Love the Problem
While new solutions are emerging all the time, many of the problems engineers face can be dishearteningly consistent.
March 30, 2023
Here at Digital Engineering, much of our coverage focuses on potential technology solutions that engineers can use—from easier-to-use simulation tools to new manufacturing methods. These solutions are constantly evolving, and vendors release new products on an increasingly rapid schedule in hopes of snagging the attention of would-be customers.
While new solutions are emerging all the time, many of the problems engineers face can be dishearteningly consistent. That is why I was intrigued when I saw the title of Waze founder Uri Levine’s new book, “Fall in Love with the Problem, Not the Solution: A Handbook for Entrepreneurs.”
Waze was a crowd-sourced mapping application launched in 2008 that was eventually absorbed into Google. In addition to providing directions, Waze also offered user-provided reports on potential obstacles like accidents and speed traps, and was one of those apps that touched a nerve with users, because it solved an annoying problem. Uber had a similar story, in that the app fixed the worst things about calling a taxicab—finding a cab quickly, knowing when it would arrive, and figuring out how much it would cost in advance.
New York Times economics columnist Peter Coy recently interviewed Levine about the book to discuss the concept. Why would you love the problem? Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak summed it up in his introduction to the book: “Falling in love with the problem means valuing the end user as the key to success, not even your own ideas and creations.”
In other words, what people are really looking for in technology is a solution, not a product. I wrote about radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in the early days of that market, and for a while that was definitely a technology in search of a problem to solve. RFID vendors were so bent on being a universal barcode label replacement, that many of them missed key opportunities that turned into early wins—things like tracking reusable pallets or managing tool cribs. None of those were the types of killer apps that would blow the market open, but they were solutions-focused applications that create a real business model. As costs came down and standards were developed, they eventually did replace some barcode labels, but not in every market or use case.
I am often reminded of those early RFID tag proponents when we write about generative design, additive manufacturing, and some of the more leading edge technologies we cover. Vendors and end users can get hung up on trying to apply solutions to the wrong problems, to the detriment of everyone involved. Generative design is an amazing solution to a specific set of problems, but not every problem. 3D printing is an excellent option for some products and parts, but not others.
Often, there is no particular eureka moment when a solution meets the right problem. As Coy points out, Waze tried and failed to launch in the U.S. several times before they succeeded.
“Each iteration was launched with the conviction that it’s going to work,” Levine told Coy. “What makes successful start-ups is the perseverance, the grit.”
For both engineering technology vendors and engineers themselves, a problem-first approach to evaluating potential solutions seems like a pretty healthy perspective.
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About the Author
Brian Albright is the editorial director of Digital Engineering. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.Follow DE