Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Zero To Product: The Problem Space

This is part 1 of a retrospective on vizipres: A product I began and worked on for a few months. 
part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7

The Problem Space

When I meet people and they learn that I build products, I often will see their eyes brighten and then I prepare for the question which is sure to follow....
'So, what's your idea?' 

At this point I gently move the conversation to how I prefer to focus on what I call the problem space. I enjoy this part of the conversation because I love seeing people go from momentary confusion (no doubt thinking 'what's a problem space'?) to the excitement when they too understand the problem.

At this point I often feel like my role changes because as people understand the problem I'm trying to solve, they then begin coming up with their own solutions. Instead of being the one leading the conversation, I feel like I'm now trying to rein in a run-away stage coach. If you want to get people excited about a product, get them excited about the problem space.

If you want to build a product, find a problem space first.

A Problem Space To Explore

I had worked as a Product Manager for some time and also consulted, but I wanted to experience first hand all parts of the product process from beginning to end, from inception to customer development to code.  I knew it wasn't going to be easy (more on that later) but I had to try. 

So I kept my ears and eyes open for a problem space to explore and late last year, I decided to attend an Edward Tufte seminar: Presenting Data. I took this class because I respect Tufte's work and at the time I was really into using R and developing data visualizations. During the class, Tufte slammed on Powerpoint and when on to praise how ESPN's website was laid out and how this type of structure was all that was needed to share data effectively.

Then, almost in passing, he said something that perked my interest:

" don't need any fancy application, just ask your IT department to create some templates for you to use..."

That's when a lightbulb went off. I thought, not everyone has an IT department which can make templates for them and even those who do have one, they will surely have trouble getting anything built.

So there it was, I had identified the problem space to explore as: There's no great way to organize and share information. 

Bringing Focus To The Problem Space

Just as the name denotes, a Problem Space is nebulous - but it's supposed to be like that. The next step is to explore it and begin adding focus.

To get started, I gave the product a name, vizipres, and began researching. Soon I'd be talking with potential customers, formulating hypotheses and then testing those hypotheses. 

I'll talk more about those in part 2.