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018 // Ask Like a Designer: Meet the Voices Inside Designers, Part 1 — Builder

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

Ask Like a Designer launched with an article about how six designers — Builder, Scout, Tinker, Facilitator, Traveler, and Pro — help you think and solve like a designer and drive better outcomes. This article takes a close look at Builder.

Builder’s favorite question: “How might I act?” Builder’s favorite question is really a 2-in-1 question. Builder oscillates between two thoughts: “What problem am I trying to solve?” and “What should I do next?” Builder looks for the problem it might be solving as a first step so no action is wasted. Builder keeps things moving, while also demanding evidence that its action is always connected to the problem at hand.

Builder is always thinking about what to solve and what to do next. I’ve written about why asking, “What problem am I trying to solve?” is the one question to rule them all. Builder uses a few supporting questions to set up asking and answering that question along with, “What should I do next?” Digging into Builder’s thought process reveals more questions worth asking. Builder asks:

  • What’s the difference between the world I have and the world I want?
  • What new things will people be able to do in that new world?
  • What problem am I trying to solve?
  • How does this problem match what I’m learning?
  • Do I need to reframe the problem?
  • What should I do next?
  • Do I have what I need to do it?

When we internalize Builder, we develop focus, flexibility, and efficiency as we create. With experience and practice, these questions fade into the background. Making the questions visible from time to time helps us keep our thinking sharp. We can check whether we’re skipping or rushing through some of them. We look for rough moments or problematic patterns that suggest we might ask these questions differently or at different times. Individual questions can help a team focus or help stakeholders understand and participate in our work.

The first three questions are Builder’s problem-finding compass. The two questions that follow, about learning and reframing, continuously calibrate that compass. Builder uses the last two questions to choose actions, gear up and go.

What’s the difference between the world I have and the world I want?

We’ve heard someone say, “We need to create Thing X” where Thing X is a new system, a new service, or a new product. For example, “We need to create a pill organizer.”

To create well, we must know what Thing X is supposed to do for us or the people we serve. We must know the whys fueling the need. Asking why we need Thing X might begin to reveal some of what we need, but it might also generate a lot of ROI-synergies-market-share doublespeak. When we ask, “What will be different after we create Thing X?” and tell that story, we see that we don’t really want Thing X, we want what Thing X does and how that benefits us or others. We’ve answered this question when we can describe what will be different in a world where Thing X exists.

What new things will people be able to do in that new world?

This question is embedded in the first question, but is so important that it needs to be asked on its own. We create things to help people solve problems that matter to them via some kind of action. In the pill organizer example, we want to help people who forget to take their pills.

We want to create a world where people are able to take their pills consistently and communicate that adherence to their health care provider or caregiver. We’ve answered this question when we can see what all the people in that new world will be able to do because of Thing X.

What problem am I trying to solve?

Thing X melts away here. The first two questions showed that we want the new world Thing X creates and the new things people are able to do. Thing X is just a means. When we ask, “What problem am I trying to solve?,” we’re asking how we might create a new world where people are able to do new things. Instead of seeking to create a pill organizer, we’re really asking, “How might we create a better way to take medication consistently, and communicate adherence to medical providers?”

You’ve answered this question when you can use a how-might-we question or similar statement to sum up the new world and new abilities you hope to create. (You can find a more detailed discussion of this question in this Ask Like a Designer article.)

How does this problem match what I’m learning?

These questions run in Builder’s mind on a continuous loop. Builder uses this question to deal with limited knowledge and change. Once we have a problem to solve, we’re going to gather data about it. We’re going to play and experiment. We’re going to learn. This question helps us check our problem against what we are learning about it.

For example, we may experiment locally and discover that supervised injection sites do more to reduce drug overdose than drug abstinence communications and funding.
The world always knows more than we do and doesn’t pause just because we have work in progress. Builder keeps an eye on the alignment between what we’re learning and the problem we’ve framed.

Do I need to reframe the problem?

Let’s start with yes. Yes, you will need to reframe your problem. Everybody does.
The world offers us complexity and change. The world also rewards humility. This question gives us space to check what we’re learning against the problem we’re trying to solve. Given what we’ve learned, will solving this problem create the world we want and the new things we want people to be able to do? As soon as the answer to this question is probably not or no, it is time to reframe the problem using the first three questions.

What should I do next?

If Builder isn’t reframing the problem, Builder’s helping us look for the next action. It could be research, ideation, prototyping, collaborating, planning, testing, or something else. We’re constantly looking for that next action for two reasons. The first is getting the work done. The second is making sure the actions we’re choosing are connected to the problem we’re trying to solve and what we’re learning about that problem.

Do I have what I need to do it?

Knowing what to do is fantastic. For example, our next action might be speaking with healthcare providers about patient adherence to medication schedules. To do that, we’ll need information, time, resources, people to listen, providers to speak with, etc. Knowing what to do next and what you need to get it done is extra super fantastic. This question helps us break down the big goals into small steps. This question also helps us keep each step connected to the problem we’re trying to solve.

Builder’s voice keeps us moving fast while making sure we’re on solid ground. If we practice asking Builder’s questions, over time, we make Builder’s questions our own. To help you practice, I created Builder’s Ask Like a Designer Thinking Tool. Download it here. Also, sometimes the world’s complexity and conflicting demands soft-boils our brains for a little while. When that happens, this Thinking Tool is a great checklist. Use it to ensure you’re seeing Builder’s questions and making good decisions as you create.

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