a Designer Thinking Tool to start using  Fluid Hive’s Solution Matrix today.

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