Should Product Design Solve Problems?

I regularly hear and read people say that what companies need to do in order to be successful is to understand the problems people are having and solve those problems with their products. This becomes solving the business problem in a commercial setting and solving the customer's problem in the consumer space. The solution is problem solving.

It seems to me that this is like saying that health is all about getting rid of illness and that psychological health is all about not having psychological disorders. We learned many years ago in medicine and in psychology that the goal is not to get rid of the negative but rather to optimize the positive and thereby prevent the negative. We now know that if you exercise regularly, eat a balanced diet, and get enough sleep you'll be quite healthy and will likely go a long way to preventing health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer. Similarly, we now know that if you internalize and practice the essence of positive psychology that you'll be psychologically healthy and will be more likely to avoid getting psychological disorders related to depression and anxiety.

So, why is product design so different? I'd suggest that it isn't, that it is just now coming of age and starting to become enlightened. Like a small group of others, I was into running and super health at a time when the medical professional didn't have a clue about it and was only focused on illness prevention. Similarly, my early work in psychology focused on how well-adjusted people dealt with their world and how this compared with those who suffered from psychological illnesses. My early work on design looked for ways of optimizing for delight and not just eliminating user problems. Of course, I wasn't alone initially. There was a small group of people agitating for change in each of these areas. I don't believe it was necessarily our efforts but rather a paradigm shift or change in zeitgeist that led to the change in focus.

In each of these paradigm shifts, it necessitated the core disciplines to take an entirely different perspective. Medical doctors having graduated from a pre-med science curriculum were predisposed to solving problems. Clinical Psychologists similarly within Psychology programs. Modern product development is often highly technical and that is the purview of engineers. What did engineers learn in school? How to solve problems. It took Sports Medicine and Positive Psychology practitioners to drive the change in medicine and psychology, respectively. I'd like to suggest that it is the design disciplines of industrial design, visual design, and interaction design that are leading the transformation of product design from the exclusive focus on problem solving to also designing for user delight.

As usual, I'd greatly appreciate any thoughts you may have on this by using the comment facility of this blog. Thanks.

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