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Break Through
Break Through
Start with the Problem, Not the Solution

Have you ever had that “Eureka!” moment? 

Perhaps a new product idea comes to you in a flash of insight. Or you’ve created something on the fly to solve a problem and realized it had potential.

If you’re like most people, you want to get started on hardware prototyping right away. You can see it so clearly in your mind — you just need the resources to create and market your great idea.

However, this is often where early product development gets off track. By falling in love with the product, you inadvertently eliminate other solutions that could solve the problem more effectively.

Let’s take a step back together. 

We’ll show you why it’s important to start with the problem, not the solution, and how to build a concise problem statement that sets you up for success.

Step 1 – Isolate the Problem from the Solution

In most cases, your initial product idea stems from solving a problem for a set of people, starting with yourself. It’s often the seed of a great product, but not the final solution. 

Here’s an example: 

“In my busy hospital environment, it’s often difficult to quickly locate specialized mobile equipment, especially in time-critical situations. What if there was a “tag” device that would allow medical staff to locate and track this equipment with an app on their phones using Bluetooth or WiFi like indoor GPS?” 

This sounds like a great idea, right? But there are a few shortcomings:

  • It pre-defines elements of the solution (WiFi or Bluetooth)
  • It focuses primarily on the idea rather than the user
  • It fails to clarify the problem the product is intended to solve
Image courtesy of CHOP / Philadelphia Inquirer

By focusing on the “tag” device idea, you might be missing out on better solutions. While step one gives you the spark of insight, step two offers a broader perspective.

Step 2 – Research the Problem

A great product problem statement focuses on the users and their needs – not on product specifications or business outcomes. Therefore, your next step is to:

  • Interact with users – listen and observe
  • Experience the problem firsthand
  • Understand how users deal with the problem today
  • Find the root cause

Using our prior example, you could:

  • Interview other colleagues who experience issues finding time-sensitive medical equipment 
  • Ask how they address the problem, the impact on their work, and how it affects their patients
  • Find out if there’s an internal process for managing the location of mobile equipment
  • Talk to other hospitals to see how they handle this problem

Step 3 – Write Your Problem Statement

Now that you have a better understanding of the problem, write down the who, what, when, and why.

  • What is the unsolved problem?
  • Who experiences the problem?
  • When does the problem occur?
  • Why is it a problem?

For example:

  • Who: hospital staff
  • What: need a better way to efficiently locate specialized equipment
  • When: in time-critical situations
  • Why: asset tracking methods are insufficient to locate them

Let’s bring it all together:

Hospital staff needs a better way to efficiently locate specialized equipment because current asset tracking methods are insufficient to locate them in time-critical situations.

Naturally, you’ll have more detail from your research. However, the goal is to have a clear, concise problem statement throughout your product development process. It should be top of mind in everything you do.

Benefits of a Problem Statement

Not only does the statement capture your understanding of the problem, but it also:

  • Defines the solution space, but doesn’t over-constrain it – It leaves room for innovation but doesn’t reference specific requirements.
  • Provides a target for what the product must do to be successful – Your problem statement is the ultimate litmus test for each proposed solution – does it solve this problem? Yes or no.
  • Serves as a point of reference for decision-making – You have finite resources of time and money. A clear problem statement can help you focus your efforts in the right areas.

Just be careful not to reverse-engineer your problem statement to match your product description. This is a common misstep — and a good reason to be part of a
maker’s community, where you can get diverse perspectives. 

Case Study – Circalux Proximity Sensing LED Light

Created by three medical students at Thomas Jefferson University, Circalight is a smart LED nightlight that provides healthy, sleep-friendly illumination. Meant for hospital settings, they adjust in brightness depending on the user’s proximity, typically a healthcare professional. 

Circalux partnered with NextFab’s Hardware Product Development team to build a next-generation prototype of the Circalight. 

So, how did Circalux get from a great idea to hardware prototype development?

Lorenzo Albala, Founder & CEO of Circalux, was inspired by one of his professors, Dr. George Brainard, who identified this lighting issue on the international space station. He was also inspired by seeing his young cousins suffer from poor sleep and the attention problems it caused. 

Rather than diving into prototype development, Albala conducted extensive research at a hospital just outside of Philadelphia, Nemours Dupont Children’s Hospital. His team surveyed healthcare providers, parents of patients, and the patients themselves to understand the impact of repetitive harsh fluorescent lighting on their lives — in the hospital and at home.

Their problem statement could be summarized as:

  • Who: Caregivers of children
  • What: need clear lighting that doesn’t disrupt the child’s circadian rhythms
  • When: at night
  • Why: night-time light pollution and disruption of sleep have documented, detrimental effects on health

This problem statement defines solutions, but it doesn’t limit them. It also keeps Albala focused on where and how to best use resources.

Where to go from here?

Need help defining your problem statement? Ready to move forward into hardware product development?  At NextFab, we specialize in assisting startups in early-stage product development. If you have an idea for a prototype or want advice on the next steps with getting your hardware product into production, book a call with our product development team HERE.